The Sims have always been something of an anomaly. The game play really is unlike anything else on the market, putting you in charge of a virtual household and the residents that dwell within. Whilst many players quickly devolve into seeing how much pain and suffering they can inflict on their poor subjects just as many attempt to provide the best life possible for them. Most interestingly it’s one of the very few games where the player base is predominantly female, representing a staggering 60% of the total. This is not to say it’s squarely aimed at that demographic, far from it, as it appears to have widespread appeal across all the world. The latest release, predictably dubbed The Sims 4, comes 5 years after the release of its predecessor and brings with it a vast number of improvements to the tried and true franchise.
As with all previous The Sims titles you’re the mysterious god that floats about the world that the Sims dwell within, guiding their actions when their less-than-stellar AI behaviour falls short. Depending on how you crafted your Sim they’ll have different wants, needs and career paths in life and it’ll be your job to ensure that they can meet all of them. Along the way you’ll interact with dozens of other Sims, forming relationships, breaking others and engaging in other humanesque behaviours. What kind of Sim will you create? The rich and handsome playboy that could have everything he wants? Or the struggling single parent who wants nothing more than to see their child succeed? All of this, and so much more, is possible within the world of the Sims.
The Sims has never been a graphical masterpiece, preferring simplicity so that the game would run well on almost any PC that you could throw at it. The Sims 4 continues this tradition as the graphics, whilst vastly improved over its predecessors, are still fairly rudimentary. There’s been improvements in the lighting engine, higher polycount models and better textures to be seen everywhere but they’ve still been heavily stylized to give it a cartoony feel. The Sims 4 keeps the same visual aesthetic that the previous titles had with the clean interface design that favours solid, clear cut colours. Overall it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a Sims game so no disappointments here.
Like the previous Sims titles The Sims 4 puts you, initially, in charge of a single Sim that you craft through a rather detailed process. In there you select traits, characteristics and aspirations which define who your Sim will be in this world. Then you’re given a token amount of money and let loose to find a property or lot that you want to purchase. You’ll need to make some tough decisions here though as your choice of house, and the fixtures contained within it, will have a direct effect on how your Sim fairs. Once you’re in your new house you’ll unlock a veritable cornucopia of different things to do, all of which have some form of impact on your Sims mood, desires and needs. All of the activities that you’ll do will feel familiar to long term Sims players although the breadth of what’s possible has increased significantly.
One thing that I feel bears mentioning is just how well designed the new interface is. My vague memories of The Sims 3 reminded me that it took quite a long time to figure out where everything was, drastically increasing the time it took me to get anything done in that world. By comparison The Sims 4 interface is amazing with everything being readily discoverable and being incredibly easy to use. The search and rooms features on the construction menu are fantastic, allowing you to easily track down the exact product you’re looking for without wrestling with the interface. After about an hour I was pretty confident I had a grasp on pretty much everything with the few finer points covered off in help tips whenever I came across them.
The core game play aspects of the Sims series are present in The Sims 4, giving you a variety of different objectives complete. Whilst there are some staple things you have to accomplish in order to keep your Sim happy, like feeding them or making sure they use the bathroom before its too late, you’re pretty free to pursue whatever you want at your own leisure. I primarily like to produce career focused Sims and so my playtime usually revolves around that. However if that’s not your style there’s plenty of other things to keep you occupied although, honestly, I couldn’t really tell you much about the things outside the career focused ones.
And yes getting someone to move in with you is a career choice (don’t have to leave the house for the social need, score!).
Like most Sims games it’s pretty easy to cheese your way through certain things if you make a few key decisions in the right way. For instance, if you’re so inclined, purchasing the best sink you can get means your Sims barely have to shower as simply washing your hands will keep them going for a very long time. Similarly you can eliminate a lot of wasted time by cooking party sized meals and just eating them over and over again. Indeed your Sims don’t seem to get tired of eating the same thing repeatedly and once your cooking skill is high enough they’re just as satisfied with eggs on toast as they are with a gourmet blackened salmon dish.
In fact that’s probably my biggest gripe with The Sims 4. Whilst there might be a huge variety in what you can do it all starts to feel really samey after a not too long period of time. This becomes all too obvious when you’re trying to befriend someone and you’re constantly spamming all the different options with the results usually being the same gibberish response and a ++ in the friendly column. This is usually when most people start to unleash their sadistic side on their Sims, removing doors, making prisons or denying them food and facilities until something horrible happens. I’ll admit that I was too attached to mine to do anything (I even enabled cheats to reverse the aging of one of my Sims, forgetting that you can turn that off in the options menu) but I can’t say I wasn’t tempted.
There seems to be a lot of gripes circling the Internet regarding the features that have been taken out, like toddlers and pools, as well as the somewhat unusual decision to not send out review copies. I think most of these criticisms are valid as whilst there does seem to be a lot to do in The Sims 4 it does feel a little limited compared to my vague memories of its predecessor. In all honesty it didn’t affect my playthrough too much (although I’d love multiplayer in this) but then again I wouldn’t consider myself the biggest Sims fan out there. Indeed I doubt I’ll barely touch it past this review as I’ve pretty much done all I really wanted to do in it.
The Sims 4 is an evolutionary step forward for the Sims franchise, bringing with it all the trimmings you’d expect for recent release of this classic series. The graphics, interface and overall playability has been greatly increased making it much less of a chore to get into than previous entrants into this series were. There’s an incredible amount of depth to the mechanics that made it into the game however the criticisms around lack of content and certain features do feel like valid concerns to me. Overall I enjoyed my time with The Sims 4 and whilst I won’t be sinking many more hours into it I’m sure fans of the series will get a lot of enjoyment out of it.
The Sims 4 is available on PC right now $89.95. Total play time was 8 hours.
Of the numerous games that I’ve played that have come up through Steam’s Early Access program few have felt like they were actually finished games. The core gameplay is usually refined enough however they rarely feel like a cohesive whole, the rough edges of a just finished beta still rearing their ugly head. Sure they may have come a long way from where they were originally, and to those who’ve been involved with them for a long time they might feel a lot more polished, but all too often they feel like they still needed a bit more work before being unleashed on the world. Lichdom: Battlemage however is one of the rare examples where its Early Access stint was obviously well spent as the result title is just awesome.
You were just a simple blacksmith, one who enjoyed his craft and was good to his loving wife. However your life took a dark turn when one of the local nobles took exception to your refusal to sell him your wares, slaughtering your wife in front of you before knocking you out cold. When you came to though you weren’t in your shop, instead you’re out in the streets with a strange robed man hovering above you. His name is Roth and he has bestowed upon you a great gift: a pair of magical bracers that grant you control over some great power. It seems that, at least for the moment, your goals align as Roth wants you to take out the noble who wrong you however not for the reasons you’d first expect.
Interestingly Lichdom: Battlemage is built on CryEngine 3, the same engine that brought us the visual masterpieces that were Crysis 2 and Crysis 3. Whilst it’s not exactly up to the same level as those titles (few games are) Lichdom is still quite impressive in its own right. There were numerous scenes that just made me stop and admire the scenery. Combine this with just how ridiculous the effects can get when you’re using different spells on the vast hoards of enemies you’ll face and you’ve got a recipe for a game that never feels visually dull. It did stress my rig to its limits, with the graphics fan roaring into life on many occasions, but to Xaviant’s credit everything ran pretty smooth for the most part. I would like to see how Lichdom goes on a more modern rig as I’m sure it’d be incredible.
Lichdom: Battlemage’s core gameplay is probably best described as a fantasy take on the modern corridor shooter however the mechanics backing it up, which take inspiration from your more traditional RPG style game, add an incredible amount of depth. You start off with a couple basic spells but as you blast your way through the levels you’ll acquire new components which you can then use to craft different kinds of spells. Initially these start off as just better versions of the spells you already have however as you unlock more components and more spell types the kinds of effects you can create increase exponentially. So what starts out as a relatively simple concept, a mage with unlimited spammy power, quickly evolves into a deep game of mechanics, one where the more you explore mechanics the more awesome combos you find.
The combat itself is always fast paced, filled with dozens of effects, projectiles and enemies throwing themselves in your general direction. For the most part you’ll likely be able to get by spamming a single ability however if you want to do things efficiently you’ll need to make use of every different weapon in your arsenal. There are some elements of strategy, like taking out enemies that summon other enemies first, but for the most part you’ll be focused on blocking/dodging attacks and spamming out whatever ability you’ve chosen as your primary damage dealer. Of course your mileage may vary on this considerably as depending on which sigils you choose the strategies you’ll need to use will change dramatically.
There is a distinct lack of variety in the enemies you’ll face however. There’s the cultists, undead and demons and they’ll will pretty much be the same kinds of enemies no matter where you go, just with more health. Sure you’ll get the occasional buffed enemy that has some special attribute (like reflection, grrrrr) however after about 4 hours in Lichdom you’ll have seen every enemy you’ll face from then on out. The boss fights are, to their credit, unique and challenging but they’re so far apart that their uniqueness is often lost between long bouts of repetitive encounters. The numerous different types of spells go a fair way to alleviating this however I don’t feel it should be up to the player to provide their own variety, even if there’s a lot of it to be had.
The main source of enjoyment in Lichdom comes from the crafting system which has an incredible amount of depth to it. You’ll collect spell types and augments throughout the game, all with quality levels derived from the traditional RPG style loot systems (common, uncommon, etc.). You can use these components directly or you can upgrade them to a higher tier of quality by sacrificing two other same quality level items. All of them also have a power level associated with them which determines how large the effect will be. Combine this with the 8 or so base sigils (fire, ice, lightning, etc.) and you have literally billions of possible combinations of different spells, effects and modifiers. Initially I found it mostly just a chore to sort through everything in order to get the spell I wanted but later on it became my main source of enjoyment.
I eventually settled on a combination of fire (damage dealer), ice (mastery application, basically a damage boost) and kinesis (because I got 2 unique spells for it). With this combination I was able to root large groups of enemies in place, cover them in mastery and then one shot enemies at my leisure. Before I switched to kinesis I was using lightning with a nova that had a 35% apocalyptical chance, enabling me to turn into a lightning god whenever I needed to and lay waste to large swaths of enemies. However the later build was much better for instagibbing enemies, something which you really need to do when 1 hit from them can take off a whole bar of your shield. I’m sure there’s hundreds of other viable combos out there though as I didn’t touch half of the sigils I unlocked.
The story is pretty rudimentary, giving your character enough motivation to go along with the plan that’s been laid out for him but lacking any kind of emotional connection. They did manage to get some top notch voice talent, Troy Baker (Joel, Last of Us) for the male dragon and Jennifer Hale (Femshep, Mass Effect), and whilst they do a great job it’s not their acting that’s the issue, it’s the incredibly light on story. Whilst it’s not exactly a huge flaw if you were looking for a good story then Lichdom will disappoint as it’s really only enough to keep the story moving forward.
Lichdom is pretty well polished with the only noticeable issues being things like the AI acting strange (often getting stuck on nothing or clipping through walls when they shouldn’t) or mechanics not working how you’d expect them to. I did have one major issue where my PC crashed during a longish session which corrupted my save game. However upon checking out the Steam forums I found that several people had the same issue and emailing my save game to Xaviant should get it fixed. 2 hours later I had an email back from them with my restored game files and recognition that they’re aware of the issue and working on a fix. Honestly I’ve never had that kind of response before so a big thumbs up to Xaviant for not only fixing my issue but also being incredibly responsive.
Lichdom: Battlemage is a game that, on first pass, appears to be a simple mindless game of spamming spells and collecting loot. However once you dig under the hood a little the incredible depth of the mechanics available to you becomes apparent and suddenly you’re playing a completely different game. There are a few issues that plague the experience, like the lack of variety of enemies and the so-so story, but otherwise Lichdom really does stand out as one of the better titles to play before the ramp up to bevy of titles that will be slamming us this holiday season.
Lichdom: Battlemage is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 12 hours with 23% of the achievements unlocked.
A lot of retro styled games rely on the aesthetic to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for us long time gamers, hoping to link us up with experiences past in the hope that some of it will translate across. Back when that idea was still new I have to admit that it worked quite well although as time has gone on the differences between modern retro titles and their ancestors have become more stark, removing that sense of nostalgia completely. There are few games that manage to capture both the aesthetic and the essence of what made those games so memorable and I’m happy to say that I now count Shovel Knight among them.
You are Shovel Knight, a brave warrior whose weapon of choice isn’t exactly mainstream. You’ve seen many adventures always with your most trusted compatriate, Shield Knight, by your side. However one day, when exploring the Tower of Fate, you both fall under the power of the Dark Amulet. When you awaken Shield Knight is no where to be seen and you give up adventuring while you mourn her loss. However The Enchantress, an evil and powerful witch, has arisen in your absence spreading her evil across your land. When you hear she has unlocked the Tower of Fate once again you resolve to pick up your shovel once again and to rid your land of the darkness that now grips it.
Shovel Knight is visually reminiscent of the action adventure games of old with many of the visual elements being readily recognisable. Indeed the rendition was done so well that I figured there was no way it was using some kind of modern engine as everything really did have a retro feel about it. The end credits revealed it does use Box2D for its physics which has obviously been tuned to give it a much more retro feel. The music and foley also feels like it’s right out of a NES title, retaining that lo-fi quality and signature sound that games of that era had. If I’m honest it feels like the most honest recreation of an old pixelart game to date, eschewing any modern improvements in favour of keeping that nostalgia feeling alive.
In terms of gameplay Shovel Knight again feels awfully familiar, taking the tried and true mechanics from games of ages past and adding in a little of its own flair. The combat feels much like the Zelda games of old where you’ll be jumping, dodging and swinging your weapon wildly in order to defeat your foes. There’s also the tried and true platform sections, many of which rely on you using the various relics you’ve acquired in order to progress past them. You can also upgrade/modify your character in order to suit your playstyle, enabling a multitude of different ways to progress through the game. Lastly, if that isn’t enough for you, there’s dozens of achievements and challenges for you to complete, some of which require a great deal of skill to accomplish.
In the beginning the combat feels a little weird which I can pretty much wholly attribute to my use of the keyboard. You see just like the games which Shovel Knight takes inspiration from it was most certainly designed with a controller in mind as the keyboard setup is most certainly not intuitive. However once I got past that hurdle I actually felt that it was quite forgiving, especially after you got up a couple of the more broken items (the Phase Amulet especially). Indeed after the first couple bosses I found that I could usually cheese my way through them after a single death, something I definitely couldn’t say about say Zelda back in the day.
That being said the platforming, whilst being well thought out and challenging in the right ways most of the time, had more “fuck you player” moments than I’d like. These are things that you can’t plan for (like enemies appearing out of no where) or the introduction of new mechanics without an indication as to what they do. This is somewhat in the spirit of the game as a lot of titles from early nineties didn’t do this either, however that doesn’t stop these things from sucking out some of the fun in an otherwise great game. The rather generous recovery mechanic makes up for this a little bit although that can sometimes lead you into a horrible spiral of dying simply because you’re trying to recover your gold.
What is quite impressive about Shovel Knight is the sheer amount of variety that’s in the game. Every level has its own distinct theme with numerous different types of enemies and mechanics, meaning that no 2 levels feel quite the same. Sure there are some things you’ll learn in early levels that will come in handy later on but for the most part each level will be an experience in learning how to deal with the various challenges at hand. This then feeds into the bosses and the wandering encounters in the overworld, each of which has its own unique mechanics which you’ll need to exploit.
Actually thinking about it more this is probably one of the better examples of how to design to a pick up/put down style platform (the 3DS in Shovel Knight’s case). Each of the levels can be over in 10~20 minutes, even less for the wandering boss encounters or the other loot extravaganza levels, and all of them have their own style. Usually this would be something of a negative however in Shovel Knight’s case it actually made for a rather well paced game, one I invested a lot more time in than I would have otherwise done previously. Sure it wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means but I still far more engaged with it than I have done with many of my previous reviews.
The story of Shovel Knight is fairly simplistic, usually being not much more than something to provide some witty dialogue between you and the boss you’re about to fight, but it’s more than enough to keep the game going. It really only comes to fruition in the last hour or so of gameplay and in that respect it does tie everything together quite well. However Shovel Knight isn’t a game you should be playing for the story as its mechanics are by far the strong point.
Shovel Knight sets the standard for titles that want to capture that feeling of games from ages past, faithfully recreating everything in a wonderful take on the old school action adventure. The graphics, music and sound all feel like they were ripped out of a long abandon title and then given life in a modern game environment. The gameplay, once you get past the initial teething phase, is very well done even if it can feel a little too easy at times. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the whole Shovel Knight experience but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract too heavily from it. If you’re a long time gamer like myself you’ll find a lot to love in Shovel Knight and I’d heartily recommend giving it a play through.
Shovel Knight is available on the PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Wii U right now for $15, $14.99 and $14.99 respectively. Total game time was 6 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some games you just can’t avoid the hype for. Try as I might to distance myself from the fervor that surrounded Divinity: Original Sin it was hard not to notice the weeks it spent at Steams top sellers chart and the numerous glowing reviews that came from both professional outlets and players alike. My somewhat aggressive review schedule precluded me from giving it enough time to really judge it properly however, that was until I managed to churn through a game quickly in one weekend. So I’ve been playing Divinity: Original Sin on and off over the past 2 weeks, seeing if the game can live up to the hype it has generated.
You are a Source Hunter, duty bound to rid the world of all foul magic that plagues the world. You and your companion have been summoned to the town of Cyseal, a coastal province that’s been under siege by orcs and the undead for quite some time. However your quarry isn’t with them, no instead you’ve been summoned at the request of the town’s mayor in order to investigate the death of one of the town’s nobles. This routine investigate quickly escalates far beyond finding out who the killer is and you find yourself in the midst of nearly all the town’s affairs. Some of these are simple matters, others could have impacts on the very fabric of reality itself.
Graphically Divinity: Original Sin is very easy on the eyes with the environments brimming with detail and ambient effects galore. The developers have done a great job of making the world feel alive, especially in the main town of Cyseal where there’s a constant hubbub of people going about their daily business. Even the dungeons and outdoor areas have the same feel with creatures scurrying about and enemies never being too far from your path. Even with all the settings turned up to max my now 3 year old PC was able to keep up with it, even in busy combat scenes where there were effects flying everywhere. I do think that was a the limit of my system however as all the fans routinely spun up during some of my longer sessions.
Divinity: Original Sin takes its inspiration from the RPG games of old with it’s almost innumerable features and giant gobs of text to drive the narrative forward. Whilst your base character starts off with a class it’s not hard set, allowing you to customize your abilities as you see fit. This means that any piece of gear or skillbook is readily usable by any member of your party who has the required stats giving you an incredible amount of freedom in moulding yourself into the ultimate warrior.This also extends to your base character attributes, allowing you to further specialize down a specific tree. In all honesty there’s so much going on in Divinity: Original Sin that it’s really hard to give you a good overview of it in a single paragraph but those who are familiar with the RPGs of old will likely find it very familiar.
Now I’m not the biggest fan of turn based combat as I feel it more often pulls me out of the game rather than drawing me further in. Divinity: Original Sin does a decent job of making the combat feel a bit more interactive however the sometimes slow back and forth between you and your enemies can get tiresome. This is probably a function of the fact that you’ll likely be reloading the same encounter multiple times over as executing a combo wrong or forgetting to do something can often mean the end of your party. Indeed the whole of Divinity: Original Sin feels like it’s making a point of not holding your hand through the experience, instead expecting you to suck it up and keep on like the trooper you are.
Now I get that idea, and can’t fault the developers for creating an experience that caters towards players who are seeking that out, but I feel that there’s a difference between holding the players hand and removing things that are, put simply, frustrating as hell. For the first section everything seems to flow well, the game introduces mechanics and explains them to you. However after reaching Cyseal things start to get horrendously convoluted as you’re thrown half a dozen quests and then left to figure out what to do. If you do what I did and try to follow one quest to completion you quickly find out that it’s not really possible as many of them involve trudging past mobs that are several levels above you, preventing you from completing. Considering these quests are handed to you within the first couple hours you’d expect to be able to finish them shortly afterwards however that’s simply not the case.
Indeed the whole of Divinity: Original Sin seems to have some horrendous pacing issues, making levelling a rather irritating rather than enjoyable experience. The ramp up in difficulty often doesn’t come from giving you different enemies that you have to figure out, no instead they just throw more and more of them at you, forcing you into strategies that rely on exploiting the retarded AI. There was one battle where I was faced with no less than 10 undead where the only way to complete it was to hide behind a wall and wait for all of them to group up so I could put a puddle at their feet and stun them continuously. Whilst I applaud the mechanics being deep enough to support things like that it was, frankly, utterly boring and not something I enjoyed having to repeat dozens of times over just to be able to get one more level.
This is just made all the worse by the fact that Divinity: Original Sin is still suffering from crashes and glitches even 2 months after its release date. There’s one particular quest where you have to read pages of a book in order to pass a quiz from a ghost but if you go to read it the pages are blank. The text is in the game files so it’s there but the developers still haven’t fixed the display issue. I didn’t get far enough into the game to experience any of the other “beneficial” glitches which apparently make fights trivial but in all honesty I don’t think that would’ve improved my impression of Divinity: Original Sin at all.
I had high hopes for the story in the beginning, especially considering that it seemed like it was fully voiced acted. Instead I was disappointed to see that much of it was presented in the wall of text style that’s guaranteed to make me tune out, especially when every NPC in the world seems to have gobs of useless information to throw at you. The story itself is also pretty mediocre, starting off with strong roots but just failing to capitalize on it. Maybe it develops better as you manage to churn through some of the quests but honestly if a game isn’t grabbing me after 10 hours it won’t after any amount of time.
Divinity: Original Sin was a game I wanted to like as I had heard so many positive things about it from so many different sources. Unfortunately though its turn based combat, combined with horrendous pacing and lacklustre story, meant that I couldn’t find much to enjoy during my time with it. I fully admit that this is partly due to my bias away from games of this nature but I’ve proven in the past that I can look past genre if the game itself is good. Divinity: Original Sin unfortunately just doesn’t have anything in it that I feel I could point to and say “This is why you should play it”. I’m sure fans of the genre will find a lot to like within it however for this writer I can’t really recommend it.
Divinity: Original Sin is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 10 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked.
My house is littered with the remnants of gaming eras gone by. I think this is mostly a function of my formerly very frugal self, one who would keep all packaging so that I could resell things at a slightly higher value, thereby fuelling my obsession with gaming further. The initial habit remains however I’ve long since past the time where I’ve needed to sell things in order to continue my habit and now I find myself surrounded by the physical remains of my ravenous gaming habit. However those numerous relics of my habit are only a fraction of the total games that I play with the vast majority of them now coming to me in a purely digital form, no longer taking up space in the physical world.
It seems that this particular trend isn’t just my own experience either as a staggering 92% of games sales on PC are digital. Part of this is likely due to the meteoric rise of the Free to Play model with MOBAs being responsible for a large part of revenue on the platform, enough so that it’s pushed PC gaming back to the top of the pile. Digital hasn’t completely taken over every gaming platform yet however with console users still largely preferring to purchase retail copies, with only a handful habitually downloading their games. Downloaded titles are still seeing positive growth on these platforms however and given enough time (and improving bandwidth) there’s little doubt that consoles will have a similar split sooner rather than later.
Now you’d think as someone who’s a bit of a collector’s edition junkie that I’d be heavily skewed towards physical copies however the times when I feel compelled to spend that extra cash on a physical copy are becoming few and far between. In fact based on the pre-orders I can dredge up I’ve bought a grand total of 3 physical games this year with only a further 2 before the year is out. Based on my weekly review habit this puts me pretty close to the 92% figure that applies to PC gamers as a whole, a rather interesting fact that I wasn’t really aware of. Primarily I can attribute this shift to 2 factors: money and convenience.
When I’m looking for a game to review the last thing I want to do is browse around a game shop for hours looking for something that might be appropriate. Indeed at home I can access gameplay videos, screenshots and even other reviews should I wish, all from the same place that will take my purchase. Combine that with the fact that Steam titles are typically cheaper when compared to their physical counterparts (sometimes by a large margin thanks to sites like DLcompare) and buying from a digital platform is just the better decision to make. Consoles, for the most part, don’t meet these two qualifying factors with the respective platform stores usually being the same (or higher) prices as retail and lacking any of the convenience features that Steam et. al. provide.
Honestly though this statistic really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who considers themselves a PC gamer. Steam has been the go to platform for the better part of a decade now and whilst some of us might lash out a little more cash on a particular title now and then those times are becoming increasingly rare. I don’t see this trend stopping anytime soon either as the downsides are so minimal when compared to the benefits that digital platforms provide. What will be interesting to see is how the retail games industry copes with these figures as time goes on as I’m not sure many could survive if only 8% of total games sales went through them.
Indie games are typically a tradeoff between several different aspects that were once considered to be critical for a game to be successful. The typical approach is to tone down graphics, mechanics and even interactivity in favour of better storytelling. This is what attracted me to the indie scene in the first place as I find it easy to write off larger faults in the game should it be able to tell an engaging narrative. However sometimes there are little gems of indie titles that manage to do well in more than just one area, executing more than just a good story. Mind: Path to Thalamus is one such indie game, being able to deliver an experience that’s above many higher budget titles yet still retains the same aspects that make indie titles so charming.
You are stuck in a surreal and desolate world, one devoid of any other humans and that seems to react to your very presence. Some of the places are familiar, reminding you of places that you used to visit as a child, whilst others seem to have risen up from your deepest nightmares, shaking you to your very core. There’s only one thing that keeps pushing you forward: you must reach the Thalamus, no matter how painful the journey to it is. Can you suffer through the mistakes you made in order to find redemption? Are you even worthy of it? These are the questions you’ll answer as you journey towards the ever elusive Thalamus.
For an indie game Mind: Path to Thalamus is incredibly beautiful with the wide variety of different environments providing a great array of eye candy. Part of this is due to it using the Unreal under the hood, an engine that’s renowned for being able to produce great visuals, however the artwork is above that of many other indie games of similar calibre. This goes hand in hand with the soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, swelling at all the right points in concert with your character’s emotions and dropping to deathly silence, reminding you that you’re alone in this world. The screenshots I’ve taken really don’t do it justice, it’s an exceptionally well crafted experience.
The core game of Mind: Path to Thalamus is that of a puzzler, done in the now traditional indie style of not telling you exactly how everything works but giving you enough visual clues in order to be able to figure it out. The various mechanics change throughout the game however they’re introduced individually so you can get a feel for what their triggers are, how they combine and what bits and pieces of the environment you should be on the lookout for in order to be able to progress to the next section. Overall the puzzles are pretty simple, if you’re struggling it’s typically because you’re doing something the wrong way, however there’s enough challenge that they feel like an organic part of the game rather than a brick wall designed to pad out the play time.
This is probably why Mind: Path to Thalamus has such great visuals as they really are key to the overall game experience. Pretty much every time I found myself stuck on something was due to me not noticing or forgetting about a particular game mechanic, usually one that was just introduced to me not 1 puzzle ago. The last few puzzle stages kept me busy for a good couple hours as they use every mechanic to their fullest, forcing you to figure out what sequence of events you have to go through in order to unlock the next piece. It was well timed however as the final dialogue sections, which are scripted to repeat after a certain time, only did so right before the final scene showing that the developer has paced Mind: Path to Thalamus out extremely well.
For the most part Mind: Path to Thalamus runs well with no graphics glitches or broken gameplay elements to speak of. It does however seem to crash randomly on occasion, something that didn’t seem to have any one particular cause. Some sections that would crash at one point would inexplicably play through fine afterwards. They didn’t happen often however the checkpointing system seems to get confused when it happens and will send you back to the start of the chapter and not the current respawn point you’re at. It’s not a big deal, especially if you’ve already worked out all the puzzles, but it was a slight frustration when I was elbows deep in the story.
What sold me on Mind: Path to Thalamus originally was one of the trailers that showed some of the opening scenes of the game which had some extremely gripping voice acting. Whilst that same level of passion isn’t carried throughout the game the story is delivered well by the sole voice actor. Usually out of order narratives annoy me but Mind: Path to Thalamus does in it such a way that several story threads are built around you and only towards the end is the relationship between the two revealed. It wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster however it was a solid story on regret, redemption and the highly illogical process we all go through when we’re grieving. Suffice to say I’d rate it above many other story-first games that I’ve played in recent memory although I wasn’t exactly in tears at the end of it.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a fantastic example of what the indie development scene is capable of producing, from the gorgeous visuals right down to the engaging story. Whilst a story-driven indie puzzler might not be everyone’s cup of tea I feel Mind: Path to Thalamus would stand well just on its mechanics alone, with the inventive mechanics requiring more than passing glance to understand fully. It might not be a perfectly polished gem however Mind: Path to Thalamus expertly delivers on the goals it set out to accomplish and is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 48% of the achievements unlocked.
The once strict definition of what constituted a video game has taken a massive beating over the past couple years. There’s been numerous releases that just weren’t different enough to be excluded from the game genre but yet also didn’t feel like they had enough game-like aspects to be included. For me these types of games are quite intriguing as their lake of gameplay is usually made up for in story or the gameplay itself is what builds the story. Velvet Sundown is one such title, including some of the basic elements of game but feels more like a digital version of a murder mystery party. It’s hard to describe how I feel about it as whilst I think the concept is novel the execution, one that relies on other players playing their part, is both the best and worst thing about it.
You’re aboard the Velvet Sundown, a private yacht that caters to the rich and famous. You’ll find yourself in control of one of many characters in the game ranging from crew members all the way up to famous tennis players or wealthy socialites looking for a good time. However everyone aboard this ship has a secret, maybe something about them or a desire they want to fulfill, and your interactions will determine whether those secrets come to life or if those desires will be fulfilled. How will you play your role? Will you seek out your goal with reckless abandon or will you be the troll that tries to fellate everyone aboard?
Velvet Sundown has this kind of Second Life vibe to it which I think mostly stems from its graphics. The environment, that is to say the ship that you can walk around on, is pretty barren in terms of detail and feels quite sterile. This is only amplified by the rigid animations that all the characters have, especially when they’re walking around. It seems this might be due to the fact that Velvet Sundown is built upon an engine called Dramagame which appears to be geared more towards social simulation rather than something with game play. Usually I wouldn’t hold this against a game, especially one which focuses on other things, however when they’re asking for a monthly subscription fee for premium content I do expect a little more bang for my buck.
A the beginning of each scenario you’ll be randomly assigned a character to play and then given a background blurb on who they are, what their motivations might be and usually a goal to start you off. After that you’re essentially in a 3D chat room with a bunch of other players which, depending on how lucky you are, will be filled with a mix of serious players and trolls. You can engage people in conversation (and, if you’ve got premium access, you can hear them talk in wonderfully horrible text-to-speech) to try and figure out who might be the right person to talk to regarding your objective or use various items to progress the scenarios story. For some characters you’ll receive prompts every so often about your changing motivations, hopefully inducing a bit more drama into the overall experience.
As a concept I think the idea is really strong. You get given what’s essentially a character breakdown but how that character plays out is all up to the players behind them. I had some pretty fun scenarios where other people played to their characters aptly, like the Nigerian prince who spoke in slightly broken English and tried to get everyone to welcome Nigeria into their hearts. However at the same time if people don’t play to the story exactly the scenario doesn’t really go anywhere and then you usually end up in boring conversation that inevitably leads onto someone trolling. The best example of this was my last scenario whereby one person, playing Lora, tried to get everyone on the ship to do sexual things to her. Whilst it was funny at first it just ended up distracting from the overall game, and it eventually went no where.
Velvet Sundown could be vastly improved by adding in a little more interactivity and freedom into the game in order to generate more interesting narrative. The rigid structure that the story requires to be followed in order to progress it means that there’s really no freedom outside of it, even if you’re allowed to say whatever you want to anyone. Adding in some other interactions that you could apply to anyone else in the game would mean that, even if the original story wasn’t panning out, players would be able to create their own stories within the bounds of the scenario. I’m not suggesting they put in full cyber-sex animations for everyone (like the slutty Lora in my last game would love) however a few more interactions would go a long way.
Velvet Sundown is an interesting concept, taking the idea of a murder mystery party and translating that into a digital playground for players to fool around in. However it feels like a beta product, with all the environments feeling sterile and the character animations making them all look like robots with back problems. The player to player interactions are the main source of entertainment however and whilst they can be amusing at times if everyone doesn’t stick to their story exactly the scenario just ends up going no where. I feel with a couple years worth of polish Velvet Sundown could really be something but for now it’s just a curiosity that simply not worth paying for.
Velvet Sundown is available on PC right now. It is free to play with an optional subscription fee for premium content.
I feel it’s pertinent that I get this out of the way before I start the review in earnest: Roguelikes give me the shits. I can understand the appeal that many find in them, figuring out a strategy to deal with whatever might come before you, however I really detest games that punish you with things that are completely out of your control. You get to a point where you think you’re doing great only to find that you hadn’t accounted for situation X which then proceeds to tank your game, forcing you to redo the entire section just so you can account for it. Whilst Gods Will Be Watching isn’t exactly a Roguelike (it describes itself as a Point and Click adventure, which it partly is) many of its gameplay elements take inspiration from the genre and, unfortunately, are the downfall of what would otherwise be a brilliant game.
Gods Will Be Watching is one of those games that started out as a entry to the Ludlam Dare game jam which received such wide acclaim that it then went onto a successful IndieGoGo campaign for development into a fully fledged title. You play as Sergeant Burden, a long serving member of the establishment who’s infiltrated himself into the idealistic rebellion group called Xenolifer. Your mission is to play along with them, gain their trust and hopefully limit the amount of damage they can do. However it becomes apparent that it’s not black and white when it comes to Xenolifer, or even your own organisation, and therein is where the real challenge lies. Can you protect everyone? Are you strong enough to make the tough choices at the right time? These are the questions you’ll be faced with and living with those decisions might be easier said than done.
Since the theme for the original Ludlam Dare entry was “minimalism” Gods Will Be Watching took the cue to use the current ultra-minimalistic pixelart styling that other games like Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP are known for. There’s not a huge amount of visual variety in the game with the vast majority of it taking place within a single frame for each chapter of the game. It serves its purpose however, conveying the numerous visual clues and other elements form part of the core game play. It all kind of blurs into the background after a while as for the most part you’ll be spending your time in menus rather than constantly searching for things that you need to click on.
As I alluded to earlier the gameplay of Gods Will Be Watching is a mix between a traditional point and click adventure and a Roguelike. Each scene has a specific objective that needs to be completed in order to progress to the next chapter. Usually this objective requires you to play with a set variables in order to achieve the desired outcome so the majority of your time will be spent balancing them all out. Sometimes these variables are obvious, given to you in plain numbers, other times they’re hidden in the form of visual clues that you’ll have to decipher. There’s also several different ways of dealing with the problem at hand, some of which will make your life easier or harder depending on the objective. It’s an interesting concept however I feel that the execution has let it down somewhat.
You see I get the idea that there’s variables that need maximising and that you probably won’t get everything to go exactly the way you want however the inclusion of randomization feels like a big middle finger to the player. They mention this at the start, forewarning you that failure is to be expected and that you should just keep on trying, however the randomization can and will completely fuck you over numerous times before you get it right. It’s not even a matter of strategy after a while as even the best strategy can get completely wrecked by the random number generator spurting out a couple unfortunate numbers in a row. In a decently designed game this would be a low chance occurrence but in Gods Will Be Watching it happens constantly.
I’d probably be more forgiving if failing a chapter didn’t mean having to start all over from the start again, giving RNGesus another chance to fuck me over. Take for instance the torture scene where you have to distribute damage between the two characters in order to make sure you make it through the day. If your begs happen to fail, or you don’t get the response that allows you to rest, you’ll likely end up killing one of the characters. This isn’t to mention the Russian Roulette scene which can completely fuck you over, even if you use every trick at your disposal. The desert scene is even worse for this as even when I was doing things nigh on perfectly I still got ruined by random events that were out of my control which is where I ended up leaving the game.
Which brings me to the real reason why the random elements piss me off so much: the story is actually intriguing and one where I felt I was crafting my own little narrative within the game. Looking over the forums you can see how varied everyone’s experiences is, something that I really admire in a game when its done well. However like many games I’ve played as of late the mechanics of Gods Will Be Watching are just so onerous that those tasty morsels of story are so few and far between that they are simply not enough to keep you going. It’s a real shame as after reading a couple other reviews I’ve found out there’s still 2 chapters to go but, honestly, I just can’t be arsed to slog through the numerous rounds of RNG roulette in order to see them.
Gods Will Be Watching is a game I really wanted to like as it had all the makings of other titles in the genre that I had considered good. The simplistic presentation and story with a some level of depth to it, coupled with the ability to craft your own narrative above that, has great potential. However the Rougelike elements destroyed any hopes of that happening, trapping the story behind too many RNG determined gates forcing the player to spend hours redoing content in order to get to the next chapter. I’m sure there will be many people who say I didn’t get the point of it or some other bullshit but the simple fact is that Gods Will Be Watching failed to provide the writer with a good game experience, hiding its moments of brilliance behind mechanics that are simply not fun to play.
Gods Will Be Watching is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 5 hours with 10% of the achievements unlocked.
The Steam Top Sellers chart is a rather strange place. For the most part it’s in a constant state of flux with titles popping on and off it almost daily, usually when sales of a particularly good title go on sale or a hotly anticipated game goes up for pre-order. However there are some titles that manage to secure a top spot on there for a long time, seemingly immune to the regular ebbs and flows of the market. Titles like Rust, DayZ and Counter Strike: Global Offensive are regularly up there but every so often one title manages to break into there, seemingly out of no where. Spintires was one such title attracting quite the following for a game that, to me, seemed to be little more than Euro Truck Simulator with mud. Still the videos were enough to convince me to give it a look in, even if it wasn’t a genre I’d typically play.
The premise of Spintires is simple: you’re to get a bunch of lumber from the mill to its destination, easy right? Well in between those places is a whole mess of treacherous terrain just waiting to stop you in your tracks, foiling any attempt at lumber delivery. However you have a multitude of vehicles at your disposal which you’ll need to make full use of if you want to complete that objective in a reasonable amount of time. Honestly after playing it for a few hours I feel like my initial assessment of it was quite apt as whilst the premise sounds rather dull there’s definitely a lot going on in Spintires that I’m sure simulation geeks will love.
Spintires is quite impressive visually, making heavy use of level of detail and depth of field that give it a much more realistic feel than it would otherwise. Games like this typically forego visual flair for more accurate simulation but Spintires seems to get a decent mix of both of them, being both visually appealing (if a little drab) combined with a driving simulation that matches my brief experience with driving in similar conditions. There are limits to the simulation of course which will provide joy and annoyance in equal amounts but overall Spintires is a surprisingly polished product.
As I mentioned earlier the core gameplay of Spintires is centered around taking lumber from one location and delivering it to another. Depending on what vehicles you have at your disposal (or unlocked by exploring the map) you’ll be able to deliver different loads which have higher point values, allowing you to accomplish the task quicker. However it’s not simply a matter of driving from one location to another as there are numerous hazards that will get in your way, not the least of which is the seemingly endless mud tracks that you’ll be trucking across. In some of these situations you’ll have to bring along additional help in order to get yourself out of trouble or, if you don’t plan it right, dig yourself in even deeper.
Whilst the controls are pretty easy to get the handle on initially it becomes quickly apparent that the tutorial, if you could call it that, is a little bit inadequate. The above screenshot shows you how most things work however even if you combine that with looking at the keybindings you’re still likely to find yourself wondering how to do certain things. Thankfully Oovee’s forums are filled with tons of good advice for people like me who had no idea what they were doing. Still it feels like Spintires could probably do with a short tutorial map with everything unlocked in it so you could get a feel for the game before diving into the bigger maps.
The simulation experience is pretty good and from what I can remember of the short time I went 4WD driving with my scount troop back in the day it mirrors real life pretty well. Whilst you’ll most likely be running full diff lock and all wheel drive constantly (which makes the point about it consuming more fuel mostly moot) there’s still a lot of challenge to be had, especially if you’re just exploring or trying to remove the cloaking on a map. The core game of transporting lumber is somewhat less exciting though as unless you’re transporting the long logs you’ll be doing multiple trips and that just loses its luster very quickly. Still there’s a lot of fun to be had in trying to bug out the physics engine, which I assume is part of the appeal for games in this genre.
It doesn’t take much to do that unfortunately as whilst the simulation seems to work well in most circumstances it starts to behave very oddly once it’s outside its comfort zone. Rocks floating softly up and down, vehicles having a distinct preference for being right side up (unless special circumstances are met) and ground changing it’s consistency randomly are all issues I encountered during my brief play through. There was also the issue of it crashing to desktop a couple times with one time resulting in my save game file disappearing. There’s also the issue of the camera which seems to be too smart for its own good, making moving it around an exercise in frustration. In all honesty it has much the same feeling as many other just off Early Access games do, something which I feel all developers need to take note of and avoid in the future.
Spintires is a game that I’m sure will appeal to lovers of this genre as it recreates the experience of driving heavy vehicles through muddy terrain with a disturbing amount of accuracy. This shows through in several aspects of the game, namely the visuals and the core simulation engine, something which I’m sure many will appreciate. However it still seems to be suffering from some early stage teething issues and honestly whilst I can see the attraction to these kinds of games it’s probably not the kind of title I’ll find myself investing anymore time in. So if you’re a lover of all simulators great and small you probably won’t go wrong with Spintires.
Spintires is available PC right now for $29.99. Total game time was 4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s nearly 2 decades ago and 10 year old me has found a new game to obsess over: The Incredible Machine. For a little while I’m captivated by the puzzles, trying to figure out the multiple ways in which I can solve the problem put before me. However it’s not long until I discover the real fun that this game contains: the free form creative mode. Soon I’m creating dozens of horrendous devices, most hellbent on inflicting as much torture as is humanly possible within the game’s confines. This debauchery was only exacerbated by the presence of friends with numerous hours being spent building all manner of wicked contraptions. So you can imagine when I heard that some of the developers of that game were out to make a spiritual sequel, called Contraption Maker, I was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia that wouldn’t go away until I hit the purchase button.
Contraption Maker has actually been available for quite some time now through Steam’s Greenlight program but it only just recently hit version 1.0. The result is a product that’s been heavily influenced by the community, being put through the wringer by some of the most die hard Incredible Machine fans for the past year. The result as it stands today certainly has the same feel about (at least that’s what the remains of the 10 year old me is saying, anyway) with all of the modern flair you would come to expect from a game of this calibre. However whilst I do appreciate that they chose the PC as their preferred platform I can’t help but feel that its place might no longer be with this platform.
Visually Contraption Maker really does feel like the Incredible Machine, just berthed in this time instead of 20 years ago. For me it felt a lot like a Flash game that had received a lot of love as the animations and art styling all had that Flash-y appearance to them. It also helps that the vast majority of the parts used in Contraption Maker had their mirror within the Incredible Machine, something which I’m sure was done on purpose. Still it’s to the developers credit that they’ve managed to capture that same feeling that I experienced so long ago whilst also modernizing the look and feel dramatically.
For those who remember The Incredible Machine the game play will be instantly familiar as Contraption Maker’s game play is pretty much identical to its spiritual predecessor. You’ll be given a scenario, a short blurb about what’s going on, what the goals are and a set of tools with which to make everything happen. From there you’re left to your own as to how to figure everything out which can be as simple as knocking something over to far more elaborate puzzles that can have multiple different solutions, depending on which behaviours you exploit. There’s also the creative mode which hooks into the Steam Workshop, allowing you to create and share puzzles with everyone else around the world.
Whilst I haven’t made my way through all 140 or so puzzles (I’m about half way through them) I’m glad to say that the difficulty ramp is quite well done, with the progression from Easy to Medium to Hard done well enough that you’ll likely find yourself challenged but rarely ever struggling for minutes on end. Should you find yourself breezing through everything Contraption Maker has to throw at you then dozens of incredibly obtuse puzzles await you care of the community, ensuring that you’ll likely never run out of new content to explore. If the current community is anything to go by Contraption Maker will have a long future ahead of it, fuelled by endless community challenges.
However the 1.0 version moniker is really only in spirit as Contraption Maker still seems to suffer from a few teething issues. Certain key combinations will inexplicably force you to desktop (copying and pasting is fraught with danger), usually erasing any progress you had made or anything you were working on at the time. The physics engine also appears to be a little bit selective in its behaviour with things not behaving exactly how you’d expect them to, something which I think was likely done in the aid of simplicity and limiting emergent behaviour. Considering the amount of development this game has seen over the past year I’m sure these issues will be resolved eventually (I submitted crash reports for everything I encountered) so I’d check the discussion forums to see how the latest build is faring.
What Contraption Maker really needs though isn’t so much an improved version, or even more puzzles, more I think it needs to find its way onto a tablet sooner rather than later. 20 years ago The Incredible Machine really only had one platform it could ever find itself on and thus no one would’ve ever considered putting it anywhere else. Today however games like this have a home that’s far more welcoming to it, one that is perfect for Contraption Maker’s innate pickup/putdown play style. Thankfully it looks like the developers are working on this and honestly if you’re thinking about getting Contraption Maker and don’t want to play it on PC I’d highly recommend waiting for the future release.
Contraption Maker is everything you would expect a modern version of The Incredible Machine to be, taking the original premise and thoroughly modernizing it for today’s market. The puzzles, parts and free form creative mode will all be instantly familiar to long time fans with newcomers to this series being able to pick it up in no time. It’s still shaking off it’s beta status with crashes and funky behaviour peppering it’s otherwise solid execution, something that I hope to see remedied in the not too distant future. Personally I think it will make an absolutely fantastic tablet game, one that the current generation of 10 year olds will remember as fondly as we do when it comes to The Incredible Machine today.
Contraption Maker is available on PC right now for $14.99 (although you get 2 copies for that price). Total play time was 2 hours.