Review: The Deadly Tower of Monsters

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The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a new twin-stick style shooter from Atlus that has you climbing a deadly tower, in which you fight monsters. As one would suspect from the name.

Heavily stylised as an homage to the B-Movie horror flicks that so typified 1950’s and 60’s science fiction, you will encounter shoddy ape suits, plastic trees, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, and very obvious strings holding up the flying creatures. It is an aesthetic that manages to maintain its charm long enough without ever becoming overused or cheap. There is a care and dedication to maintaining the feel of these movies, with the stop-motion dinosaurs have missed frames in their movement, or the ape costumes very clearly having no eyes in their costumes. The visual stylisation is best seen when diving from the top of the tower. It is a crisp clean style that knows exactly what it is aiming for, and the hefty draw distance gives fantastic views from the top of the tower.

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It’s great and made better by the dialogue and ’director’s commentary’ that act as both the game’s story and hint system. The game is framed as the DVD special edition of the movie The Deadly Tower of Monster, over which the director gives commentary on why certain choices were made or behind the scenes stories from shooting. This adds to the humour on display, and offers hints when you are apparently stuck, ’She didn’t realise she was meant to be shooting the power cores’. It lays on the references to this time in cinema throughout the commentary. It is continuously amusing, and a few times genuinely funny. There are continuous callbacks to the budget problems that build upon one another throughout the game.

Not just a charming game to experience, it is also very fun to play. The controls are generally solid and responsive. I found that using the controller (supported on Steam) lead to a better experience1 . The combat is split into two major sections – mêlée and ranged, with both featuring a diverse range of weapons. You have your standard sci-fi ray guns and laser guns, as well as rocket launchers and Tesla guns for ranged,  batons, whips, and lightsabers for mêlée. Each of the weapons can be upgraded to increase its effectiveness, via the use of collectible cogs found throughout the tower.

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The guns have enough impact to feel like they all have their use and place, and being able to carry two at any time means you can equip yourself for most situations. The same is true of the mêlée weapons, but you are most likely to just pick up the one that you think looks the coolest, I went with the giant tentacle and the lightsaber. The enemies are balanced nicely so you never feel under or overpowered as you progress up the tower. The game is never difficult but neither is it a complete walk in the park. The combat is consistently enjoyable throughout the entire climb, and the boss fights have a satisfying logic to them.

The game is quite short, with around 3 hours to complete the initial campaign, and another 2 or 3 hours to explore all the additional areas and collectibles. This time feels about right because it means that game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. The games continually hangs the lampshade when it comes to its Universe, so by being over and out in just a few hours, as well as providing a great ending, it does itself a favour. If the game went on further the problems of those fixed camera angles may have exposed themselves more. The camera is locked at an angle 1 overhead (that you can adjust slightly) which can make the platforming chunks frustrating due to not being able to tell what you are above until it is too late.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a fun little game that will bring smiles to anyone fond of B-Movies, and should provide a few chuckles to anyone not. It provides a solid experience with only a few moments of annoyance or confusion.

Score: 8/10
Pros: Solid and tight combat controls
Fantastic and charming B-Movie aesthetic
Creative and unique weapons add tonnes of character
Cons: Platforming sections are unnecessarily finickity

1. With mouse and keyboard, I had better movement and control but I had inconsistencies with getting the mêlée to make contact. With the controller, I just had to aim in the right direction for both ranged and mêlée.

Clockwork Empires – Early Access Preview

ce_text_banBack in March I became incredibly excited about Gaslamp Games’ Clockwork Empires after reading a preview piece; it promised a core system that had been developed for two years prior to moving onto actually building a game around the infrastructure they had created. Oh yeah, and Fishmen fighting redcoats because, well, why not? Perhaps, by nature of being early access, we are seeing something extremely early in its life and a little unfair to judge and perhaps it’s just too early to be available to the public. As of right now all you’ll get when you head into Clockwork Empires is a rather generic city builder set in a Victorian setting with the aforementioned Fishmen sporadically dropping in to make sure you are kept on your toes, rather than something fresh and new with a hint of Lovecraft to spice up your life.

You can see some of the in-depth personality AI has started to appear, but this is currently in small pieces of dialogue on character descriptions or icons that appear through the game. You’ll see your villagers deciding names for their own part of town – like their kitchen or the barn. You can see these quaint little touches happening and adds some fun to the constant slog to ensure your people don’t starve or are kept warm during long, torturous winters.

ce_mining_accidentClockwork Empires promises something akin to free will. Villagers will voice their displeasure at a monarch, or decide they are better served by going into the woods and joining a cult. In the most up to date build the majority of this is something you’ll have to dig to find and understand, the minutiae held in the depths of menus. Right now maybe that’s a good thing, as the few buildings you can erect won’t take you long and you’ll spend far too long micro-managing every little aspect, rather than setting the stage and letting your village grow with only the most minimal of interactions from you. This is where I’m hoping the game improves with updates, to allow you to sit back and enjoy what is actually being offered; rather than having you zoomed in all the time trying to manage the individual needs – something that, at the minute, is more of necessity than anything else – rather than spend time enjoying the world they are setting up.

The closest comparison I could come up with while playing was that of Peter Molyneux’s fictional land of Albion; I often found myself thinking of Fable landscape, as my villagers ploughed a field while watching the Fishmen climbing from the local lake to attack, as Red coats run to the rescue. It was these moments I probably enjoyed most. The actual atmosphere the game tries to create makes a nice change from most of the boilerplate world builders you run across. Clockwork Empires sets a tone and sticks to that and is all the better for it.

chaos_in_fishtownClockwork Empires is still very much in its infancy, but has laid some impressive groundwork and built up a lot of promise in a very short amount of time. While I’ve probably spent a lot of time in Clockwork Empires being frustrated by silly little bugs or quirks in the gameplay, I still found enjoyment in what they are trying to do – the soul of the game, the atmosphere and the beginnings of the character AI looks like it has the potential to completely change the face of simulation games going forward. While it’s hard to recommend you pick this up immediately due to the lack of polish and actual content (The Gaslamp Games site estimates they are only 25% through development) I’d say this is definitely something you should keep your eyes on for what comes in the future. If you’re looking for something similar you’d be better served in the short term picking up Banished rather than frustrating yourself with Clockwork Empires, but would recommend that everyone check out this game on full release to see what has come of the promises they made.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter PC Review

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter PC Review

Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
Platform Reviewed: PC
Release date: 25/09/2014

Ethan Carter is a very special young boy, he has ability to see what others cannot; It is this gift which has put him in danger. Lost, frightened and alone, he is in desperate need of help. Playing as Paul Pospero, an occult minded detective, you receive a letter from Ethan, his cries for assistance are deafening, you must help this young man and save him from whatever perils that threaten him. Without hesitation you make your way to Red Creek Valley.

The uneven floor crunches underfoot as you take the first steps along an abandoned rail road. The darkness of the tunnel, broken only by the light in the distance. Emerging into the warm glow of the sun, your eyes adjust quickly to the light. A thin layer of mist gently covers the surrounding forest; branches move gracefully as they are kissed by the wind. Moss covered rocks lie in peaceful slumber. The overgrown grass dances to the sound of its own tune.

Crossing a derelict and badly damaged wooden bridge you spot a cold, rusted train car, it has been left to time to do with it as it pleases. It’s only as you draw closer that you notice the blood stains. Peering further down you realise that something foreign is sitting on the tracks. With great unease you approach, the horror of what you witness sends a shuddering chill coursing through you. It is here that we leave your tale, the rest of this mystery is for you to solve.

TVoEC_ScreenShot_01The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a mesmerising mix of mystery and the supernatural. Rarely has a detective game been able to produce such an acute sense of unease. The world you have been tasked to explore feels real and yet so isolated. The minimalistic approach to gameplay only deepens the sense of atmosphere and intrigue. There is no inventory screen, no complicated mechanics, no map or compass, it’s just you and what you can see. You’re left all alone, free to explore Red Creek Valley in your desperate hunt for the young boy who absolutely needs your help.

Progression through the story is achieved by solving various puzzles or crime scenes. Examining a clue will bring Pospero’s thoughts on screen, increasing the level of immersion as you feel at one with his thoughts. Decipher them correctly and you will begin to piece together the awful truth, find enough clues and Pospero will be able to use his supernatural abilities to re-imagine the events leading up to the crime. Place them together in the correct chronological order and whole scene plays out to its devastating conclusion, shedding more light on the events as you continue your search for Ethan.

Devoid of all signs of life, Red Creek Valley is as haunting as it is beautiful. It is easy to become distracted by stunning detail and wonderfully rich environments the team at The Astronauts have managed to create. Whilst all signs of civilisation are slowly decaying, the true force of nature is in full effect as it reclaims the land for itself. The contrast between new an old is a wonderful setting for such a macabre tale.

TVoEC_ScreenShot_02The soundtrack only deepens the feelings of gentle discomfort. It is so wonderfully composed, subtle changes in pace and tone capture the emotions of each scene perfectly. From soft and soothing to chilling and suspenseful, the arrangement is always perfectly timed and perfectly implemented. It is a master class in how music can be used to provoke emotion. Couple this with gruff soliloquy of Pospero, and the atmosphere this manages to create is so intense it seems tangible.

The ability to freely explore makes for an incredible experience, yet it can be easy to become lost and without focus, especially if you miss a vital clue. The lack of direction can, at times, be frustrating. Having to retrace your steps in search of something significant will irritate some. A notebook which details your findings would have been of great benefit and would eliminate some of the senseless backtracking.

That being said, this is only a minor issue in what is a truly remarkable adventure. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a supreme example of interactive storytelling. The beautiful surroundings, the rich and detailed visuals, the complex story, the exceptional soundtrack all combine into an experience that will live long in the memory.  Red Creek Valley is home to something very special indeed.

SCORE: 9/10

Reviewer – Ian @Mrbaddog28 

Frugal Gaming Review – Flockers

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Back in May 2014, I took a look at an early build of Flockers. Team 17 had decided to release it via the increasingly popular Early Access program on Steam.  Generally, I liked what I saw and was hopeful that with more time, the developers could create the kind of magic that left so many of us with fond memories of Flockers muse; Lemmings.  Fast forward four months and the game has now been fully released on not only Steam but also Xbox One and PS4.

I’m not going to pad this review out as to be quite honest, very little has changed since my preview. If you’re interested in my previous and still relevant thoughts you can take a gander at the more in depth preview HERE.   More levels have been added and a general spit and polish has been liberally applied to all visible surfaces, but the basic premise of the game remains the same and it still feels rather underdeveloped.

flockers_level_scape_2Lemmings was originally released way back in 1991.  It tasked you with leading your band of furry critters from A to B by means of controlling their actions with 8 different abilities.  The Climber could climb.  The Floater could float down big drops by using an umbrella.  The Bomber was, well a suicide bomber. The Blocker was like a lollipop map who stopped your other lemmings in their tracks.  The Builder would raise a stairway letting you reach higher areas. A Basher, Miner and Digger filled out the abilities letting you dig horizontally, diagonally downwards or directly downwards.

So clearly lots of ways to control your Lemmings, the sequels added even more variety to what you could do, it meant that levels could often be solved in completely different ways.  The animations and designs of these moves and abilities really bought the lemmings to life and injected a whole lot of humour.  Fast forward 23 years to Flockers and Team17 have seen fit to offer you just 5 abilities. That’s real progress right there.

Over 60 levels are now available, with differing backgrounds, for point of reference; Lemmings had over 120.  Some of them are great, others feel unjustly harsh.  The lack of abilities and the structure of the levels themselves generally leaves you with only one route to the exit.  It all feels rather scripted, flat and forced. Online leaderboards and the ability to stream direct to twitch from within the game are both nice features and to be honest apart from the obvious graphical improvements that 20+ years bring, these 2 areas are the only real improvements over the ancient game that I’m comparing it to.

flockers_death_-_explosionIf you are in the unfortunate position to have never played Lemmings you’ll probably get more out of Flockers than anyone else. Even then it feels rather lacklustre, uninspired and plain boring.  The sheep are undeniably cute and will most certainly appeal to younger gamers, who knows it might even lead to a few more vegetarians in the world, without a doubt that will be the only legacy that Flockers leaves behind.

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Flockers is available on PC via Steam and Xbox one and PS4 both at retail and via their respective marketplaces.

Frugal Gaming Review – Hero of Many

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Win or Lose, Sink or Swim

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five-score years ago, a great Frog, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Underwater Equality Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of white tadpoles who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of bigotry.

But one hundred years later, the White Tadpole is still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the White Tadpole is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the White Tadpole lives under a lonely lilypad of poverty in the midst of a vast pond of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the White Tadpole is still languished in the corners of aquatic society and finds himself in exile in his own waters. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition”

Attributed to Kermit T Frog on 24th June 2013

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Play The Game, Fight The Fight

YOU THERE! stop playing with your tail! It will drop off if you carry on fiddling with it!

Right then lads, at ease.  For those of you new here, my name is Major Zitz, formerly of Battletoad Command.  It’s my job to get you sorry lot ready for the most important and desperate mission of this god forsaken war.  I won’t jelly coat it, it’s going to be rough.  For you veterans who have returned from the Ouya, IOS or Android theatres , I’ll be looking to you to take the lead and help these new recruits as we open a new front on Steam.

For the tadpoles, your insertion behind enemy lines will be via flying frog.  The currents are looking choppy, so if you end up scattered, hold up, hide and wait for your Frogspawn commander to find you.  Once you’re reunited with your unit and commander, follow instructions to the letter and protect them at all costs.  The black menace will be everywhere and you will be the only thing protecting  your commander.  I know you have a tendency to eat each other, but save it for your enemy.  Any incidents of white on white, and you’ll be court marshalled.

As for you Frogspawn, I need you calm and calculated. You will be the brains of this operation and its success rests roundly on your gelatinous mass.  Meeting up with your team of fellow poles is of vital importance.  You’ll be extremely vulnerable without them.  They’re an eager bunch, but they will need your guidance and self control.  You’ll have a long stream ahead of you to get to your final destination.  The currents with be perilous, and the black tadpole army won’t be your only obstacle. Your strength in numbers will help you, but at times discretion may well be the better part of valour, let’s not forget that the tadpole who runs away, turns into a frog another day.

The survival of our very species lies with you, the brave Tadpoles and Frogspawn of this unit.  Trust in each other and you will get through this.  Time is fun when you’re having flies and, if you complete your mission and make it back in one piece you’ll have all the flies you could possibly imagine.

“Even though large tracts of our pond and many old and famous streams have fallen, or may fall into the grip of the Black Tadpole and all the odious apparatus of Frog rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight on Ouya, we shall fight on the iPhone and iPad, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength on Android, we shall defend our lily pad, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on Windows, we shall fight on OS X , we shall fight in the Steam Store and in the iTunes chart , we shall fight in the Google play store; we shall never surrender.”

Attributed to Slippy Toad – First Pond Lord of the Admiralty  15th September 2015

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La La La La

Hero of Many, is a port of a mobile game that’s just been released on Steam.  It takes you on a epic aquatic journey through a dangerous world.  It plays brilliantly, looks absolutely beautiful and if you are anything like myself, you will lose hours to this game. The general and well founded dislike for mobile ports on PC could be well and truly banished if more games like this started making an appearance.

Exciting, challenging, thought provoking ( well to me at least, this review was going to be about sperm or immigration before I settled on tadpoles). The game is engaging and utterly enjoyable. Trickster Arts have taken an idea that’s so simple and executed it with aplomb.  I love it so much I’m now considering digging a pond in my back garden.

SCORE: 9/10

PC Version Reviewed

Hero of Many is now available on Steam and can be found HERE

It’s also available on iTunes, the Google Play store and OUYA

Developed and published by Trickster Arts

Gang Beasts – Early Access Preview

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Have you ever found yourself craving something to play with your friends who are looking for something a little crazy? Gang Beasts has you covered in spades, with what is equal parts a wrestling game and a drunken fighting simulator and offers something different to anything out on the market today.

If you have ever felt your friends need to be taught a lesson, thrown into a grinder or knocked out and delivered into an incinerator on a conveyor belt? Then Gang Beasts will be the first game you pick up, once you gather up to 7 friends and pit these Morph lookalikes against each other in a deathmatch arena of your choosing. With very simple controls, Gang Beasts is one of the easiest games to pick up and get moving with – simply use shoulder buttons as arm control (Mashing punches while holding grapples) and then lifting your opponent in the air and deliver them to whatever mayhem the arena has awaiting them. Easy, right? Not so much. Your friend will wriggle, fight and punch while screaming at you to let them go and more than likely try to grab you to take you with them rather than simply let you destroy them.

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And, of course, the arena where you choose to face off with your friends will have just as much of a say in who wins as your ability to control your character. Perhaps you’d like to take the fight directly to a wrestling ring with a Royal Rumble style Ring-Out system? Or atop two trucks speeding down a motorway – avoiding the oncoming road signs while trying to ensure your friends are taken out adds a whole extra level of complexity to the challenge and this is key to each arena – every single one has its own unique quirk – like a running train or a tiny window cleaning platform for you to simply fall from if you’re not careful.

Gang Beasts does something every wrestling game has struggled with – it doesn’t focus on complicated systems or deep move-sets. Gang Beasts opens up the gameplay for everyone, to simply jump in and be extremely successful from the very offset without sitting down, learning a character’s moves and the tricks with the complicated control system. This leads to it becoming something the wrestling genre has struggled with for years: simplicity and addictive fun.

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The one thing you may think is missing from Gang Beasts is the addition of an online component to the multiplayer. I think it would be easier to gather people online than in person, I can’t help but think that Gang Beasts may lose some of its inherent charm if you aren’t all sat in the same room. Some of the best times I had with the game were trying to keep my controller away from a friend as he tried to bat it from my hand as I lifted him up and threw him into the huge, spinning fan to his doom. While I’d say Online Multiplayer is probably a must at some point, I would insist the best way for people to experience the game is to try and gather friends together to play in a room together.

Developer Boneloaf has done something incredible in creating Gang Beasts and with the recent backing of Double Fine I’m certain that great things are in store for this game even though, right now, it’s more than worth the £11.99 you’ll pay for Steam Early Access. With a promised single player campaign that is still in development and the constant updates that keep dropping I’d say we have a lot more to see from Gang Beasts and it’s an incredible journey I can’t wait to see unfold.

 

Secret Ponchos – Early Access Preview

Secret Ponchos BannerSecret Ponchos is a rooting tooting top down PvP online shooter currently in Early Access on Steam.  Developed by Switchblade Monkeys, from my first look at the trailer I couldn’t wait to get hands on with this game.  From the moment I pressed play and the spaghetti westernised music started playing I was hooked.  The unique stylised art design was on show front and centre as I chose and named my outlaw, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in, a few weeks later and I still can’t wait to get really stuck in.

For a game that’s all about PvP, not being able to get into a game can be rather problematic, especially if you’re trying to write a preview.  Over the past month or so I have managed to get a few games in, but the lack of online players sure hasn’t made it easy. No doubt with the full release, that won’t be a problem.

So first off you’ll have to chose what type of outlaw you want to be. From the Stone Cold Killer with a revolver and knife, to the recently added Matador complete with cape and Sword, the 5 classes currently available are all rather varied.  The individual design and personality really shines through and a lot of thought has been put into creating these characters, although a little more needs to be done when it comes to balancing their abilities.  Some characters currently feel really overpowered. Whilst I’m sure that tweeks will be made all the way up until Ponchos gets it’s full release, it can be frustrating to constantly go up against the same characters time after time as other players are looking for the easy victory.

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The arenas for these duels are also looking mighty fine.  From the eery Boneyard, to the bright sun drenched Train Wreck, just as much care has gone into their creation as the characters and its adds real atmosphere to the game.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what else the small team can come up with as I’m sure they will be making additions to the 4 maps currently on offer.

Secret Ponchos plays well and although support for playing with keyboard and mouse has been added, controllers are clearly the way its been designed to play.  Left stick moves your outlaw whilst right stick aims, add to that a dash ability and a rudimentary cover mechanic and you start to get an idea of how the game plays.  I really like the idea of the cover mechanic, pressing A lets you hunker down behind an object which breaks the line of sight from your opponents making you vanish off their screen.  It’s a great idea however in reality opponents just tend to rush you and makes it’s use rather limited at the minute.

Secret Ponchos undoubtedly has promise by the spittoon full, and I’m sure that if more people were playing it would be an absolute hoot.  However Steam metrics are currently showing at it’s busiest just over 70 people were playing at any one time add to that an average of 21 players daily, and you start to get a picture of why I’ve been finding it hard to get hands on game time. The devs are clearly aware of this and have gone so far as to recommend certain times to play, but for anyone on this side of the pond the times just aren’t feasible.

Whilst I’ve been playing the PC version, the PS4 game was originally due to release for free as part of Aprils PS+ line-up.  It was confirmed to Polygon that the delay was for more thorough testing and polishing, but no new release date has been announced as of yet.  Maybe once that version is out of the way the PC version can take centre stage and the game can flourish and achieve it’s full potential.

Secret Ponchos is available on Steam Early Access priced at £10.99 and can be found HERE

 

Ionball 2: Ionstorm Review

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IonBall 2: Ionstorm

Developed by: Ironsun Studios

Published by KISS Ltd

Reviewed on PC

Ionball 2 is a sequel to Ionball that was released on the Xbox 360 three years ago in 2011. Whilst the original was released only on a console, this sequel is only available on the PC platform from Steam, I have to admit now that I have not played the original title so I cannot compare the two titles and will be looking at this as a stand-alone game.

This game bears a very strong resemblance to Breakout that was released way back in 1976 in the arcades; I can remember playing one of the many ports of this for the Amiga around twenty years ago. The basic structure of Ionball has been around since the days of Pong, you have a paddle that moves along one side of the screen and you use this to keep your ball in play, in Breakout it was used to destroy a wall, in Ionball you destroy robots. Let the ball drop out of the screen, like in a game of pinball and you lose a life. As I said it is a basic structure that has been around since the dawn of games, so how have IronStorm Studios brought this into 2014?

Ionball_2_-_Ionstorm_(PC)_01Firstly the basic Breakout formula has been given a Sci-fi twist; you are playing to destroy robots that have taken over a space station. That is about as much as the story goes, but I really don’t think this game needs one, after all you are just using a paddle to bash a ball at robots. There are various differing levels, over 60, for you to play through. The levels have been given the sci-fi look with some nice looking backgrounds and Space Invaders looking robots floating around. These robots vary in each level, with different numbers and formations thrown at you, to try and make each level unique. It has to be said, after playing through a few of them they do begin to blend together, but this is to be expected for a game like this.

As I mentioned, you control a paddle at the base of the screen and use it to bounce a glowing ball towards the robots in the level, you control this by using the mouse and I have to state my first major problem with this game, there are no options to control the sensitivity of the controls. I found this quite surprising that the only motion input had no options. To start with I hated how sensitive my movements were, the only way I could change it was by going into settings on Windows and adjusting it there and then re adjusting it after I played the game. A very long winded and annoying way to change something that should have been integral to the game.

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Added to the overly sensitive controls the speed of the ball is insanely quick, most games of this type start off slow with the ball speeding up with each hit off of the paddle, not here, it started off quick and again the lack of options in gameplay was frustrating, there were no options to turn down the speed or the difficulty. I understand that this game has been designed to be difficult but it would be nice to have a learning curve, you are thrown in at the deep end and if your reflexes aren’t up to speed from the first hit of the ball then you will spend a lot of time restarting, I like difficulty in games, but I hate frustration when the difficulty is derived from the controls.

The music in the game is like the rest of the game, high speed and frantic, there are varying tracks from dance, techno and heavy rock, I found it weird and slightly distracting, and most of the songs in the background didn’t seem to fit with the sci-fi settings of the game. Visually it looks OK nothing terrible but also nothing amazing, not that you will get much chance to admire what’s on the screen, take your eyes off to admire anything and chances are the ball will go flying off the bottom, you have to concentrate if you are to master this, it is not really a game you can jump in and out of, at least not for me. As expected there are a variety of upgrades you can buy with the XP you earn by destroying robots, these are the usual widening of the paddle to make it a little easier, to purchasing weapons such as EMP’s to slow down the enemies or lasers and machines guns to destroy them.

Overall I have to say that there are some great signs of potential in this game, the difficulty level is high but if you are aware of this when you go in and are prepared to be patient and get used to the speed then you will enjoy it. With many levels and an online leader board to climb there is a fair amount to keep you busy, it’s not perfect though with a few tweaks needed to make it more accessible but it can be frantically fun to play, especially if you relish a challenge.

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Shovel Knight Review

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Rest assured, if there was any part of my body that even remotely disliked Shovel Knight I would have ran with that just for the excuse of writing “Shovel Knight? More like ShovelWARE!” (Un)fortunately Yacht Club Games have opted to strip me of that minute amount of fun to instead offer a whole bucket-load more of fun within the actual game. Shovel Knight is not just an enjoyable product in of itself, but it’s turned out to be one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory and a candidate for Game of the Year 2014.

Shovel Knight comes to us from former WayForward Technologies developer Sean Velasco, who presumably left WayForward because he wanted to make games with fantastic audiovisual design AND have some actual game design in it (lol).  He claims to have been inspired by games such as Castlevania III, DuckTales and Mega Man; and in the current climate of popularised nostalgia baiting this can be where the eye-rolling begins. Often when developers start listing off old NES games as inspiration, and they seem to be mostly highly popular titles, it can translate into “my entire research for this project was the games I just happened to own when I was 8 years old.” However, the fastest way to sum up everything good about Shovel Knight is it takes all the great ideas and common sense of old Japanese developed NES games, brushes off the few scraps of dirt and presents in a lovingly polished fashion bursting with its own personality.

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Let’s do the mandatory Shovel Knight review thing and unfairly break the game down into its individual parts and which NES game inspired them so everyone gets a vague idea of what they’re in for. The graphics deliberately emulate the NES (although your Nintendo would probably explode if you somehow figured out a way to play this on one), the music actually can be played on an NES and so is 100% authentic chiptune music. You play as the Shovel Knight, who can swish his shovel as a close range weapon (Castlevania) and bounce off enemies with a down thrust like he’s riding a pogo stick (DuckTales); you have to fight a renegade group of Knights in a non-linear order to reach the final castle stages (Mega Man) to defeat the evil Enchantress who has enslaved the land (Castlevania again). As you navigate the map screen (Super Mario Bros. 3)you can visit towns to buy upgrades for your health, magic , armour and Shovel (Zelda II) as well as bumping into bonus “traveller” bosses and treasure gathering extra stages (Mario 3/Bionic Commando?)

As for the actual stages themselves, Mega Man was definitely the core inspiration in terms of the game’s single room puzzle-esque level design and style of boss battles, but here’s where constantly comparing Shovel Knight to its NES counterparts misses the point. It’s easy to comment on certain similarities between Shovel Knight and an entire memory stick duo of NES games, but ultimately I’d argue the main inspiration for the game was common sense.

Here’s an example of that; the stages in Shovel Knight are significantly longer than the average NES stage, so all of them have a whole bunch of visually clear checkpoints. When you die, you get knocked back to the last checkpoint (usually no more than half a dozen screens, and probably not even that) and take a hit to the wallet as bags of your money will dangle tauntingly above where you died, if you can get back to where you died without dying again you can get all that money back and there’s no problem as there’s no lives system at all. In addition, you can break the checkpoints to get a nice treasure boost, but obviously now you’ve lost that checkpoint so you better make sure you don’t screw up getting to the next one here.

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So what we have here is a forgiving checkpoint system that lets the less savvy player get through the game without booting them out of the stage for a couple of mistakes, that also offers motivation for the player to not die twice on one section as they’ll lose their treasure (which also encourages players to spend their treasure and engage with the game’s RPG elements regularly)…and it has an extra challenge built in there for the hardcore crowd without having to change a thing. Wow! That’s really smart! It kind of blew my mind how smart such a little feature is; it completely nullifies the frustrations that came with the lives system from the old Mega Mans, with its “throw yourself down a pit twice to restart with 3 lives” nonsense,without requiring any kind of difficulty adjustment.  I’ve always had low tolerance for games that still relied on lives systems in this era of gaming anyway but now there is literally no excuse for it. The way Shovel Knight handles it is just smarter, and that is so refreshing.

However, the true shining part of Shovel Knight is in the boss battles, which in all honesty, might be the greatest boss battles in any 2D action game. They certainly put anything in classic Mega Man to shame, and those Mega Man X bosses over there aren’t feeling too sure of themselves either. The vast majority of the bosses are against another knight or warrior with their own gimmick, as well the Black Knight who also uses a shovel effectively making him a shadow boss. Speaking of which, here’s a good test for action games, if your game has a shadow boss in it and it’s fun, then chances are your mechanics are pretty much ready to go. Boss battles in Shovel Knight do follow patterns to some extent but it definitely doesn’t feel like that most of the time. Fights against enemies like the King’s Knight almost feel like you’re playing against a second player. These fights are fast and furious, bosses don’t get stunned for too long so skilled players will be able to exchange down thrusts, side slashes and magic to get some “combos” going; but the subtlest touch that makes it near perfect is you don’t take damage from a bosses attack if you’re able to get a strike in first. This tiny little detail translates what in most games is a choreographed dance in pattern avoidance to an actual fight in your brain, if you “outwit” your opponent and get that first slash then as far as the game is concerned you deserve to be winning. It creates really challenging and engaging battles whilst at the same game communicating (through gameplay!) that the Shovel Knight is on par with these guys and is a mighty warrior in his own right.

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Before I briefly touch on things I didn’t like so much in the game, let’s just dedicate a small paragraph to the ridiculously fantastic soundtrack Shovel Knight has, which comes to us from Jake “virt” Kaufman with two tracks done by Mega Man 1 composer Manami Matsumae. Let’s just shovel this in here; because everyone will probably be saying this in five years and I want it on record, Jake Kaufman is the best Western videogame composer working today. He’s also possibly clinically insane, since he’s provided full lossless audio downloads of both the official Shovel Knight soundtrack and an arrangement album on his Bandcamp so you should probably check that out.

So regarding what I don’t like…there’s just kind of too much stuff which contradicts the simplistic nature of the mechanics and level design. You can explore the levels by breaking blocks to reveal hidden pathways and passages where you can find extra treasure and usable items. Treasure is predominately used for buying upgrades, but it’s not difficult at all to find enough treasure to max out the really useful things like shovel abilities and magic points. Other than that you just have items and armour upgrades, and in the case of armour I pretty much just bought them all for the sake of buying something and then only ever used one of them. There’s just too much of this stuff for a game this short, half of the weapons I used once to see what they do and then never picked them up again. Then on top of that there’s potions you can use, but to do that you have to buy a chalice, then you have to go to the lake and talk to apple fish king thing (don’t worry about it) who does a nice song and dance for about 2 minutes to give you a one use potion (things like invincibility and health etc.). But because it’s one use only you just end up putting off using it forever and accidentally beat the game with it sitting in your lap, it’s just a load of fluff for something basically pointless.

It’s not a massive issue or anything, but the problem is the game focuses a lot on the act of gathering treasure (note the paragraph earlier about losing treasure being used instead of a lives system) as its inspiration for exploring levels and completing extra stages on the map, so it feels like all this extra stuff is just there to justify having so much treasure in the game in the first place. The game could have used a bit more balancing in how you buy new magic and how you spend your treasure, because honestly by the end of my playthrough I started not caring about treasure at all when I realised I already had everything worth having and that made me far lazier in terms of exploring the levels.

Also, the level design is consistently tight throughout the game with every stage having its own bag of tricks that stays consistent with the game’s mechanics and basic rules, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t weaken towards the end. The final castle stages, probably in an attempt to be more “challenging” start relying less on clever tightly designed rooms and more on gimmicky instadeath traps that punish you for the slightest mistake. The worst part is the room where the walls move up and down, crushing you if a pixel of your shovelly body is caught under it. I died on this part about 50 billion times, initially out of sheer carelessness but eventually just out of boredom-fuelled impatience.

These are all little niggles, but Shovel Knight definitely needed to be a little more tight in its extra bits to be a true classic, but nothing mentioned above stops it from being a fantastic videogame. The soundtrack and the pixel art come from a place of artistic confidence and not just nostalgic baiting, the level design is fuelled predominately by common sense and everything is presented with a lot of care and love and a cute little story which ends the experience with a satisfied sigh. Yacht Club Games have proven themselves with Shovel Knight and the industry should look forward to their future projects.

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In closing; in the opening paragraph I described Shovel Knight as “one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory” and I’d like to end this review by clarifying that. Shovel Knight is encouraging in both its style of design and the future of the videogame industry in general. A bunch of cool people who knew what they were doing got together and had a great idea for a game, they pitched that idea to the public through Kickstarter who liked it and supported it. This gave them a comfortable budget to work with for the kind of the game they wanted to make, but not requiring 10s of millions of corporate dollars in an unsustainable five year developmental cycle. The product of this is a wonderful little game that the developers can be proud of and that players can love. We need more games like Shovel Knight, and you dear reader, need Shovel Knight in your Steam library.

The pressure’s on you now, Mighty No. 9,Inafune and his team better up their game to follow this.

Score:8/10

Developer: Yacht Club Games

Publisher: Yacht Club Games 

Platform: Steam, Wii U and 3DS in North America, other platforms to follow

Nether Interview- Let’s Talk WarZ Trolls, Microtransactions and Pink Pimp Suits

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Nether Interview.

Frugal Gaming’s UglyGeezer meets the team behind Nether: Mark Davidson (VP of Nether Productions),  Kelly (Community Manager) , Chase and Travis Hernandez (both brothers, lead designer and producer to developer).

Nether first released via early access last October, finding itself topping the Steam charts. A game although still in development, it was instantly playable. An urban survival game that had community driven ideas at it’s very heart.

Six months in, Frugal Gaming did a community preview of Nether, to look at the massive changes that had been going on and see for themselves the changes to the game that had transformed nether into something completely new.

The Preview can be found HERE

The audio for this interview can be found at the bottom of this page. We would really like to thank those that took part in the interview, we hope you enjoy reading/listening to it.

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UG: Bear with my whilst I stumble clumberly over my notes:

The Phosphor Collective: HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Well, in fairness that laughing only happened in my head, I wanted the ground to open up and eat me. What follows did happen (Me saying made up words sadly did happen)

On with the interview………….

UG: Can you describe Nether for me? Tell us what Nether actually is?

Mark: I would say it’s arcade survival. It’s fast paced, it’s pretty hardcore, you lose everything every time you die. It’s a balance between finding people to work with and people trying to hunt you down. and the Nether’s of course.

Kelly: For me the atmosphere of the game is just amazing. The world really pulls you in, the sound is amazing. You hear a Nether behind you and you’re actually terrified because it sounds scary. The city looks phenomenal, so the atmosphere is just amazing.

UG: Can you tell us how you guys came together as Phosphor Games and Productions?

Mark. We’re a group of companies, Nether Productions and Phosphor Games. Phosphor are the developers and they’ve been working since about 2007. Started by the guys from Midway.

Chase and Travis: It was actually started by a group of guys who were all ex Midway Games staff who wanted to continue to pursue their dream, which was Project Hero. So when we came together as Phosphor Games we decided to make our own version of that game. So we’ve been growing as a studio, still trying to pursue that dream and keeping our minds open to other games. We are always looking to grow our portfolio, do new things and bring out a AAA title like Nether.

UG: Which comes on to my next question, I wanted to ask what the seed of inspiration was for Nether. So that goes way back to Project Hero?

Chase/Travis: As developers we’re always trying to branch out into something new with every title we work on. We’ve always been fans of multiplayer experiences, especially open world and specifically city stuff. A big part of Zero was the city environment. We think the cityscapes can bring interesting multiplayer pay-offs. So that was a big part of the design, a post-apocalypticbroken down city.

UG: I’ve never come across a game before that has been so community driven, since the early access release last year it’s been apparent that you’re connected to your fans and their wishes. Was that a conscious decision early on for you guys?

Kelly: Yes I think so. Even before the release on early access people had so many ideas and it was really cool to involve the community.There’s a lot of stuff in Nether that would have never been there had we not looked at community feedback. It helps with balance as well, they know the game.

Mark: I think when you get a great opportunity as well with Steam early access, other than free to play we wouldn’t have had that opportunity- where we can take a nub of a game and develop it from there.

UG: I personally feel the likes of early access/Greenlight/Kickstarter has been the most exciting thing in years for creativity in gaming, any downsides to that?

Mark: Especially with Greenlight, it means everything is up for grabs for the small guy now in terms of having a platform to get his/her games out there now, similar to the mobile market.

Chase/Travis: From a design perspective early access is a designers dream. You’re building a game for your players. One of the downsides we’ve run into is expectations versus what’s good for the game. Some players expect us to take the game in a certain direction, then we find out through research and testing that the other direction is much more engaging and fun. So sometimes you can get miscommunication in early access.

UG: With such democracy in the development, the vast amount of feedback must be daunting. How do you filter that? When suddenly everyone feels they’re a games developer. How do you get to hear ‘the quiet bloke’ with the good idea?

Kelly: It can be very difficult when sometimes one half of the community want something over here and the other half over there. It can be crazy.

Chase/Travis: It’s sometimes a combination of taking the brute force of the comments and seeing what’s the general consensus and sometimes digging trough everything and looking for those gems. It’s something we were really focused on, especially in the early stages. Sometimes we would find an obscure forum post and say “hey this is a great idea” and run with it.

UG: With so much new content in Nether now, with new areas of the map open, tribes are up and running, escort mission. How close is Nether now to the original idea?

Chase/Travis: It’s grown pretty organically. Some of the stuff that even came in later – like crafting, you see elements of it in the original design documents. Other stuff, like the tribes, none of us ever really saw that in the early stages. As we worked on the game, grew and saw what the community wanted it just came out and seemed like a great idea.

Mark: It wasn’t to address individual problems as such, but the whole kill on sight thing for the first couple of months was killing us. So tribes and a couple of other things we put in really helped address that.

UG: One thing you tried was the blood meter, but you took that out?

Mark: *Laughs* No we made a lot of mistakes.

UG: No, but you were trying ideas out and to me it showed a group of developers that were listening. I seem to remember the community asking for the blood meter.

UG: When the WarZ idiocy and accusations that you were the WarZ devs started on your own and the Steam forums, how did that affect you guys?

Mark: They’re just trolls and haters right? You just have to deal with it.

Kelly: Yep, they were just trolls.

UG: For myself as a fan of the game and a forum user, it looked like you were taking a battering. There was a tsunami of negativity and even some ‘grown up’ gaming sites were saying this rubbish.

Chase/Travis: It was actually an interesting experience for the dev team, we did just have to sit there and take it, because obviously we’re not the WarZ team. But it was good to see a lot of our players come to the front and defend us and tell people “these aren’t the WarZ guys, they do care, they do listen” It was really interesting to see and know that our community did want to see the game grow and improve. It’s nice to see players that actually support games, rather than the vocal minority that want to knock them down.

UG: Microtransactions. You have them in the game but for cosmetic stuff only. What are your plans with then in the future? Do they give you a stream of revenue to continue development?

Mark: We’re not really monetising very well. We knew from the WarZ stuff that pay to win would be a huge throwback for us. Right now the only thing that could be loosely termed as pay to win is the wingsuit, it would be nice to make that more cosmetic. We’re not that granular on the analytics of what people enjoy doing. We need to drill down into that data and see what it is people really enjoy doing.

UG: It’s not uncommon to pay for small cosmetic items in MMO’s, The Secret World as an example. I would love to play in a big pink pimp suit in Nether.

Chase/Travis *Laughs* That is an excellent idea.

Mark: One thing we are thinking of is skins for guns and making them unique.

UG: Where do you see the game in a year, 2 years? When will it leave Beta?

Mark: Right now we’re concentrating on bug fixing. We had a vision, around 2 months after release, we OK, we’re scrambling to fix these things the community has asked for. It became clear we needed a direction to go and that’s where the tribes came from. Then we had a 6 month roadmap and could polish what we had. The next patch for example is polish. We would like to take the game out of early access soon. there’s a blockage for some gamers with the early access label. We would like to take it to a larger audience and continue with the community driven direction.

 

Here’s the audio of the interview in full. Huge apologies for the sound problems in the early part of the interview, it does improve as it goes on and the audio problems do completely vanish. The same cannot be said for my gibberish made up words.