They Are Billions: Just Survive Somehow.

The RTS genre, once the king of all PC games, has been relegated to the sidelines for the past decade or so. You’ll still see its roots in the new genres that it spawned, like the MOBAs and Tower Defense games that are now ubiquitous, but an honest to goodness RTS is few and far between. Indeed the last true RTS I reviewed was almost 2 years ago now and since then there hasn’t been anything that has caught my fancy. However that changed when They Are Billions caught my eye when it popped up as one of the top games in my State of the Game post series. Now I typically steer clear of Early Access titles, reviewing before 1.0 always feels a little premature, but given that the hubbub surrounding the game didn’t seem to be dying down I figured it was probably worth a look in.

17 hours later I can report that it is, even if it still has the rough edges that comes with Early Access.

They Are Billions is set in the distant future where a great zombie apocalypse has destroyed almost all of civilisation, leaving but a few thousand behind. Your job is simple: survive 100 days in this world by building up a colony that can withstand the raging hordes of zombies that will come after you. To do so you’ll need to gather food for your workers, gather materials to build defenses and buildings, and train an army to fend off the dead. It all sounds easy right? Everything does until there’s a horde of zombies kicking in your door.

The game’s visual steampunk aesthetic has a slight dream like feel to it, I think partially due to the fact that it’s all hand drawn and animated. Make no mistake though the hand drawn part doesn’t mean a lack of detail as you can zoom in ludicrously close if you want to try and pixel peep on your units. The engine powering it is a custom one developed by Numantian Games and is apparently capable of handling quite a lot of units on-screen. Certainly the game didn’t miss a beat on my PC, handling the larger zombie invasions without breaking a sweat. Those hoping for Linux and OSX versions will be disappointed though as it’s a .NET based engine and the developers aren’t particularly interested in trying to optimise it for those platforms in the near term. For us of the Windows PC master race however we can get this in up to glorious 4K resolution, if that’s your thing.

They Are Billions is a combination of RTS, city building and roguelike game elements. The game takes place in real time and the base building, whilst comparable to your typical RTS affair, feels a lot closer to city builders like Banished than it would a true RTS. The roguelike elements come mostly from the random map generation which, depending on what seed you get, can make your life incredibly easy or frustratingly hard. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from playing a map for 5 minutes, seeing what you’ve got to work with and restarting if you don’t like what you see. There’s upgrades to be researched, tech trees to unlock and various different types of army units all of which have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. All in all it’s a pretty competent RTS, something I didn’t expect given the fact it’s PVE only.

The game currently has no tutorial to speak of so after selecting your map preferences (more on that later) you’ll be dropped unceremoniously into a game with a command center, 5 troops and a whole lot of questions. The basics are relatively easy to figure out: there’s primary resource categories like wood and stone, secondary resources like workers and food and the ultimate limiting factor: gold. Anything you build will draw from all 3 of these resource pools and different tiers will have different requirements. Bases have a power grid which can be extended through the use of Tesla Towers which limits where you can build things (even unpowered defenses, for some reason). This usually means that you’ll be able to expand aggressively up until a point where you’re short of a critical resource. It’s at that point you have to figure out what you need and whether or not your current territory can provide it. If not you need to expand and thus you must venture forth into the unknown.

Here is where the game sets out its first challenge for you. The map is littered with zombies, some by themselves and others in groups. Some of them wander around and, when you’re unlucky enough, one of them will stumble into your colony. If you’ve got some defenses around you’ll know but often it’s not possible to have every approach guarded or fenced off. So the first dozen or so games are likely to end in tragedy because a single zombie got through, managed to infect one tent or other structure and the infected multiplied out of control from there. If you’re also unlucky enough to stumble across one of the zombie towns (which look like theme parks for some reason) you could also unwittingly bring a horde of zombies down on yourself with your only hope being that they stop chasing you once you’re out of vision range. This by itself would provide enough challenge to keep most players interested for a good while but They Are Billions doesn’t stop there.

Oh sweet jesus it doesn’t stop there.

Every 10 days or so you’ll be treated to a wave of infected coming at you from an area of the map (north/east/south/west). It’s up to you to guess which side of your colony they end up on and you’ll have a limited amount of time to ready your defenses before they get there. The first few waves can be easily dealt with by your original troops and a wood wall but the numbers get exponentially larger from there. The size of these hordes can be changed by a setting when you set up the map (as can be the number of zombies that are scattered around) but even then if you misjudge where they’re coming from or don’t have the proper defenses in place when they get there it can be all over quicker than you’d think. Indeed several of my games ended because the horde figured out that one section, even though it was a much longer route to get to, was much less defended than my other parts and blasted through my woeful defenses. I’m sure the waves get absolutely terrifying beyond the 70 day mark but I honestly couldn’t tell you because I never got there.

I did eventually manage to get a good strategy in place but the problem is that, in order to endure the later waves, you must expand in order to tech up sufficiently. This increases your attack surface and thus, the more defenses required to keep it in check. There is, of course, an equilibrium point but I only managed to reach that after numerous failed games and several difficulty notches down from the standard. It was at this point where I started to grow tired of the game and decided to leave it at that. Honestly with 17+ hours in the game I don’t think that’s a bad thing, indeed I’ve put down higher budget titles much quicker and for less than what They Are Billions has done to me. I guess I want to mention that to say that whilst there is a lot of replayability here it’s not infinite and the rough edges of Early Access are likely to start wearing on you after a while.

Those rough edges are quite numerous too. Army management is a chore as the hitboxes on the zombies are so small that trying to micro units is a complete waste of time. Similarly upgrading buildings with hot keys will sometimes work, sometimes it won’t which means its usually quicker to just click to make sure that it will work. Double clicking units and buildings will select all of those types of units, even those out of your current vision range. This can be problematic when you’re trying to say, upgrade a wall before a horde as you could inadvertently end up selecting all the walls and upgrading the ones on the other side of the map. Crashes aren’t common thankfully but alt-tabbing did cause it to lock up on occasion and I did have it refuse to start a game sometimes for whatever reason. Finally the pathfinding on units is so bad that you’ll often find groups of your own units getting stuck on each other, soldiers getting stuck in zombie hordes that they can navigate around or even units deciding to take the most absolutely absurd path to get to where you directed them to. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could queue up move orders but that doesn’t seem possible currently (this also impacts patrols, which can only have 2 points currently). Of course these are the kinds of things that you expect to see in an Early Access title, and I’m sure they’ll be made better over time, but if you’re thinking about diving in now caveat emptor.

They Are Billions brings a new experience in the RTS genre that I don’t think anyone was expecting. The combination of RTS, city building and roguelike elements blend together into an experience which has quite a lot of replay value in it. I certainly didn’t set out to spend as much time in it as I did and so there definitely is something there that many will enjoy. The Early Access tag is well earned given the numerous issues that need to be ironed out, including content related things like a tutorial and the inclusion of a campaign. In its current form though They Are Billions is definitely worth it for those who, like me, have been craving a new RTS experience but have been left wanting by the offerings that have come to the table over the past couple years.

Rating: 8.0/10

They Are Billions is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 17.4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked. Game was played during Early Access.

State of the Game: 18/12/2017 to 24/12/2017

Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy: I Laugh, I Cry, I Continue.

The “frustration game” genre has developed a cult following over the last 5 years or so. Born out of the democratisation of game development tools these games are typically the spawn of newer developers looking to try their hand at making games. Not knowing how or not wanting to adhere to conventions they stumble about and end up creating experiences that are defined by their awkward, frustrating nature rather than being derided for it. There are, of course, those who set out to deliberately craft them and none are more infamous than Bennett Foddy who brought us flash games like QWOP, GIRP and CLOP. Getting Over It is his first ever full release and, in staying true to his previous accomplishments, is a brutal mishmash of awkward controls and punishing gameplay.

The game is an homage to a flash game called Sexy Hiking which was released some 16 years ago. You are a man in a cauldron called Diogenes and, armed with a rock climbing hammer you make your way up a mountain covered in various detritus. At any point in the game however you can make a wrong move and plummet all the way back down to the start. There are no checkpoints, no way to solidify your progress so you can continue from there. You will fail, sometimes spectacularly, and you’ll have to do what you did once again…and again…and again.

Getting Over It has all the trappings of what Foddy describes as “b games” which are akin to their b grade brethren from the silver screen. The game appears to be made almost entirely out of assets taken from the Unity store, all of them loosely cobbled together to form the level you’ll play through. There’s a surprising amount of attention to detail put into it however like the use of various different sound effects for different surfaces, your character’s utterances which are dependent on your actions and the inclusion of numerous physics enabled objects, typically done to throw you off your game. If I had to put it in one sentence I’d describe it as a beautifully put together trash pile.

The objective of the game is simple: make your way to the top of the mountain. To do this you have to wrangle your hammer in various ways to overcome the objects in front of you. The mechanics are pretty simple, the hammer will grip most surfaces and your character is strong enough to rotate themselves around an attachment point, but the controls don’t respond how you’d expect them to. The character’s arms are somewhat bound by realistic physics however things change dramatically with momentum and, depending on where his arms are positioned vs where your cursor is things might not go how you expect them. Honestly it’s hard to describe just how unintuitive the controls are as you’re better off just playing it yourself to see what I’m getting at.

Getting Over It does a good job of slowly introducing harder and harder puzzles to you although the difficulty curve takes a sharp spike up the further you progress. Quite often you’ll find yourself progressing without really understanding how you got there and, when you inevitably fall back down, will struggle to redo the section you just did. You’ll start to work out what strategies work for you however and eventually you’ll have a good idea of how to keep on moving forward.

That is until you reach here.

This corridor seems to have broken me and many others attempting this game. Whilst there are numerous strategies for getting through it I couldn’t get any of them to work reliably for me. Sure, I did make it past that point once, however I instantly catapulted myself off the top, sailing gracefully back down to the bottom. It was honestly so soul destroying that I couldn’t do anything but laugh for the next 5 minutes, my anguish best expressed in tears of laughter rather than sadness. I did make it back up there eventually but fell back down again not too shortly afterwards. It was then I decided to put the game down and watch a speed run on YouTube.

Indeed the stats show that this is pretty much typical for anyone playing this game. Half of people playing this game give up before they’ve played 1.3 hours and the average total play time is a meagre 3. Beyond that the minority who’ve managed to complete this game once average a total of 11.7 hours, or some 10x the amount of time I’ve spent in the game. Honestly I’d had my fill by then and am quite happy to say the game has beaten me. I’ve got much more interesting things to do with my life than continue to slam my head against this wall.

Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is exactly what you’d expect from a game like this. It’s a horrifyingly awkward, frustrating game to play and it delights in tormenting you whenever you should fail. It is rewarding when you manage to complete a section but if you’re like me that doesn’t happen often enough to justify the continued time investment. There are some who will delight in this kind of no-holds-barred challenge and to them I commend you. For me though whilst it was a hilarious distraction it’s not something I’d recommend unless you knew what you’re getting into and even then I’d urge caution.

Rating: 7/10

Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is available on PC and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on the PC with 1.6 hours of total play time and 0% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 11/12/2017 to 17/12/2017

State of the Game: 04/12/2014 to 10/12/2017

State of the Game: 27/11/2017 to 03/12/2017

Finding Paradise: With The Right Accompaniment Anything Can be a Melody.

To The Moon was far from a perfect game. Its disjointed pacing, rudimentary game mechanics and inability to deliver a compelling story until its final chapter are all things that I’ve dropped lesser games for. However those final moments of the game are where it finally finds its feet, bringing forth an emotional ending that I certainly wasn’t prepared for. That was enough to make it my game of the year for 2012, edging out many other worthy contenders. Since then I’ve wondered if the developer would ever return to this universe or would simply let To The Moon stand alone. Had it not been for the joke trailer that did the rounds a while back I may never have known that Finding Paradise was Freebird Games’ second instalment in the series and was due out before the end of the year. Just like last time however Finding Paradise stumbles its way through most of the story before finally finding its feet right at the end.

The two doctors (Dr Watts and Dr Rosaline) make a return in Finding Paradise however their no longer from “The Agency”, it’s now Sigmund Corporation. Their mission however is the same: to grant a dying patient’s last wishes in the form of memory manipulation. This client is different however, there’s no one thing they want. Instead their only request is that they make them happy, ensuring that they don’t change anything relating to his family. What starts out as a routine dig into the patient’s memories soon takes a strange twist and the two doctors struggle to find out just what exactly it is that will make their patient’s last moments everything they wished for.

Finding Paradise retains the same look and feel of its predecessor with the typical trappings of a RPG Maker based game. The colour palette is a lot more vibrant and bright this time around however which initially led me to think that the graphics were much higher fidelity than they previously were. Looking back over my screenshots however this is definitely not the case. Yet again the soundtrack to Finding Paradise is exceptional with the title track setting the scene beautifully for what is to come. The credit song is also a hauntingly beautiful track, one that would stand well on its own without the game to back it up. Overall the game manages to feel new but familiar which is certain to delight fans of Freebird’s games.

The overall game structure hasn’t changed at all with it following the same puzzle structure as its predecessor did. Each scene is essentially a small puzzle, requiring you to track down memory orbs which you then use to unlock a memento in order to travel through the patient’s memories. To unlock the memento you then have to complete a puzzle which now takes the form of a Bejewled-esque matching game with a number of ancillary mechanics to give you a little bit of a challenge. Most of them however won’t take you very long to solve, indeed even the ones that appear challenging typically only require a few moves to complete. Just like before however these are not the focus of the game and simply serve as organic progression blockers between the individual scenes.

Despite the game’s simplicity and ostensibly similar construction to its predecessor there’s a few areas which are lacking in polish. Some of the mechanics don’t trigger properly, either requiring a restart of the game or loading up of a checkpoint in order to get them working as expected. There’s been a few patches since launch day so some of the more glaring issues have been worked out but there’s still a few teething issues as at time of writing. I’m sure these will be addressed as time goes on but it’s one thing I don’t remember experiencing in its predecessor. These small issues don’t detract much from the game itself however, the story does a good enough job of that.

Just like its predecessor Finding Paradise meanders along during the early events of the story, spending a lot of time building up the backstory to a lot of the characters. The game also spends far, far too much time on throwing out red herrings and building up the greater world outside of the main story, ostensibly setting it up for a sequel with a much grander vision than the previous two games had. Whilst I’m all for developers building out a bigger world that a small story can exist in Finding Paradise goes out of its way to spend a lot of time on doing this long before its revealed what its ultimate intentions are for doing so. This means that the first 2 hours or so of game play are largely irrelevant to the core narrative as the core of the story doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The developers, who cheekily note on their website that they’re “Ruining sentimental moments, one badly timed joke after another”, manage to do that with surgical timing for about 75% of the games play time. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of levity in games like this, indeed sometimes it’s necessary to save you from being emotionally drained with topics like this, however there were several key moments that were utterly ruined by sequences that added absolutely nothing to the story, world or the characters themselves. At this point I understand that this is the developer’s style and is done deliberately but that doesn’t mean it’s a good way to tell a story like this. If there’s one bit of advice I can give them it’s this: don’t sacrifice the small emotional climaxes for a laugh. Those small moments will mean so much more if they’re not devastated by a juvenile joke the second after they’re told.

However, right at the end, is where Finding Paradise begins to find its legs. As you begin to discover the core of what the patient’s last wishes are the revelations start to come thick and fast. The final moments are, just like they were in To The Moon, incredibly bitter-sweet and are sure to bring a few tears forth for those whose hearts aren’t made of stone. Finding Paradise does lose a bit of cred for loudly screaming about the potential for a sequel right at the end but all shall be forgiven if they can take some lessons learned from their last few games to heart and build it into something truly sensational (and free of emotional moments ruined by jokes).

Finding Paradise keeps the same formula of what made To The Moon great and, unfortunately, many of the things that should have been left behind. The visual style and accompanying soundtrack are both stand out items of the game, each of them contributing greatly to the telling of the main narrative. The mechanics are largely the same with the new puzzle mechanic being a nice touch. However the disjointed pacing, sacrificing the story’s key moments for the sake of a joke and the attention given to building out the world for an impending sequel are missteps that Freebird Games should not look to repeat in future games. The ultimate conclusion does save the game from itself however but that doesn’t mean that the developers should simply look to repeat this yet again. Finding Paradise might not reach the same heights as its predecessor but it still managed to evoke the same bittersweet feelings that brought this old reviewer to tears.

Rating: 8.5/10

Finding Paradise is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 20/11/2017 to 26/11/2017

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris: Simulacra.

It was only last month that I reviewed Destiny 2 and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bungie was quick to pull the trigger on releasing the first expansion, Curse of Osiris. For us PC only players it is indeed quite a short time, I myself only reaching light level 305 the week prior. However for console players (who I assume make up the majority) there’s been a dearth of content for the past month and many have cried out in anguish over the lack of things to do. For a multi-title gamer like myself that’s a non-issue, there’s always something else to play, but for those who’d like to make Destiny their single game of choice it has become a constant source of angst. This expansion then would hopefully satiate the crowd long enough so that Bungie could implement more wide reaching changes to incentivise players to come back again and again.

Unfortunately for those dedicated players I don’t think Curse of Osiris accomplishes that but, for people like me, it’s a well timed injection of content that will likely keep me around for just that little bit longer.

Curse of Osiris takes you to Mercury, the forward base of the Vex and home to the Cult of Osiris, a group of people who’ve dedicated themselves to an incredibly powerful warlock that was exiled by the Vanguard. He hasn’t been heard from in some time however some of Ikora’s agents relay some information that indicate he may still be alive. This then takes you to Mercury, a world that was once transformed by the Traveller into a lush garden world which was then converted into a massive machine by the Vex. That machine is actually a massive simulation engine called the Infinite Forest, a place where the Vex attempt to gather data in order to formulate strategies to accomplish their goals. Rumour has it that Osiris is alive in there, thwarting all of the Vex’s attempts to simulate their way to victory.

Graphically there’s been no changes but the new patrol area of Mercury and the raid lairs retain Bungie’s signature level design, renowned for its high level of detail and quality. Personally I’ve always been a fan of the Vex artistic direction, the Cabal and Fallen feeling rather boring and routine by comparison. So it follows that this is probably my favourite expansion so far from a visual perspective. The new patrol area isn’t particularly big nor very diverse so it does wear on you quickly. However the other environments retain the typical visual diversity I’ve come to expect from the Destiny franchise so it’s not all bad thankfully.

In terms of new content Curse of Osiris brings with it a new campaign that will run for about 2 to 3 hours, a new “raid lair” which amounts to a couple jumping puzzles and a single boss fight, and a few more progression related mechanics to make a few activities relevant. In terms of how this compares to previous expansions its pretty much as expected, the only one that seemed to drastically deviate from that being The Taken King. For this writer it came at almost the perfect time as I had cleared the raid multiple times (to the point of being able to do it in an hour with the right group), hit 305 and was starting to question whether or not I’d continue playing. So for a casual-core player like myself Curse of Osiris fit in perfectly however, for others, it’s likely too little too late.

Destiny 2 brought with it a lot of streamlining of the original’s mechanics, quite often to the benefit of both players and Bungie. However some of the changes took away some of the reasons that kept old school players coming back. Indeed many of the recent changes that have been introduced were things that were already present in the original, making it feel like we’re simply restarting the development process that was already completed. So for those who made a home in Destiny as their game of choice I can definitely understand where their concerns come from as many of the things that kept them back before simply aren’t there anymore. However for someone like myself these changes have been fantastic, allowing me to do so much more in much less time.

This is, of course, the long running debate of any MMO game: hardcores vs casuals. The hardcore players want mechanics that reward the long slog, things that take time to achieve and put them on a pedestal above those who don’t spend as much time in the game as they do. Casuals on the other hand want to experience everything the game has to offer in a much reduced timeframe. This war is, typically, won by the casuals as they usually make up the majority of a game’s player base. As I’ve grown older and I find myself with less and less time to put into games like this my consumption of these titles has shifted and those that provide mechanics to cater to my more casual-like habits get rewarded with my hard earned dollars. That’s the only reason I still play World of Warcraft from time to time as I know that I can see all the game has to offer without signing my life away. Of course I’m not every player, but I think I’m closer to the average than most hardcore players would like to think.

I mention all of this because it seems that the Destiny community at the moment is at something of a crossroads. Previous expansions typically had a decent honeymoon period where everyone would sing its praises for about 2 weeks. Then slowly the issues would start to emerge and maybe a month or so later there’d be the usual bitching about there being no content or nothing for them to do. Right now we’re just over 3 months into Destiny 2’s live and with the first expansion under its belt we’re already seeing those complaints and Bungie has even cancelled livestreams in order to address them. Regardless of the outcome of the changes the decisions Bungie makes today will set the direction of what the game is to become over the next few years; whether it follows World of Warcraft or becomes a hardcore nice like EVE: Online.

Despite all this however Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris is a fantastic, if a little short, expansion to the Destiny 2 universe. For players like myself it dropped a just the right time, hooking me right back in when I was getting ready to jump out. Fleshing out the world’s backstory through a solid campaign has always been one of my favourite parts of Destiny and this expansion delivers that well. The new progression mechanics are interesting if a little grindy for my tastes. The new raid layer brings with it some of the more interesting and unique encounters we’ve seen to date and, hopefully, that trend continues with further expansions. Overall whilst it might not be worth $20 just on its own as part of the collector’s edition or as a season pass Curse of Osiris certainly provides some good content at a reasonable price point.

Rating: 9.5/10

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris is available right now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox one right now for $19.99. Total time spent in Destiny 2 now totals 59 hours, approximately 8 hours spent in Curse of Osiris. 

State of the Game: 13/11/2017 to 19/11/2017