Confederate Express: I Would Not Have Backed This.

“Surely there’s no more games I helped Kickstart” I keep telling myself every time one pops up (7 more to go, it turns out). For the most part these are happy surprises, games that for one reason or another sold me enough on a concept for me to splash some cash to get them made. For the most part they’ve lived up to my expectations, even if my tastes as a gamer changed in the years since I backed them. I had yet to feel the sting of bitter disappointment in one of my Kickstarted children but Confederate Express, a game for some unknown reason I backed almost 5 years ago, gets the unenviable award of being the first to fall horrendously short of its mark. Whatever this game is it’s not the one I thought I was backing, nor is it one you should be buying.

Confederate Express describes itself today as MOBA/RTS style game where “you assume a role of a brutal exterminator trying to deliver a mysterious package”. Whilst this is similar to the Kickstarter pitch in spirit the vision is significantly reduced, now pitting you against 50 fixed levels rather than the randomised Roguelike experience that was envisioned. Indeed anything beyond the most basic of elements appears to have been thrown out, leaving us with a rudimentary experience that can’t have seen a lot of development effort over the past 4 or so years. It’s honestly quite strange as looking back over the Kickstarter page it looks like it was much further along in development than what the end product suggests.

There’s obviously been a lot of effort put into the pixel art assets that were created for Confederate Express. Each individual item is definitely of a high standard and the tile based layout system does indicate that procedural generation was on the table at one point. However these assets are just sort of lumped together in a hodge podge manner, thrown together in a hasty rush to get 50 levels out so they could ship the game and call it a day. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me to see this appear on an asset resale site as “dystopian future pixel art set” in the not too distant future. Suffice to say that the art is probably the only good thing about Confederate Express as everything else is downhill from there.

Whilst Confederate Express bills itself as a “MOBA/RTS” style game it’s much closer to a twin stick shooter in reality. You control one character and you have to dodge projectiles and enemies whilst shooting back at them. Each room is filled with a bunch of enemies which you’ll have to clear out before you can proceed to the next level. Over time additional enemy types are added in and in increasing numbers, making the levels progressively harder as you go on. All of the enemies drop gold which you can use to purchase upgrades at the shops which appear every so often. There’s nothing else beyond that though so once you’ve gotten past the first few levels you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer in terms of raw mechanics. Sure the different enemies present their own challenge, but it’s not like the core of the game evolves much.

The combat is very basic, kind of like asteroids but all your enemies are slow moving zombies. The controls aren’t exactly intuitive either with one mouse button being attack move and the other regular move. There’s also no way to have your character stand still and shoot in a direction unless there’s an enemy there, making a lot of the levels far more frustrating than they need to be. The upgrades you’ll get along the way do change things up a bit but many of them are far less impactful than they’d lead you to believe. For instance the passive upgrades are near worthless as extended range and faster walking speed don’t seem to make one lick of difference. Indeed it feels as if the other enemies actually get the same upgrade, rendering your spent cash worthless.

After completing it I was left wondering what the hell I was thinking when I backed it. Taking a look back at the Kickstarter campaign it’s clear that the game had much grander ambitions. Before each mission you’d have a world randomly generated around you and would receive a briefing of the mission at hand. You’d have your choice of different character classes, crew members and a deep weapon upgrade system. Indeed it felt like it had aspirations of being closer to something like XCOM, complete with a home base and a large crew of people you’d be using on your delivery missions. None of those elements are present in the “finished’ product. Instead you have a fixed 50 level experience that doesn’t even attempt to emulate even 10% of that aspirational goal. Not that anyone would think you could achieve something like that for $50K, anyway.

This is, of course, the risk we run as Kickstarter backers. Honestly I’m surprised it has taken this long for me to run into something this bad. Sure I’ve been left waiting for many years at a time to receive some of my pledges but by and large they’ve hit their mark (even if I didn’t enjoy them). Confederate Express on the other hand fails to meet even the most generous interpretation of the vision they put forward, instead attempting to phone it in many years after they took funding from over 2,000 backers. Am I disappointed? Not really, whatever interest I had in the title vanished in the many years between my pledge and the time I played it. Instead I’m left wondering what happened to the developers and why they decided to release such a lacklustre product into the market.

Confederate Express fails to deliver on the goals it set by a long margin, so much so many Kickstarter backers will likely be wondering why the hell they backed it in the first place. The game as it stands today (and likely forever more if the updates are anything to go by) is a pale shadow of what was promised, lacking any of the features that likely attracted a pledge in the first place. There’s definitely been a lot of love poured into the assets used but even those are presented as a jumbled mess. Honestly even though the game is short I couldn’t in good conscience recommend that anyone buy it, even if you manage to catch it on mega sale. Such is the risk that Kickstarter represents and this time, unfortunately, it has not paid off.

Rating: 4.0/10

Confederate Express is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked. Game was backed at the $10 level on Kickstarter.

Frostpunk: Our Hope Dies in the Cold.

Games, as a whole, have come a long way when it comes to giving the player real control over how the narrative develops. Gone are the days of the simple binary choices, instead we’re treated to branching dialogue trees and emergent gameplay mechanics that allow us to craft our own narrative experience. Often these choices are tied into the concepts of ethics and morality, giving you choices between good and evil (or somewhere inbetween). It’s rare that story choices will have an impact on the game mechanics themselves though, something which Frostpunk (from the creators of This War of Mine) does exceptionally well. Whilst a scenario based city builder likely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea 11 bit Studio’s latest release stands out as one of 2018’s more intriguing titles to date.

The world has been plunged into a new ice age, freezing the oceans and forcing many to abandon their homes. We’ve known about this for some time however and teams of our best scientists and engineers were sent north to figure out a solution. Their hope lied in the Generators, massive coal burning behemoths capable of generating the heat required to keep a colony alive. However, upon arrival, you find the generator cold and lifeless, the teams you sent months ago nowhere to be found. It seems you, as the captain of this expedition, are all that stands between your colony and a bitterly cold end. Are you up to the task of making the hard decisions to keep your colony alive? Or will you, like the others before you, perish in the unrelenting winter that now grips the world.

For a game with such a bleak and dystopian setting Frostpunk is a gorgeous game, both in terms of the graphics but also in terms of the UI and other 2D design elements. I initially had some performance issues with it which I tracked down to it rendering at 4K resolution by default. I’m not entirely sure what caused this but after adjusting it to a more sane resolution (1080p) everything ran extremely well. There are numerous little touches which really sell the experience, like the differing amount of snowfall on the roofs of buildings or the way snow melts away when you plonk down a new steam hub. The lighting and particle effects are top notch too, making the city at night time a particularly pretty thing to look at. Honestly when I first saw this I wasn’t expecting such a visual marvel so hats off to the devs for that.

Frostpunk is a city building survival game with a bit of a twist: it’s scenario based. Unlike many other city building games, which are typically open ended with win conditions you can achieve at your own pace, Frostpunk sets out a goal for you to accomplish in a set amount of time. Whilst not every playthrough will be identical due to the RNG elements they will always play out the same, allowing you to get better at a particular scenario through multiple playthroughs (or through, you know, Google). For the first scenario, the only one which I completed, this means setting up a colony to survive in an ever increasingly cold environment. You’ll have to provide food, shelter, medicine and heat to everyone in your colony whilst also keeping a close eye on hope and discontent. This by itself would be challenging enough however the random events that occur will mean you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which direction your colony will take and what kind of leader you want to be.

Things start off relatively simple: you just need to keep everyone alive. The steady decline in temperature though will force you to start making some tough decisions early on and this will start to shape your path going forwards. Many of the early decisions are tough choices between doing the “right” thing and something that will greatly help in your colony’s survival. Of course survival isn’t everything and whilst you might be able to easily keep everyone alive you’ll quickly find yourself with an unhopeful lot of malcontents who want nothing more than to overthrow you. Herein likes the core challenge of Frostpunk: carefully balancing each part of the equation to ensure that everyone makes it through yet another day, including yourself.

The random events that you’ll uncover play into this mechanic as well, many of which will lay to waste any carefully laid plans you might have. For instance in my first mildly successful playthrough I did what any human being thinks they’d do in such a situation: I tried to save everyone. This saw my colony’s population double in a very short amount of time, putting an incredible amount of stress on the meagre reserves I had accumulated. This was further compounded by the unavoidable storm event which shut down all my food production and wreaked havoc on my coal production facilities. The end state was dozens of people dying every day due to starvation, cold and trying to save the coal mines from complete collapse. My choice of wanting to do the right thing by everyone ended up dooming them all to die and so began my next playthrough: the one where I prioritised survival of the few over the many.

This playthrough wasn’t without its challenges of course but armed with the knowledge I’d gain from failure I felt much better prepared. Indeed it was interesting to explore different options for solving the same problem like using coal thumpers instead of mines. This allowed me to have them right next to town with good heat coverage, vastly reducing the amount of sick people the mines generated. This also opened up a lot more space for me to build other ancillary services in, making expansion that much cheaper. Of course there were also some other things I did which I hadn’t considered before like building multiple research centers to speed up technological progress. The final path through the storm still wasn’t a cakewalk however, the generator only being able to sustain overdrive for maybe half of the duration (even with all the upgrades) but it was enough that I didn’t end up in the frozen starvation ridden hell I had created before.

Like most games in this genre Frostpunk will lay out a good set of basics for you but from there you’re on your own. The tech trees (including the law ones) offer up multiple ways of solving problems with many of the later ones making up for the questionable choices you may have made earlier on. At first glance some options look better than others, like the buildings that seem to produce more output per person than others, but in practice they might be anything but. Indeed my first playthrough that put tech supremacy over anything else was a dismal failure, forcing me to consider a different approach. In the end it seemed like a steady trek up the tech tree, focusing on upgrading current infrastructure first before pursuing new solutions, ended up being the most viable approach. I’m sure I could get another 2 or more playthroughs out of the first scenario alone by just exploring the number of options available.

The story of Frostpunk, whilst following a kind of set path, is mostly one you’ll craft yourself. Nearly all the choices you make will have a direct impact on how the game plays out, creating a narrative that will be uniquely your own. It’s one of those games which I think will make great discussion pieces for a long time to come as we regale each other with how we overcame each of the challenges the game presented to us. It is, however, an exhausting and bleak narrative which is why I haven’t been back to it after finishing the first scenario. I don’t regret my time with it at all but I’m certainly not foaming at the mouth to get back into it.

Frostpunk is a harsh, unforgiving experience that rewards players who experiment, fail and try again. Its gorgeous art direction brought to us by 11 bit Studios own in house Liquid Engine was a surprise delight, something I certainly wasn’t expecting from a game like this. The game mechanics, which are deeply intertwined with the narrative elements, makes for a confronting affair; challenging you to make decisions that will be difficult to live with. Like many similar games though it’s an exhausting experience, one that will keep drawing you back but is easy to close the lid on once you’ve achieved victory. Frostpunk then goes down as one of my surprise delights for the 2018 gaming year, providing a great bit of distraction between the AAA release storms.

Rating: 8.5/10

Frostpunk is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.

A Way Out: We Gotta Work Together.

Rewind the clock a decade or two and co-op games found themselves in something of a dark age. Most publishers were attempting to get players on the multi-player bandwagon, driven by increasing Internet penetration and a want to keep players engaged for longer on big name IPs. Titles like Left 4 Dead and other small squad based games breathed new life into the co-op playstyle and the indie renaissance brought with it the innovation to keep players interested. For many of the games co-op is an add-on, something to be enjoyed if you and your friends have the time to play together. Fewer are the games in which co-op is a hard requirement like it is for A Way Out. The premise, a co-op prison break, was enough to interest me with the developers (those who brought us Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) sealing the deal. Whilst it falls a few steps short of my must-play games for this year it was certainly an interesting experience, if only for the fact that my wife and I shared a good few laughs while playing it.

Vincent Moretti is freshly incarcerated and sent to jail for murder. In jail, he meets thief Leo Caruso who had been arrested for grand theft. A group of thugs sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo, but Vincent intervenes. While the two recover in the infirmary, they get to know each other and Leo requests Vincent’s help to steal a file from the office. Vincent complies. After the theft, Vincent senses that Leo is planning on a prison break and offers to help so he can escape too. Leo initially refuses, but begrudgingly agrees to collaborate when Vincent reveals he also has a grudge with Harvey. So begins their quest to hunt him down and exact the vengeance they crave.

Considering that this is Hazelight Studios first game (although not their first title as a team) the quality of their visual work is quite impressive. Whilst it might not reach the dizzying heights that say Far Cry 5 did it still does manage to do a lot with what its got. For people like me who are playing the game on a single console (original PlayStation 4 for reference) there are definitely some sacrifices being made in order to support the split screen parts of the game. Mostly this comes in from the lack of detail when you get up close which can become quite noticeable in the in-game cutscenes. I haven’t done a blow by blow comparison between my screenshots and the same from PC but I can hazard a guess that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate, given that the Unreal 4 engine is powering everything.

A Way Out is a split screen co-op game where you’ll be tasked with all sorts of different challenges, most of which will require you cooperating with your partner in order to complete. Some of these take the form of the usual co-op puzzle affair, like you holding down a switch to keep a door open while they go through, to some unique and interesting puzzles which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. All the scenes are also littered with things for you to interact with from people (providing dialogue and story background) to objects which may or may not be related to the puzzle at hand. All the challenges will have multiple ways of approaching them, something which is not always readily apparent. There’s stealth and combat sections as well which will quickly make you realise that even the biggest TV will feel cramped when half of it is gone. If it sounds like there’s a lot to this game then you’re right and one the game’s weaknesses is the lack of focus on the elements which mean the most to the overall experience.

The core puzzle solving mechanics are well done, making good use of the fact that you’re required to work together. Most sections play out in a similar way: you’re given your object, a little spiel about how you might go about it and then are let loose in the room to figure it out. That room will usually have a bunch of things for you to look through although, honestly, most aren’t worth your time. Whilst its nice that some of the NPCs have a background story none of them will ever help you with anything, nor will learning random things about your environment. Indeed the objective you’re given is pretty much all the info you’ll need, all you need to do is find the requisite items and execute the right sequence. If you’re a seasoned gamer you’ll likely breeze through most of them however if, like my wife, you’re not exactly the gaming type things can get…well…

You see my wife, bless her socks, whilst having a solid history of titles she’s enjoyed (Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft and Until Dawn to name a few) she doesn’t have the same twitch reflex muscles that someone who’s invested over 200 hours into Destiny might. So there were quite a few puzzles where we’d fail in spectacular fashion, often with quite hilarious results. To her credit though towards the end she started to perform quite well, even saving my ass a couple times during the shooting sequences. This is, of course, one of the joys of local co-op and A Way Out does ensure that mismatched experience levels are catered for relatively well. Suffice to say if you’re thinking of giving this game a go the only thing stopping you was the experience of your chosen co-op partner I don’t think you have that much to worry about.

Combat could really have used more attention as the shooting feels clunky and unrefined. It’s your typical third person, cover based shooter with infinitely regenerating health but even I was struggling to reliably take down enemies. There’s also not a great deal of room to experiment with the different weapon types as you select one to begin with and there’s only a few places where you can change your selection later on. Combining this with the 50% loss of screen real estate, which makes enemies just that much harder to make out, and the shooting sections are more of a chore than they need to be. I’ll lay the blame for this partly on the fact that there are so, so many mini-games in A Way Out that it’s not surprising that some aspects received a lot less attention than they should have. Given the pedigree of the developers I had expected a relatively high amount of focus on the core elements they wanted to make good. Maybe the combat just wasn’t one of them.

 

A Way Out is a mostly trouble free experience although it does still have a few issues that will crop up from time to time. The above screenshot is a great example of what happens when the physics engine gets confused, rocketing my wife straight up after she rolled into a crate. The cover system is also a little finicky, sometimes not responding in the way you’d expect it. Thankfully these issues are both minor and uncommon so they don’t mar the overall experience too much. We did avoid a great number of the mini games however so it’s quite possible there’s all manner of bugs hiding in places I simply didn’t look.

The story of A Way Out takes a really, really long time to get going enough that my wife wasn’t particularly interested in picking it back up after our initial 2 hour session. I did manage to convince her to come back to it and, whilst the second half is a lot better, it’s probably still a bit too drawn out. Additionally given that a great deal of the story is told in retrospect a lot of tension is taken out of many of the critical plot points. Given the fact that the strongest part of the game, the final hour, is the only part that’s not told in retrospect I have to wonder why it was presented in that way in the first place. All things considered A Way Out’s story is probably best described as interesting but forgettable.

A Way Out brings another unique perspective on what co-op games can be, eschewing the current trend for drop-in/drop-out play. Hazelight Studio’s first release is of a very high standard, especially considering that it’s available on all major platforms. The game is bristling with detail something which is both one of its strongest points and also its greatest weakness. Certain parts of the game that could have used a little more love, like the stealth and combat, don’t feel as polished as they need to be. The mini games and other parts are nice but I’d trade most of them out for more focus on the core elements of the game. Finally the story suffers in its delivery, only finding its feet once it casts off the shackles of its retrospective narration. All this being said I don’t regret giving A Way Out a go and I’m sure more gaming couples could find something to love in it.

Rating: 8.0/10

A Way Out is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.

Light Fall: Where Eternal Darkness Reigns.

Once upon a time I found myself elbow deep in the world that was games on Kickstarter. It was the time when many old IPs found new life on the platform with multi-million dollar pledges becoming the new norm. But it was also a place where many smaller, indie titles sought to find validation in their ideas with varying levels of success. Whilst I haven’t backed anything on the platform in years I’m still treated to a small trickle of titles which, back in my backing heydays, are finally starting to come to fruition. The latest of which is Light Fall, a game which, I assume, I backed due the metroidvania phase I happened to be going through at the time. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone but for those who enjoy a good, hard core momentum platformer it’s certainly one to chuck on the list.

In Numbra, one misstep is all it takes to meet a quick end. This harsh world is colossal and ancient; the entire continent permanently shrouded in darkness, lit only by the moon. Its inhabitants live and abide by a simple law: the strongest survive, while the weak are crushed. That did not stop the Kamloops, a small and peaceful Nation, from leaving their homeland for Numbra. Exhausted from the constant wars between rival nations and trapped in the middle of an everlasting conflict, the Kamloops left everything behind. Everything but a hope for better days, a hope for peaceful solitude. Alas, something vile stirs in the dark night of Numbra. Mysterious crystals have appeared out of nowhere and scraped the entire landscape. Houses and entire villages are being razed to the ground. With the world crumbling once again, will the Gods answer their people’s plea one more time?

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Light Fall was a high end Flash game as its visuals certainly take a level of inspiration from that style. Under the hood it’s powered by Unity which is quite surprising, showcasing just how versatile that engine can be. It might just be me but some small parts of the visual flair also felt like they were inspired by the work of Supergiant Games with some of the effects (like flames, for instance) having an uncanny resemblance to them. Regardless of where the creators drew their inspiration from the resulting art style is quite beautiful, the silhouetted figures contrasted by bright glows lavished with lighting and particle effects. There are some points where your character gets lost in the background however, the small figure blurring into the visual onslaught. They are thankfully rare however, the developers taking care to avoid heavy visuals in areas where timing is key. Performance, as you’d expect, is also good and I can’t imagine Light Fall would struggle even on the relatively meagre power of the Nintendo Switch.

Light Fall is a modern 2D platformer with all the usual mechanical flairs we’ve come to expect from this genre. It’s partly momentum based, allowing you to skip through massive sections of the game if you’re able to keep the pace up. Its main differentiator is the Shadow Core, a box which you can summon which performs a variety of functions. Initially it’s just a box that you can place somewhere in the environment, giving you an extra step to reach new places. As you progress you’ll unlock the ability to use it as a weapon and summon it either below you (saving you from a fall) or in front (useful in gaining height). At the same time the levels will begin to throw new and varied challenges at you, some of which can be bypassed entirely if you know what you’re doing. The idea isn’t particularly unique it’s application in this momentum/twitch based platform is and whilst it can be frustrating at times once you learn its ways navigating the game’s various challenges becomes quite satisfying.

The main platformer sections of the game are pretty straightforward most of the time. The levels, in general, progress from left to right, providing a pretty straightforward path towards the end. For the majority of the game the checkpoints are where you need them to be so deaths don’t set you too far back. However the game doesn’t do a great job of introducing new mechanics to you, especially for the core abilities you have. This is most notable when you’re trying to do the challenge puzzles which, especially early on, require you to make use of the new mechanic in order to complete them. There was one in particular which required the use of the “summon block below me” which I didn’t know about until I went looking for videos on how to complete it. Past the first hour or so this issue disappears but it does make the game’s opening gambit more hostile to new players than it should be.

The main increase in challenge, at least for about half of the game, comes from more complex puzzles requiring more intricate uses of your power. Many of the puzzles have the obvious solution but this is usually more reliant on your skill as a player rather than exploiting the mechanics. Then there’s the second, less demanding solution that requires a bit of trial and error to figure out. For instance there’s one section where you have to fall through a section of lasers. There’s a platform there and, if you stand on it, you can ride it down and constantly summon the shadow core to block them out. However if you simply jump down there and summon the shadow core once it’ll follow you most of the way down, blocking the lasers for you without any further effort. I’m not entirely sure how many of those solutions are intentional but it definitely felt like there was always an easier way to solve the problem than what I saw on first glance.

Unfortunately in the later parts of the game the challenge mostly comes from spreading out the checkpoints further, requiring you to complete longer and longer puzzles to progress. The trouble with this is that many of them are impossible to solve on first go, requiring multiple retries in order to get past them. This becomes annoyingly apparent in the final boss fight as it has 4 phases, 3 of them which introduce new abilities and change existing ones. There’s also no way to accelerate the boss fight either, meaning any stuff up puts you right back at the start, leaving you to endure all the phases over again. I’m all for a good challenge but repetition of this nature isn’t something I find reward in completing. At the very least give me an out after say 30 minutes of trying and deny me an achievement or something. I’d rather that than having to waste upwards of an hour on the same bossfight.

Light Fall also has some hitbox issues which aren’t readily apparent, mostly because they result in instadeath which seemingly comes out of nowhere. Some enemies and mechanics have hitboxes larger than you’d expect, leading to your death when you’d otherwise expect to live. Also any mechanics which move your character in some way will result in death should you accidentally summon the shadow core in front of you. This is most noticeable in the final boss fight where I died several times to it, not knowing how or why died. These aren’t game breaking, especially if you’re aware of them, but it does add a small layer of frustration to an already challenging game.

The story, which should get credit for being well developed and fully voiced, didn’t manage to grab me. I definitely appreciated the background narration, giving a little more flavour to the world that I found myself bouncing through, but nothing about the characters or plot really grabbed me. The final reveals towards the end also felt a little rushed, with numerous points revealed and then resolved in the space of an hour. It’s not entirely forgettable with a few choice moments here or there but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I recall my time with Light Fall.

Light Fall is a solid first title from Bishop Games showcasing their unique brand of talent in this genre. The art style is reminiscent of the Flash games of yore, albeit with a better flair for lighting and modern effects. The platforming itself is well polished with only a few small niggling details needing further attention. The majority of the game follows a good difficulty curve although it struggles later on, resorting to simply making the checkpoints longer to make the game harder. The final boss is probably the biggest misstep in the whole game, requiring a lot of repetition and luck to make it through. The story, whilst well crafted and fully voiced, doesn’t leave much of an impression. All this being said though Light Fall is certainly a game that fans of this genre will enjoy and is a great opening salvo from this indie studio.

Rating: 8.0/10

Light Fall is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 42% of the achievements unlocked. Game was backed on Kickstarter at the $10 level.

Fary Cry 5: God Will Not Let You Take Me.

With the core essence of a Far Cry game perfected Ubisoft has turned to a couple other items with which to differentiate each instalment in the franchise. Most notable is the wide variety settings, each of them driving the narrative and mechanical stylings of the game. This particular choice of location, that of rural Montana in the USA, was an interesting one, generating a lot of conversation of how Ubisoft would approach many of the delicate political topics that are top of mind today. Strangely though little of the conversation focused on what the game itself would be like which, I’m happy to report, is still as enjoyable as ever. There are some choices I’m not a huge fan of however, taking away some of the depth that this franchise was famous for.

You are the Rookie, a new junior deputy in the Hope County sheriff’s department. You arrive at Eden’s Gate to serve Joseph Seed, the leader of a local cult, with a federal arrest warrant on charges of kidnapping with the intent to harm. Although Joseph offers no resistance, he claims that God will not allow him to be detained. As you escort him away the cult members lash out at you, downing your helicopter and your team along with it. You learn that the sheriff’s department has been infiltrated by the cult and they’ve prevented the National Guard from responding. It’s now up to you, deputy, to free Hope County from clutches of Eden’s Gate and rescue your team.

Far Cry 5 continues the series’ use of the Dunia engine, a highly modified version of the CryEngine. The visuals are stunning with obvious improvements in lighting, textures and the attention to detail. This is probably one of the few games, especially in the open world genre, that manages to look good both at distance as well as up close. This does come at a price however and my rig, no longer the towering beast able to take all comers, was brought to its knees more than once. A few tweaks here and there ensured that I was able to get smooth performance but some sacrifices had to be made. Most notably was the draw/level of detail distance which, whilst on foot, wasn’t much of an issue but was readily apparent when I was say flying in a helicopter. All things considered though I think it’d be safe to say that Far Cry 5 is likely to be one of this year’s best looking games.

As I alluded to in my opening paragraph Far Cry 5 maintains the formula that the franchise has perfected over the last 14 years. Whilst the long held tradition of climbing radio towers to uncover parts of the map has (thankfully) been removed you’ll still be liberating outposts, picking up various side quests and working your way up to taking down the Big Bad Boss of the day. Many of the core mechanics and progression systems have been streamlined significantly which, depending on your point of view, could swing either way. One of the most notable additions is the Arcade Editor, allowing you to craft your own levels and experiences within this Far Cry world. The less notable, more notorious, addition is microtransactions allowing you to bypass the built money grind if you so wish. For this old player it has raised an interesting conundrum as I’m typically a fan of streamlining games but in this instance I think it’s taken something away.

All Far Cry games start off with you being someone who really doesn’t have the skills to survive in the situation that find themselves in. Then, over the course of your play through, you begin to build yourself up through the various trials and tribulations the game throws at you. Part of this included a rather in-depth and daunting perk tree which progressively allowed you to build out your character along your desired path. In Far Cry 5 however many of the skills that you would’ve had to previously unlock, like say heavy takedown, are given to you by default. This does mean that you’re far more capable earlier on than you’d otherwise be, something that does help to speed up the pace of the game, but the downside is that the perk tree no longer feels as impactful as it once was.

Many of the talents are simply incremental upgrades to things you already have and a good quarter of them are dedicated to reducing the respawn times of your companions. To be sure there are a few that make a huge difference in how you’ll approach certain challenges the game throws at you but rarely did I feel the same power increase as I did in the previous games. Quite often I was left with a bunch of points and no real desire to spend them on any of the perks as I couldn’t see what advantage I’d get out of them. In fact the biggest power increase I ever got was when I finally got myself a helicopter with machine guns, something that takes a whole lot of pain out of the games more laborious moments. I’d forgive the lacklustre perk system if the other means of progression felt a lot more impactful but, honestly, they seem to suffer from the same sameness problem.

The power of your weapons feels largely determined by the type so that guns in the same category are largely as effective as each other. The higher tier weapons, which you unlock from increasing resistance levels across the board, usually come with more quality of life perks rather than an increase in overall effectiveness. The sniper rifles, for instance, go from bolt action to semi-auto, the rifles semi to full-auto and so on. The bow, unlike other Far Cry games, feels pretty damn useless once you get yourself a silenced gun of any description (which isn’t rare either, pretty much everything can be silenced). The prestige guns are also just unique skins rather than more effective versions of their common counterparts meaning any cash spent on them is ultimately wasted. Once I’d settled on my loadout (pistol, rifle, LMG and sniper rifle) I didn’t change it for the rest of the game.

What this leads to is an overall combat experience that, for a while, is somewhat varied but quickly deteriorates into a repetitive slugfest. It’s a shame really as the slow increase in my character’s power level was something I always enjoyed in the Far Cry series. Being almost untouchable at the end always felt highly rewarding, allowing you to breeze through challenges that were once a complete showstopper. In Far Cry 5 however it feels like after maybe 4 hours or so you’re basically at the limit and there’s little more that will change how you play. Of course it’s still fun to strafe an outpost with a chopper or sneak around with your cougar companion but the lack of variation does start to wear on you after a while. Thankfully the game recognises this and campaign progression gets faster the more you complete, allowing you to blast through the last area in about half the time when compared to the first.

Crafting has been radically simplified and decoupled from the progression system. No longer will you be hunting down rare game in order to craft a new wallet, instead they’ll form part of your cash flow that you’ll funnel into the upgrades of your choice. All you’ll be crafting now is consumables including all your explosives and “homeopathics” which include the usual foray of decreased damage taken, increased speed and so on. This does mean that the progress system is a bit more universal, alleviating the previous Far Cry game’s issue where you could have all the talents in the world but could still only hold 5 arrows at a time. Materials are found everywhere, including on enemies you defeat, so it’s rare that you’ll ever be wanting if you need to crafting something. Overall I think the changes are good from a quality of life perspective but does take away something that was kind of a signature of the series.

Far Cry 5 still retains many of the issues that Ubisoft’s open world games are renowned for like the incredibly janky physics and an AI that’s dumb as dogshit. As /r/gamephysics will attest to there’s a bunch of whacky physics interactions with vehicles, people and the environment. None of these are game breaking and many are great fun to watch. What’s less fun is the AI which, when it’s being used to control your companion, routinely goes completely off the rails. I had one instance when I was in a helicopter (which the AI was piloting) where it would randomly land for 30 seconds before taking off again. It didn’t even seem to understand that it shouldn’t land in the river and proceeded to so, almost killing us both. Similarly characters that are leading you or part of an escort mission get horrendously confused if anything out of the ordinary happens like, say, a fire happening near them which they caused. Of course that also leads to some rather fun times when you can really screw with the enemy AI but with the lack of a quick save/load system it’s not nearly as fun as it could be.

All of this being said though, for all its flaws, Far Cry 5 is still very much an enjoyable experience. Ubisoft has obviously taken a line to make the series more approachable to a wider audience, cutting down on a lot of the elements that would’ve been overwhelming to players just jumping into the franchise now. Whilst long time fans of the series, like myself, may not enjoy those changes I can recognise that a lot of reviewers are seeing these as positives. I couldn’t point you to exactly what made the game fun for me but I certainly don’t regret the time I spent in it and I’ll attribute part of that to the game’s story.

Whilst initially the game felt like it’d hit close to home on a lot of hot button issues the game draws a rather well crafted line straight down the middle, ridiculing both sides as much as the other. Many have criticised the game for not taking a stance one way or the other but, honestly, did anyone expect Ubisoft Montreal to make a political statement on the current state of the USA? Instead many of the side quests and throwaway parts lampoon the stereotypes of both sides with your redneck preppers on one and your new age hippie vegans on the other. Is that a missed opportunity? Sure, but I’m not looking to big name publishers and developers to make a statement. I’m looking for a fun game experience that I can switch off the higher order parts of my brain to. When I want to be stimulated I’ll take a deep dive into the world of indie titles.

Personally I started with John’s area before moving onto Faith’s and finally Jacobs. Out of the three I felt Faith’s was the strongest as it drew me in with a believable tale of how she came to be the person she was. John’s comes in at a close second for his portrayal of your stereotypical televangelist with an empowering catchphrase. Perhaps due to the order I played them in Jacob’s felt incredibly weak, lacking anything to draw me in. Of course it’s a highly predictable narrative (all the way up a certain point, which I won’t talk about) but that’s one part of the Far Cry formula which I didn’t expect to get touched. Overall the narrative and its pace of delivery are well done enough that I was able to forget about the other flaws, at least for a little while anyway.

 

Far Cry 5 is certainly another solid instalment in the franchise, even if the streamlining of some of the games more iconic features didn’t sit well with this reviewer. The game retains the series penchant for high end graphics which are sure to delight fellow eye candy enthusiasts. The progression system, whilst more concise than it ever has been before, feels like it takes away some of the core aspects which drove the growing power fantasy aspect which I felt was core to the Far Cry experience. Couple this with the other lacklustre progression mechanics and the core of the game, whilst still retaining the things that make Far Cy good, just isn’t as enjoyable as it once was. However the game is still worth playing, maybe even more so for those who haven’t played the series before. The narrative, whilst missing the mark for many due to its fence sitting nature, is enjoyable for what it is. For Far Cry fans this instalment is still a must play but it falls short of reaching the same heights as some of its predecessors did.

Rating: 8.0/10

Far Cry 5 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 16 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.

CHUCHEL: One Angry Little Fuzz Ball.

Amanita Designs has developed quite the reputation for creating simple games with beautiful hand drawn visuals. Whilst they’ve been active since 2003 it wasn’t until their release of Machinarium in 2009 that they really broke through as a developer. Since then they’ve gone on to release several games in their trademark style, many of which have won praise for their visual design. Indeed I remarked as much in my review of their second full length game Botanicula back in 2012. I gave Samorost 3 a miss, mostly because I didn’t have the time to play through the previous 2, but when I saw CHUCHEL I was excited at the prospect at playing another one of Amanita’s games. However, whilst the trademark visual comedy style remains, this particular game failed to grab me in the same way Botanicula did.

You follow CHUCHEL and his pet/friend/enemy Kekel through a variety of challenges with one goal in mind: to get back that delicious cherry. To do so you’ll have to complete many and varied challenges ranging from simple things like distracting a watchful beast to playing a simplified version of pacman. Each of the panels is filled with clickable items that will react in varying ways, some producing rather hilarious and unintended effects. Solving the puzzle doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get your hands on that cherry though as a disembodied hand, which seems to revel in torturing poor little CHUCHEL, will likely sweep in at the last second and take it away from you.

Amanita’s visual design is as great as ever in CHUCHEL, leaning more towards a child like hand drawn aesthetic than its previous more dream-like works. The backgrounds are usually simple watercolour inspired designs with soft colours bleeding out and mixing together. Items and characters stand out from the background thanks to their hard edges and use of solid, bright colours (with the exception of furry things like CHUCHEL). The design has a children’s book feel to it with each of the levels feeling like it could be a page from one of your childhood favourites. It should come as no surprise that the game has already been recognised by the Independent Games Festival with an Excellence in Visual Art award.

Like their previous titles CHUCHEL is a point and click (sans adventure) game, requiring you to explore the environment by clicking around to figure out what you can and can’t do. For the most part the puzzles are contained to a single panel however there’s a few that take place over multiple, increasing the challenge. You’re quite unlikely to get stuck as the game seems to recognise when you’re taking too long to solve a particular puzzle and begins dropping hints about what you need to do. However there’s a lot to be uncovered should you take your time in solving the puzzles with much of the games content hidden in non-puzzle elements. This is then accompanied by a great soundtrack and excellent foley work which is sure to captivate many players, both young and old.

However unlike Botanicula, which managed to engage me right through to the end, CHUCHEL just failed to grab me. More so than its predecessor I believe CHUCHEL would likely be enjoyed more by children and played on an iPad as the game lends itself well to the platform. Playing it on the PC, whilst far from a bad experience, just feels like its half a stepped removed from how it’s meant to be played. I haven’t yet had the chance to unleash this particular game on any of my nephews or nieces but I’d hazard a guess this is the kind of game that could keep them thoroughly entertained for hours on end.

For me though there just wasn’t enough to keep me coming back to play it. The art and sound design are great but the puzzles quickly start to feel repetitive after a really short period of time. I personally could only play it in ~20 minute bursts before I grew tired of it. Perhaps the lack of even a simple overarching narrative, which Botanicula had, is the key here as there really wasn’t much beyond wanting to see the next scene to keep me going. I’ve barely played it for an hour and I just simply don’t feel like going back to it. Maybe I just need to watch someone else play it.

CHUCHEL is proof yet again that Amanita Design is a master of their style, delivering another gorgeous point and click adventure game that’s sure to delight many. The hand drawn childlike aesthetic is simply beautiful, echoing the kinds of things many us would’ve drawn as kids. Unfortunately the repetitive nature of some of the puzzles combined with the lack of even a simple overarching story made it hard for this reviewer to remain engaged with it long term. Still it’s easy to recognise the quality of the work put into making CHUCHEL and, whilist I might not have enjoyed it as much as their other games, it’s still likely worth picking up even if it is just for the kids.

Rating: 8.0/10

CHUCHEL is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with just over an hour of play time and 0% of the achievements unlocked.

Surviving Mars: Build it and Force Them to Come.

I’ve started to grow rather fond of these little city simulation games, each of them bringing a different bent on the same genre. Looking back over my gaming history it seems to have started with Anno 2070, a game I never would have played if it wasn’t for a gentle prodding from a good friend of mine. Since then I’ve played quite a few of them (even an Early Access one, breaking my rule!), usually getting to my first victory until I moved onto greener pastures. It’s rare that one manages to bore me into not wanting to play again which is unfortunately what Surviving Mars managed to do.

The premise of the game is simple enough, you’re part of a mission to establish a colony on Mars. You’re given a base set of infrastructure, a truckload of cash and a set amount of time to build the colony up to a respectable level. Mars isn’t a particularly hospitable place though, devoid of much of the resources that you’ll need to keep your humans alive and happy. At the same time you’re still at the behest of your supporters who are keen to exploit the natural resources of this yet untapped world.

Now I’ve never played any of the Tropico series or other titles that Haemimont Games is known for so I don’t have much of a baseline to compare it to. On first glance I thought it had a little bit of that Unity engine feel to it but they apparently have their own, custom built engine which was upgraded for Surviving Mars. It has a similar visual style to that of Cities Skylines with heavily stylized visuals including simple textures and bright colours. There are some cool bits of visual flair like vehicles, buildings and infrastructure all getting dusty after being around for a set period of time. Whilst the simple visuals are necessary, due to the game’s heavy simulation load and potential for a lot of items on screen, they’re certainly not one of the game’s negatives. I only wish the game gave you a little more reason to enjoy them up close (more on that later).

Surviving Mars is a colony building simulator with all the essentials you’d expect from such a game. You’ll be given a starting location and a set of infrastructure to get you started but beyond that you’re left on your own. Initially you’ll just be commanding a drone army, one that needs little more than a stable power source to survive the harsh martian terrain. You’ll use that to build up the minimum set of infrastructure required to start bringing humans down which in turn leads onto bigger and better things. Along the way you’ll research new tech, explore new terrain and grow your colony further. Your win condition will depend on which nation you align yourself to and it could be something as simple as reaching a colony of 200, building multiple domes or researching enough tech. There’s certainly a lot to do and, in true simulation fashion, it may take some time to get to the next thing you want to do. For some that’s part of the charm but unfortunately, for this writer, it was what ended up killing it.

Getting started in Surviving Mars is a bit of a struggle as even the quick game option doesn’t really give you a lot of direction to start off with. It gives you a few basic instructions here and there but unlike other simulation games, which usually give you a simple mission which will help you establish a basic colony, Surviving Mars does no such thing. This leads to maybe an hour or two of screwing around to figure out what you should do, in what order and what each of the mechanics is best used for. I believe this is intended, mostly to keep some mechanics a bit vague in order to generate those desperate moments when you forget to do something and suddenly your colonists are running out of food or something. Whilst I’m all for emergent gameplay elements like that, indeed one of my favourite stories is trapping all my colonists inside their first dome in Planetbase with no oxygen and no power to get out, forcing them takes away much of their charm. Still most of them are easy to avoid even though there’s no base overview panel or similar to keep a track on all the colony’s key stats.

Building up your colony can be done relatively swiftly if you make good use of the resupply mechanic, allowing you to spend capital to get resources from Earth. The limiting factor there will be your research however as the small domes you get at the start are too small to be useful. Making you colony self sustainable is quite the challenge as the specialised buildings you’ll need to fabricate the different resources (like polymers, electronics and machine parts) all require specialised facilities, most only built inside domes, and the requisite resources. Both of those will require colonists and the greater the number and mix of them you have the harder it will be to ensure they all have everything they want. This is somewhat easier in the later stages of the game when you have access to bigger domes of course but it does mean that the first few hours of a game are usually a bit of a struggle. From there though it starts to drag a bit as you get into a repetitive cycle of: ordering new resources from Earth, expanding as much as you can, waiting for some tech to research and repeating until you’ve had enough.

Indeed that’s what killed it for me in the end. I was definitely making progress but I still didn’t have a fully, self sufficient colony that I could depend upon whilst I focused on the higher order things. I did have domes producing each of the resources but the rate at which they did was so slow it was barely enough to keep everything going. So instead I’d be focused on the resource depots (since there’s no page to say you have X units of metal or anything), figuring out what I needed where, ordering enough from Earth and then ensuring they all got transited to the right places. Strangely it feels a lot like one of Paradox’s other games, Stellaris, where you end up getting bogged down in the minutiae of running everything rather than having fun with the big picture.

A lot of this is born out of the lack of quality of life features that would make the game a lot more fun. For example drones have no idea about anything outside of their control zones, meaning that if there’s resources in one zone that are needed in another (even if those zones overlap) they will never get transported there. This makes setting up new areas a real chore as you have to manually transport everything there. The lack of a colony health or overview page makes checking up on resources a real pain with the only indication of a problem being the alerts when things are on the brink of disaster. Worse still the normal notifications like “We have an oxygen shortage” are usually inaccurate, actually meaning that a dome you just built (that doesn’t have people in it yet) hasn’t been connected yet. The research trees are hidden unless you discover it in an anomaly or research up the tree which means there’s no driving motivator to push you along one path or the other. Also there’s no drag to select a bunch of units, a real pain when you want to reallocate a bunch of drones between zones.

All of these things, combined with the dreadfully slow pace of research in the early game, make it really hard to keep going past a certain point. Some of Surviving Mars’ negatives are easy enough to deal with, like the lack of tutorials or quality of life mechanics, but when it takes so long to do so little with so much effort I just end up getting bored. It’s a shame as there’s obviously a good amount of mechanical depth in Surviving Mars but at 6 hours play time I felt like I had been playing for 30. I didn’t even get to check out the “individually simulated” colonists, not that I think that would’ve made much of a difference in anything.

Surviving Mars is a game that feels like it left beta just a little bit too early. The core tenants of what the developer wanted to achieve are there, a colony simulator with a Mars bent, but the things that would make the game actually enjoyable to a wider audience are missing. Perhaps this is par for the course with the developer and the game is perfectly built for their fans, I wouldn’t know as this is the first title I’ve played from them. Still considering their pedigree I had higher expectations for what would amount to their 9th game in the genre. Given that the game has mod support and DLC to come it’s entirely possible that these issues will go away in due time but that wouldn’t be enough for me to recommend the game as it is now.

Rating: 6.5/10

Surviving Mars is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $39.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.