Monthly Archives: January 2018

State of the Game: 08/01/2018 to 14/01/2018

The Red Strings Club: Freedom to Feel.

I’ve been staring at this page for far too long trying to figure out how to open up this review of The Red Strings Club. Sure I could take the easy route and direct you my review of Gods Will Be Watching, the previous game from Deconstructeam, but that feels disingenuous given how different this title is. I could mention that this is the first 2018 game I’ve played although that really means little in the grand scheme of things (except that I should probably do my Game of the Year post sometime soon). Even the fact that I was drawn to this game just on the mention of “cyberpunk bartending” doesn’t seem like good opening fodder. So instead you get an opening ramble of all of those things combined with my one line summary for this game: it may not do anything new but it is one of the more interesting adventure games I’ve played of late.

You’ll take control of several different characters throughout the game however you’ll mainly be playing as Donovan, the proprietor of The Red Strings Club. On the surface it’s simply a bar with amazing drinks, ones that are said to be tailored to your emotions. Under the surface however Donovan is a powerful information broker, holding secrets on anything and everything that goes on in the city. When a broken down android stumbles into his bar one night he becomes privy to some information that no one outside of an elite group of people inside Supercontinent megacorporation had seen before. This sets off a chain of events which will see Donovan pulling all the little red strings he has tied around his clientele in order to advert the subjugation of all mankind.

The Red Strings Club’s visuals are a blend of more traditional pixel art styles and the more modern high resolution versions of the same. It’s definitely a step up from the art style of Gods Will Be Watching which used the very low resolution style which I think was born more out of the game’s Ludum Dare roots. Under the hood it’s powered by GameMaker which honestly surprised me as games made using that platform typically have a very distinctive look and feel to them. Given that it’s been nearly 3 years since their last release I’d hazard a guess a good chunk of time has was dedicated to getting the artwork right and I’m glad to say it was time well spent.

Unlike its predecessor (which I’m very grateful for as I didn’t want to pray to RNGesus again) The Red Strings Club is more of a traditional adventure game affair. The game is primarily dialogue focused with most of the puzzles based around getting information from someone or influencing them to act in a particular way. The two interesting mechanics that the game brings with it are the bartending and what could be best described as bionic pottery. The former is the main mechanic of the game, allowing you to influence the mood of a person in order to pump them for the right kinds of information. The second is only done right at the start but cements some of the core aspects of the game, changing what options will be available to you. There are a few other mini-games but none that are different from your usual adventure game affair. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard experience which means most of the value comes from how well these things interact with the story.

Initially the bartending mechanics are simple, making it rather easy to figure out which emotion is the “best” one to use (it was usually the one that was hardest to mix up). However as more and more options are added it starts to become a lot more involved and it gets quite a bit harder to both make the drinks and judge which one you need to serve. There’s really no way to utterly fail, it seems there are certain pieces of information you’ll get regardless, but the better you do in these things the easier time you’ll have towards the end. There’s also a couple achievements dedicated to unlocking some special things through this mechanic but I couldn’t figure them out in my playthrough. It’s quite possible that some of my early choices precluded them happening however.

There are a few little annoyances in the 1.0 release of The Red Strings Club that I hope are addressed in future patches. Sometimes bottles won’t pour their contents for you, even if they’re tipped upside down. This appears to be related to how close the bottle is to other bottles, the shaker or the glass and if more than 2 of those kinds of objects are in the way it will refuse to pour. Additionally there seems to be something finicky with the “no spill” mechanic as I completed at least one drink without spilling a drop but did not get the achievement for it. The shaker will also sometimes mix drinks into a single one of their components, forcing you to redo it. None of these are game breaking but they can be a little frustrating. I’m sure these can be easily fixed in the next few updates.

All of these things are simply an aid to the overall narrative which, whilst thoroughly thought provoking, didn’t elicit much of an emotional reaction from me. The game does a great job of revealing information to you in a slow and respectful way, giving you just enough information to figure some things out whilst you have to guess at others. However whilst Donovan is given enough of a build up the rest of the characters don’t receive similar treatment, making it hard to empathise with them when certain events take place. Thinking about it more though the characters might be secondary to the overarching narrative itself which is why they don’t receive as much attention as you’d otherwise expect they would. It feels weird to say that the story is a great thought provoking narrative that has little to no emotional impact as that’s typically the basis upon which such stories will cement themselves in your mind.

Perhaps I just need a little more time to digest it.

The Red Strings club was a great game to open up my 2018 list to. Deconstructeam has evidently gone through a lot of growth over the last couple years, bringing everything that was good from Gods Will Be Watching and leaving everything else behind. At a technical level the game isn’t anything to write home about, feeling like a very traditional pixel art adventure game, but the overall experience feels well above par. This is most likely due to the strong narrative, one that manages to intrigue and provoke a lot of thought whilst, strangely, failing to drive a heavy emotional impact. If you had asked me after I played Gods Will Be Watching would I look forward to the next game from this developer I would’ve told you no but now, having played The Red Strings Club, I’m very keen to see where Deconstructeam goes from here.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Red Strings Club is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 01/01/2018 to 07/01/2018

The Division Patch 1.8: The Game We All Wanted on Release.

The 1.0 version of The Division was a pretty great experience although its end game content was somewhat lacking. Indeed at the time of writing the review I was some 37 hours in and I only racked up another 8 before calling it quits altogether. Soon afterwards the incursion patch released but, frankly, there wasn’t enough in it to bring me back. Ever since then I’ve heard rumblings of the changes they’ve made, the content that’s been added and how all of that has resulted in a very well rounded game. With a couple of my friends recommending that I come back to give it a go I figured it’d be worth a shot and, honestly, if Massive Entertainment released this back in 2016 they would’ve been staring down the barrel of several game of the year awards.

The numerous patches since then haven’t expanded the story directly per se, however with the addition of new areas, encounters and whatnot the narrative world of The Division has expanded significantly. There’s a small amount of story explaining the background of the new additions to the game but you’ll likely miss most of it if you’re not paying attention. Like before a lot of the greater world building is done through the various kinds of collectibles you can find around the place, most of which will just build out the backstory of the main campaign a little more. It’d be nice to see some story focused DLC as I really did enjoy the campaign back on initial release but honestly with the rest of the changes that have come through I can see why it was probably left on the todo list.

The Division has retained its dedication to filling the world with incredible amounts of detail, something I had completely forgotten about in the near 2 years since I last played. Indeed that detail extends beyond just throwing random stuff everywhere as the level design itself is incredibly complex as well. I couldn’t tell you how many times me and my crew managed to get ourselves lost (in areas that we must have been through dozens of times before no less) when we’re on the hunt for an objective or similar. I’d usually chalk this up as a negative but it’s actually helped keep those same areas feeling fresh for much longer than you’d otherwise expect. Unfortunately I haven’t upgraded my machine since I last played (that’s probably coming next year) so I couldn’t really bump up any of the settings from their previous defaults. Maybe next time.

The amount of different activities that have been added, as well as the ones that have been revamped, are so numerous that returning players are likely to feel pretty overwhelmed. The good news is there’s really no required activity that you have to do, nor will you find yourself struggling to progress thanks to the tweaks to how enemies (and the loot they drop) scales. Essentially you have the ability to set the overall world’s difficulty as well as the challenge of the encounter itself. The first sets the level of the loot you’ll get and the latter the amount. This is great for gearing up as you can tweak the settings to get the most out of pretty much any encounter you’ll be doing. Loot drops aren’t restricted to any particular location either, meaning no matter what you end up doing you have a chance of getting the best gear. Of course the harder, higher end activities have better guaranteed loot to entice you to take on the challenge rather than just mindlessly farming.

Like all good loot treadmills the gear which allowed me to steamroll basically any encounter was made completely redundant upon logging in. My mix of high end and purple gear nowhere near the maximum attainable power level and so the loot grind began again in earnest. All in all though it only took me about 10 hours to get to the 270 range and from there it’s all about finding the gear with the right rolls to fill out whatever build you may be going for. Of course everything is about the sets and their bonuses now and whatever bonus takes your fancy will dictate the rest of your build. For now I’m still running with the best of what I have for the most part (I was lucky enough to get a Ninjabike bag which has made things easier) but am hoping to complete a full Predator’s Mark set in the not too distant future.

Thankfully not everything is left to just pure RNG and there are various ways in order to get the gear you want or, and this is definitely something I think all RNG loot games need, a way to optimise a drop to its ultimate potential. The Division isn’t shy with lavishing you with loot however it only does so because getting the right combination of stats and talents is infinitesimally rare. The recalibration station allows you to reroll a single talent on guns and a single stat on armour which sometimes can be enough to turn it from useable into a must-have. However the optimisation station means that a perfect set of stats with bad rolls can be brought up to the top tier rolls with enough farming. Sure, you don’t want to have to do this for every item, but for that one item which amps up your build significantly it’ll be worth the price of admission. Sadly I only realised that Ninjabike didn’t work for classified sets otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted my Division Tech on it.

However even with a rag tag bunch of armour pieces and weapons you’ll likely find that pretty much everything in The Division is available to you. Whilst my friend and I have been playing for a duo for the most part we only started to really hit the challenge wall past the 10 hour mark. At that point most of the higher end activities don’t appear to scale with group size and so are balanced for full teams of 4. Unfortunately it seems matchmaking at the moment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as we’ve often gone through whole missions with it active before someone eventually joins. Still we’ve managed to farm in other areas without too much hassle so it’s not like we’re cut off from getting those shiny teal and red items.

The Dark Zone, which used to be this weird PVE but kind of PVP area, has now found its feet with the new changes to the zone. Previously it was pretty much just a high end gear farming place, one where someone going rogue was considered rude rather than part of the game. Now rogue agents are a real threat, one you have to be cautious of if you want to plunder the sweet loot in the area. I had many great encounters in the DZ, most of which ended with me and my team dead on the floor. However nothing is sweeter than the revenge you can take on them when they try to extract out with your loot. It might not be the most efficient way to farm items, especially if you’re actively looking for trouble, but it is one of the more enjoyable ones, especially with all the stories you’ll tell afterwards.

Some things haven’t received much love in the last 2 years though, namely the UI. Whilst I still love the aesthetic and simplicity of the UI when you’re run and gunning inventory management is something of a nightmare. Scrolling through dozens of items and trying to compare them to what you have is a real chore and the gear score really only tells half the story. If you’re min-maxing a particular build it’s easy to figure out what you need but even then you’re still likely to be carrying around a bunch of other items “just in case” you want to try a different one. There’s also other parts of the inventory that aren’t well described in-game (I have 6 different types of grenades? What do I need water for?) and honestly I can’t remember if they were even explained during the campaign. This doesn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the game too much but, given the amount of polish the rest of the game received, these parts do stick out more than they otherwise would.

The Division as it stands today isn’t the game I stopped playing all those years ago. The amount of diversity in terms of items, builds and activities is an order of magnitude above the game I remember. The core game play, which I quite enjoyed, remains mostly the same with the variety coming from the numerous gear sets which change the way the game plays out dramatically. Loot is plentiful but still a pain to manage, something I had hoped would have been improved over the years. All in all though it seems the rumours surrounding The Division being a game worth playing now are well justified and if you, like me, left it long ago now is definitely the time to jump back in.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Division is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 60 hours of total playtime (15 in patch 1.8).

State of the Game: 25/12/2017 to 31/12/2017

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