JaMiRe #10: Age of Wonders II

Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard’s Throne

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There is a certain amount of inconsistency in the title of this game. Is it Age of Wonders 2, Age of Wonders II, or Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard’s Throne? I guess I’ll just have to go on… Wondering.

Cough, quickly setting that aside, AoW2 is quite similar to AoW in design. The big change would be that 2 has a much greater focus on the magic system, which is basically the same as the first game but given a much higher billing. Oh, and I found the story slightly more interesting as well.

The campaign of AoW2 follows Merlin, a wizard-in-training. See, apparently the “good” elves won the war in the last game, but although they didn’t deliberately wipe out humans, it seems that humans managed to get themselves nearly wiped out anyway. By cat demons, apparently. I won’t ask if you don’t.

Anyway, Merlin is fleeing with some other humans on an airship when they get attacked by dragons popping out of nowhere. Merlin gets hit by some burning rigging and is knocked overboard into the ocean to drown; but he is saved at the last minute (or possibly, slightly after the last minute) by Gabriel, an extremely powerful wizard with a beard like an axe.

Gabriel used to be the master of all wizards, but apparently they all abandoned him for reasons unknown, possibly out of jealousy for his beard. Not entirely content with this, Gabriel fishes Merlin out of the ocean and assigns him the task of bringing all the rogue wizards to heel by mastering the seven spheres of magic: Life, Death, Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Cosmos (read: all of the above). It isn’t entirely clear how Merlin felt about all this, but I suspect that he felt that the situation was 100% better than drowning, which seems reasonable.

The actual mechanics of using magic are mostly the same as in the original, but since I glossed over it yesterday, let me explain how it works now. You wizard and towns generate a set amount of magic crystals each turn. An adjustable number of these are stockpiled to cast spells, while the rest are used on magical research. Merlin does not begin the game with many spells, but he can choose one to research over the course of several turns; once the spell is finished researching, he and his heroes can cast it for the rest of the level. I’m actually not sure if spells carry over to the next level of the scenario — two hours of play was not nearly enough time to clear even the first scenario. (Especially since I spent about an hour screwing around in the tutorial level, reading lots of tooltips.)

There are two new concepts added to AoW2 compared to the first game. The first is that you can use your research points not only to learn spells but also to improve your wizard’s skills, for instance increasing the amount of mana points he can use each turn. The second thing is the concept of a wizard’s territory: wizards can cast spells at a distance, but only in a certain radius around themselves. By placing a wizard in a town with a Wizards Tower, the range is greatly increased, creating a situation where the wizard is both well protected and extremely effective. Which is cool. Normal units can’t be supported by a wizard’s spells outside his territory; but hero units are an exception, projecting a very small area of wizard’s territory around themselves even when in enemy terrain. Which is also cool.

Other than that, movement and combat proceed pretty much the same as in the first game. What was functional then is still functional now, except I have learned the joy of launching pincer attacks on enemy armies. I’m still having trouble balancing the troops I need versus the income I can bring in; and I’m not sure if I’m just being impatient, or if I’m still developing too slowly. If I played for another ten or twenty hours, I’m sure I’d get a better grasp of things… but, that’s not going to happen. I’ve got another Age of Wonders to experience next, after all.

Time played: 2 hrs.

Pros: Pretty much the same as Age of Wonders, with good complexity and player choice, but makes better use of its magic system.

Cons: Let me repeat my comments from yesterday: “Complex mechanics can also be confusing, and it’s hard to tell if you are making bad strategic decisions before it comes back to bite you.” Being an all-powerful wizard doesn’t change these truths.

Worth playing: If you like strategic empire building and don’t mind sinking in several hours to learn the nuances, certainly.

Worth the price: $10 is a bit… Well, I’d look to get it on sale, myself.

Random observation: I suspect I’d be much more supportive of the tiger demons wiping out the humans if their wizard lord, Yaka, wasn’t such a jerk. 😛

Arbitrary grade: B-

So, that’s all for this week! Tune in on Monday for the third game in the series, Age of Wonders 3— No. It’s actually Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, still by Triumph and Paradox.

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JaMiRe #9: Age of Wonders

Age of Wonders

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So, this is a different kind of strategy RPG than yesterday’s, and I’m not just talking about the art style.

Ah, yes, let’s get this out of the way. This game was released in 1999, so the graphics are much courser than anything you’d see today, twenty years later — holy carp has it really been 20 years? Geez, I’m old. Anyway, the graphics are a bit rough and ready, but certainly not horrible.

Well, as a caveat, I had some trouble with the graphics; I actually had to increase the resolution of the intro movie before it would actually display video. I’m not sure whether to blame that on my somewhat substandard PC, or the age of the game, or both; but weird as it was, the game itself still ran fine, and I fixed the intro eventually.

Troubleshooting this problem, however, means I forgot to time how long I actually played the game. Oops. It should still be around two hours, though.

Anyway, Age of Wonders is a strategy game in the same vein of Heroes of Might and Magic: You have a hero, or group of heroes, under which you gather armies and conquer cities to gain resources, and attempt to become the sole remaining faction on the map.

Age of Wonders is way more complicated than Heroes, however. It puts a much greater emphasis on resource management, with upkeep required on units effectively limiting the size of your armies, emphasis on racial relations and morale, and much more complicated unit abilities and hero advancement.

Let me just say, although I enjoy playing this sort of game, I am absolutely terrible at them. It didn’t really help that the tutorial skipped over a few vital points of info as well… For instance, each tile can only stack 8 units of the same faction, including heroes — oh, that’s another thing, heroes are units that move on the battlefield as well, unlike Heroes of Might and Magic where they kinda stand back and cast spells at most. So anyway, I thought that meant that any battles would be eight on eight at most. Well, it turns out that armies on adjacent tiles will get pulled into the fight as well, as I learned when my army of seven units got ambushed by a total of thirteen enemies including an enemy hero. Needless to say, I was crushed right there.

But again, I don’t mind that style of gameplay, I’m just not very good at it. The game itself runs fine, setting aside the cinematics, and so if I didn’t have later games in the series to play I certainly wouldn’t mind playing this one.

…Oh, yeah, there was a story as well, wasn’t there. It was actually pretty good, featuring humans in their natural role, as the bad guys. See, in the past, the elves ruled everything, and life was good. Then the humans came along, having been kicked out of their previous residence, and they got in a big fight with the elves over their prime real estate. The elf king was killed, his heir left for dead on the battlefield, and the queen ran away with her baby daughter.

This ends up splitting the elves into two factions. The normal(?) elves who joined the Keepers of Light, including the queen’s grown up daughter, figure that the humans aren’t going anywhere so they all may as well find a way to live and let live; while the dark elves of the Cult of Storms, led by the not-as-dead-as-previously-reported former prince, want to take revenge on the humans and completely destroy them.

So the campaign scenarios kick off with the death of the former queen, and you pick which side you are going to join, Keepers or Cult of Storms. I, on the other hand, picked neither and spent some time experimenting on one of the standalone scenario maps instead. Well, I did try the campaign, but that’s when I got ganked by that 13 unit army I mentioned early, so I have no idea where that goes.

In the end I do, kind of, enjoy the game, but I’m going to reserve judgement on whether this is the Age of Wonders I would prefer to play until I review the other three. Standing on its own, it has an interesting complexity, but isn’t necessarily compelling storywise.

Time played: Lost track because I forgot to run my timer after troubleshooting. Probably about 2 hrs.

Pros: Interesting complex mechanics, with a lot of room for customizing to fit your preferred playstyle.

Cons: Complex mechanics can also be confusing, and it’s hard to tell if you are making bad strategic decisions before it comes back to bite you.

Worth playing: I mean, there are probably better options, but it certainly is a solid game of its type.

Worth the price: $6 for a 20 year old game. There are worse deals, I suppose.

Random observation: It wasn’t clear to me why the amount of upkeep I needed to pay kept increasing, even after the game had specifically pointed out that units had upkeep costs. I’m really not good at these games… :/

Arbitrary grade: B-

Tomorrow, the aptly named Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard’s Throne, still by Triumph and Paradox. Time to see what new elements the sequel brings to the table. If any.

JaMiRe #8: Agarest: Generations of War

Agarest: Generations of War

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So, yeah, if the picture up there doesn’t clue you in, this is an Anime game. By which I mean, lots of still images of characters drawn in a traditional Anime style (or manga style, if you prefer, but let’s not even go there) and a certain lack of actual animation. It was kinda funny, I made a prediction to myself that the opening would be still images of anime characters superimposed on 3D modeled environments, and sure enough…. Anyway, if you aren’t a big fan of the Anime style, then let me say now that you have been well and truly warned.

Without putting too fine a point on it, another strange tendency of Anime games is to include elements of a dating simulator into whatever sort of game it nominally is — in this case, a turned-based strategy RPG. I wish I could tell you how well they incorporated these two genres, but a mere two hours of gameplay didn’t even net me more than three playable characters, so you might be able to guess the kind of time commitment this game would take.

That said, the sRPG elements I’ve encountered so far are workable. Battles take place on a standard grid, and are separated into rounds containing two phases, the movement phase and the action phase. Movement order is determined based on the characters AGI stat, although since all characters and enemies move at the same time once all commands are input, it’s hard to say why they bother. More importantly, in the action phase turn order is determined by current AP, which accumulates every round and is consumed by using items and skills. So, stockpiling AP for a turn can allow a character to act sooner, and also unleash more attacks at once. Yay, strategy.

I’d say the most unique mechanic (in the first two hours, anyway) is the “extended area.” Each character has certain tiles around them that allow them to “link” with other allies, letting them team up to attack and providing minor passive benefits. This is very powerful, especially when it comes to ganging up on a strong foe; but it also changes the positions of the characters, possibly exposing their backs to other enemies. Care must be used when employing linked attacks. Yay, more strategy. Anyway, the system works fine.

As for the story… Hm. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t exactly break any new ground either. The game starts with a rather long montage of barely recognizable frescos and a story about the beginning of the world Agarest. I didn’t catch the details, but apparently 12 or 16 gods were supposed to make a perfect world, but they started fighting each other and eventually broke the world. Then the last six gods sacrificed themselves to repair the world, and the game flashes forward thousands of years until no one remembers the gods, immediately raising the question of what the point of the intro actually was.

Anyway, the (initial) main character is a guy called Leonhardt, who is part of an invading human army until he has a crisis of conscience and defies orders to save a little elf girl. Unfortunately, this leads directly to him being beaten to a pulp and left to die by the creepy guy leading the invasion, who seems to have some preexisting beef with Leo anyway. On the verge of death, Leo is approached by a Mysterious White-haired Anime Girl™ who offers to save his life and give him strength in exchange for his soul and the souls of his descendants. Seeing nothing problematic with this offer, he agrees.

And that’s as much of the plot as I made it through, as the next section is just a series of battles with no story significance (although I did make it to the first town where you can buy and upgrade equipment, etc.) Apparently, Leo will eventually marry one of three possible ladies, and their son will take up the title of main character and go through the same process before his son is born; but that’s so far down the line I can’t even imagine how long it would take me to reach that point. All I can really say at this point is that the battle system works just fine; and the story, while a bit wonky and rushed, is also serviceable and easy to ignore if you just want to concentrate on the battles, like me.

In my final analysis, it’s no Disgaea (my favorite sRPG series, if you’re wondering) but it is just engaging enough for me to continue playing it. Damn, now I want to play Disgaea…

Time played: 2 hrs, which as expected barely scratches the surface.

Pros: Serviceable and interesting strategy battle system, a great deal of depth and customization of characters.

Cons: Story is generic and less than engaging, and the Anime still images are doing it no favors.

Worth playing: If you don’t hate the art style, then it is a worthwhile strategy RPG. It isn’t going to wow anyone with its storytelling, though.

Worth the price: $15 is reasonable considering the hours you can sink into it.

Random observation: I was hoping to meet the three-eyed lady featured in the picture above, but apparently she isn’t going to make an early appearance for me. :\

Arbitrary grade: B

Tomorrow brings us the first of the four games in the Age of Wonders series, by Triumph Studios and Paradox Interactive. I thought for a while about reviewing all four games at once, but then I decided “nah.” So each game gets its day, and hopefully we can see how they got better over time.

JaMiRe #7: The Adventures of Shuggy

The Adventures of Shuggy

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One of the difficulties of reviewing a simple game is that there isn’t really much to say. Fortunately these mini reviews don’t have a fixed wordcount, right?

The story, minimal though it is, is that Shuggy, a tiny purple vampire creature(?), inherited a spooky mansion from his uncle. Upon visiting the property, he discovered several problems, such as an out of control heating system, a ghost tossing paintings around, and a zombie scarecrow digging up more zombies. Being a vampire, and therefore not intimidated by the mundane problems of home ownership, Shuggy sets out to get everything under control.

As the player, you need to guide Shuggy through a series of 2D platform challenges, gaining a key for every level you complete. Specifically, you have to collect every green gem in a level to complete it, while avoiding such hazards as spikes, lava, bees, floating mines, and mosquitoes. Those damn mosquitoes, man…

Anyway, many levels also have specific gimmicks to work around. For instance, in some levels Shuggy can rotate the entire level 90 degrees in the direction he is facing. In others, there are three version Shuggy you can switch between, often to accomplish complicated switch puzzles. I think the most difficult mechanic I’ve encountered (so far) is “repeating time,” where after a set amount of time the level resets, and time ghosts of Shuggy repeat the actions you have already taken; you have to take into account what you did by avoiding your past self while setting up opportunities for yourself in the future. Er, it’s actually harder to describe than to accomplish, but it’s complicated enough to frustrate me a few times.

Anyway, Shuggy collects enough keys to unlock the next wing of the house, at which point you have to solve more levels to open a path to the “boss” room, where you will face a slightly more difficult challenge than normal levels. Once you defeat the boss, you need to collect keys again in order to unlock the next wing of the house; rinse and repeat.

So, the art style is cartoony and cute, the levels tend to be short, fun and interesting, and there are always alternatives if you get stuck on a specific level. But a platformer lives and dies on its precision jumping, and here Shuggy stumbles a bit. Although it takes Shuggy a moment to really get moving, he is deceptively fast and has a lot of lateral momentum, so it’s very easy to accidentally overshoot small platforms, often into enemies. His normal jump is by comparison pretty slow and low, making it tough to accurately jump over moving enemies. It’s not game breaking by any means, but in a genre that’s all about precision jumping, making it difficult to be precise smacks a bit of fake difficulty.

The minor nitpick aside, The Adventures of Shuggy is a fun, accessible puzzle game, with a cute story and art style. Final word, I like it.

Time played: 2 hrs, which got me most of the way through the story, but not even half of the available levels.

Pros: Cute art style, variety of level gimmicks keeps things from getting stale, extra local co-op levels.

Cons: Shuggy’s strange lateral movement makes precision jumping more difficult than seems reasonable.

Worth playing: Absolutely.

Worth the price: $5 to be the perfect value for a game of this type and length.

Random observation: Lava fish can be surprisingly irritating. 😉

Arbitrary grade: B+

From extreme simplicity to a game of much deeper complexity on every level, it’s time for Agarest: Generations of War, by Idea Factory and Ghostlight LTD. Speaking of games which I don’t have time to even scratch the surface…

JaMiRe #6: Advent Rising

Advent Rising

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So, yeah, this game. To start from the conclusion, it’s trying to do too much, and not really succeeding. Although it is somewhat against my principle to do research, I did note that this game came out a year after Halo 2, and I can’t help but note some marked similarities in theme to the Halo series. Unfortunately, it seems to do everything slightly worse.

I admit to being slightly prejudiced against the game from the beginning. You see, one of the major selling points from the description on GOG was that the game was “written by Orson Scott Card.” Let’s ignore the controversy around Mr. Card for the moment and acknowledge that he is, at the very least, good at writing; however, a video game is not a novel, and simply bringing a famous novelist on board is not enough to guarantee a good game, or even a good game story. (I’m looking at you, with deep skepticism, Elden Ring.)

Speaking of the story, you play as Gideon, a young spaceship pilot who looks up to his brother, a famous pilot and war hero. The two reunite on a space station in order to join an ambassadorial party making first contact with some aliens. Allow me to sum up how that conversation goes:

“Hey, humans! Good to see you alive, since your species was almost wiped out by a different alien species called the Seekers a long time ago. We’d love to chat, but unfortunately someone on our ship has betrayed you guys to the Seekers already and they are on their way to wipe you out completely. Good luck with that, and we hope a few of you survive!”

I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but honestly not much. Anyway, the useless aliens tell the team that the Seekers will show up in two days, but they obviously missed a digit somewhere because the Seeker war fleet shows up in about two minutes instead. So now Gideon has to evacuate the space station, fighting off the Seekers and trying to survive.

I mean, there are some lines and moments that made me laugh, but the game goes out of its way to present everything as dramatically as possible, which gets pretty ludicrous sometimes. There are lots of cutscenes, as well, to the point that you wonder if the devs really just wanted to make a movie.

Combat is, quite literally, a mixed bag. To begin with, Gideon can use two weapons at a time, with the gun in the left hand fired with the left mouse button, and the right hand weapon bound to the right mouse button. I was never quite comfortable with this “innovation,” I’m afraid. Gideon also has a bad habit of putting away the weapon you aren’t currently shooting, causing a noticeable delay when switching to the other weapon. Further, targeting is done with the mouse wheel: scrolling up targets enemies to your left, while scrolling down targets to the right. Sometimes. Not always. On many occasions the targeting system completely failed to work, forcing me to fend for myself. Other times, the targeting would get stuck on an enemy that ran off, leaving me to get savaged by closer enemies that I couldn’t seem to see.

You can also press T to go into a FPS manual targeting mode; while this has the advantage of forcing Gideon to keep both weapons ready to fire, it also shrinks the player’s field of view and makes it even easier to be ambushed from the sides.

Throw in some extraneous vehicle sections, large open areas with no guidance as to your destination, and infinitely respawning enemies, and what you have is basically a giant mess of a game. It’s not so bad as to be non-functional (although it did nearly lock my computer once about 45 minutes in) but even as far as sci-fi shooters go, you could do much, much better.

Time played: Approx. 2 hrs, forgot to turn my timer on for a while.

Pros: I mean, there are quite a few amusing dialogue lines? If you don’t try to take it seriously, anyway.

Cons: Combat controls are a bit too innovative, the game is trying way too hard to be cinematic, subtitles are cutscene only and it can get difficult to hear NPCs giving you information and directions.

Worth playing: Meh. If you want to play Halo, play Halo.

Worth the price: Even at $6 I can’t recommend this game.

Random observation: While the Seeker fleet is attacking the Human space station, the giant alien ship that accidentally(?) led them there was just sitting around while a giant firefight happened around it. I remember muttering to myself, “Are those idiots just going to sit there?” whereupon the giant ship immediately exploded. “Serves them right,” I thought to myself. 😦

Arbitrary grade: C-

Moving on, puzzle platformers are one of my favorite game genres, so I’m looking forward to my next entry. Tune in tomorrow for The Adventures of Shuggy, by Smudged Cat Games.

JaMiRe #5: Aarklash: Legacy

Aarklash: Legacy

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Y’know, I like role-playing games. Especially weird fantasy ones, like this Aarklash that I am playing today. But they take such a big time commitment to really grasp all the factors you need to keep track of, I never seem to play them anymore. So if you’re wondering if I’m actually going to get a good grasp of the many RPGs in my library in the 2-3 hours I’m allowing for each game, the answer is “probably not, but I’m going to try it anyway.”

So, about Aarklash. Now, I’m not doing any extra research into any of the games I’m reviewing, and just going on what the games themselves present to me. Therefore, I don’t know if Aarklash: Legacy is based on a preexisting fantasy world that I just hadn’t heard of before, but the game does tend to throw terms at you from the beginning without explaining much about what they mean, which leads me to suspect that it is actually a tie-in. But, I think I got the general gist of the story, so here goes.

In a fantasy land beset by war (and aren’t they always?) two sides have been fighting for quite some time: the Barons, and… another group, whose name I’ve already forgotten because they haven’t really entered the plot. Anyway, the Barons are in hock up to their eyeballs to fantasy loan sharks known as the Goldmongers Guild, and isn’t that a name to inspire trust? Well, the Barons seem to have decided that the best way to wipe out their debts is to wipe out the Guild, rather than repay them. How they can afford to attack a rabidly militant and extremely rich Guild while also fighting their previous foe has not yet been explained to me…

Anyway, the game focuses on a group of fantasy repo men known as Wheel Swords, and don’t ask me to explain that name. They were in the process of stealing– cough, I mean, reclaiming a certain magical orb from a debtor named Lord Mornstar, when the Barons decide, hey, let’s just destroy the Guild and everyone in it, it’ll be fine. So you have to fight through the armies of Light — did I mention that the Barons worship the God of Light? — and try to get in contact with Patron Lookshy, their boss in the Guild. Or was it Lockshy? Something like that.

As you might expect, that’s just the merest gloss of the story. Each of the Wheel Swords have their own biography to read, for example, which reveals a little more about the Goldmongers Guild — but let’s just move on.

The game’s action takes place on a top-down map, wherein you direct your little Wheel Swords around either as a group or individually. When you encounter enemies, the game will automatically pause, giving you the opportunity to deploy your Swords tactically. Each Sword has four abilities that unlock as they level up, and these abilities can be further upgraded or even transformed once they are all unlocked. You can pause a battle at any time to give specific commands, and you can even stack commands for the Swords to carry out sequentially. Incidentally, if you don’t give any commands the Swords will attack the nearest enemy automatically, which helps reduce micromanagement quite a bit.

Each Sword has different strengths and weaknesses, helpfully listed on their status screen. For instance, the goblin has high crit but low defense, and the dog-headed woman who serves as the healer can’t regenerate MP during battle, so she has to consume her allies’ HP to restore her own MP before she can heal them…

Oh. I forgot to mention, but the initial team consists of one human(?) mage, one goblin assassin, one dog-headed healer, and a bioengineered(?) creature to serve as the tank. Just before sitting down to write this review, I gained a fifth character, who happens to be an ancient ghost. If this game has anything, it’s unusual character races.

Anyway, each character has four equipment slots (consisting of necklace, ring, earring, and amulet) and can equip looted items to increase the multitude of character stats, and don’t expect me to list them all. Loot is generated randomly, so you have to judge what bonuses would be most helpful for each Sword. Unneeded loot can be recycled, and after filling the recycling gauge, a random piece of Epic level equipment is generated.

I find the game functional, fun to play, and with an interesting story hook. If you like games like Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate, but don’t care for the D&D setting, you might like to give this a try.

Time played: 2.75 hrs, would continue.

Pros: Interesting story, unique playable characters, usable interface.

Cons: The game seems to presume the player to have done their research in advance, with terms being dropped without explanation; I also faced an early boss (miniboss?) that oneshot my entire team when I didn’t do exactly the right thing (got it the second time, though).

Worth playing: Yes, if you’re a fan of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate et. al.

Worth the price: The normal price is $20, which may or may not be reasonable for a game from 2013; however, it is literally on sale for $5 as I type this, and it is well worth five bucks.

Random observation: The Wheel Swords are technically indentured servants of the Guild; but they are the most prideful, gung-ho, bloodthirsty indentured servants that I have ever seen. Are these really the good guys…? 😛

Arbitrary grade: A-

Well! One week finished. I’ll be back on Monday with the next game, Advent Rising by GlyphX Games and Majesco. Don’t ask me what kind of game it is; I don’t even know how it ended up in my library.

JaMiRe #4: A Story About My Uncle

A Story About My Uncle

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It breaks my heart that I have to give this game a bad review.

Let’s start with the good, to put off the moment of truth as long as possible. The story about my uncle— cough, I mean, the MC’s uncle, is actually quite charming. It is framed as a bedtime story being told to the narrator’s young daughter, about a time when he was much younger. His uncle, an inventor and adventurer named Fred, had gone missing; and he had gone over to his uncle’s house to look for clues. What he found was a protective adventuring suit just his size, and a trash disposal unit that accidentally transported him to another world. So, he sets off in pursuit of Uncle Fred, armed only with the adventuring suit, his wits, and a glove that fires a grappling beam.

That glove is the main mechanic of the game, and also its biggest weakness — but I’ll come back to that.

The game is not long — I completed it in a mere three and a half hours, prologue to epilogue — but that’s actually pretty decent length for a bedtime story, I suppose. The narrator chimes in a lot as you progress, ostensibly to his daughter but naturally also to the player, about the things he is seeing and thinking. The voice acting is not perfect; but compared to yesterday’s game it’s amazingly good, so we can thank A New Beginning for lowering the bar, I guess. The narrator’s daughter also asks questions from time to time, and I really appreciate the father/daughter dynamic there.

Ok, so the story is good, well-presented, and charming. So why do I have to give it such a bad review, you may ask. Well, it’s that grapple glove I mentioned earlier.

So, do you remember how the original Portal was basically a tech demo for the Portal Gun? Well, A Story About My Uncle is basically a tech demo for its grappling mechanic. The biggest difference would be, the grapple isn’t nearly as fun as the Portal Gun. To begin with, it is very difficult to tell at a glance what piece of rock will be in range of the grapple, and when you are stringing multiple grapples together it is easy to either miss, or waste charges because you thought you missed when you hadn’t. Finally, the grapple beam draws you directly towards whatever you attached it to, which means you’d better release it before you hit anything but a solid floor or you’ll go ricocheting off in a direction that will almost definitely be fatal. It doesn’t help that the first person viewpoint means you can’t both look for the next grapple target, and be able to see if you are about to smack headfirst into a rock.

Another uncomfortable mechanic: you have a normal jump, and a power jump, on two different buttons. You can also launch yourself forward by using a power jump while sprinting forward, a maneuver that requires holding down two buttons while releasing a third, which just gets uncomfortable. Toward the end of the game you get a pair of rocket boots that allow you to explosively boost yourself a short distance through the air, which is about the only emergency means you will ever have, and even they usually can’t save you if you mess up a grapple.

In other words, using the grapple glove is frustrating, especially towards the end of the game when you have to make complicated and well-timed maneuvers or plummet to your not-doom… Fortunately, making mistakes only sets you back to the last checkpoint (presumably because “and then I plummeted to my death” is not a normal part of any bedtime story) and the game is pretty generous with giving checkpoints. And to be fair, when you do it ‘right’ it really is fun to send yourself hurtling through the air; it’s just too easy to get into an untenable position over and over again.

Speaking of the graphics, right at the beginning of the game in Fred’s house, moonlight is supposed to be coming in through the windows, but it ends up being a really blocky black shadow instead, no matter how I tried to tweak the video settings. The rest of the game didn’t have any similar problems as far as I could tell, but it was quite the horrible first impression.

I guess the final disappointment is that, for a game with such freedom of movement and ability to explore, there just isn’t much to find. The game seems oddly barren, with no reward for moving off the beaten path; there are villages of frog people, but you can’t really interact with them with the exception of Maddie, a frog girl whom you carry on your back for a couple levels. Despite the nice story, there just isn’t much world here, and it really strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Oh well. I’ll just enjoy the story, and forget the rest.

Time played: 3.5 hrs, completed.

Pros: A charming and cute story, which I actually found somewhat moving in the end.

Cons: Everything else. Frustrating mechanics and a general lack of depth seriously sink this game.

Worth playing: How many times do I have to say that the story is good? But there isn’t much else…

Worth the price: Sigh… $13 seems too much for this glorified tech demo, and it makes me sad to say it. Get it on sale, if possible.

Random observation: Daughter: “She didn’t have a real father, right, if she was born from an egg?” Narrator: “That’s right, that was another thing we had in common.” #UnexpectedOOF

Arbitrary grade: C (and that’s pushing it, believe me)

Time to move on from science fiction to a fantasy RPG. Aarklash: Legacy by Cyanide Studios is tomorrow. See you then!

JaMiRe #3: A New Beginning

A New Beginning: Final Cut

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Well, no avoiding this, so let’s put it right up front: this game explores the concept of man-made climate change. In theory, anyway; I played through the prologue and the first two chapters and it’s already undercut its own message by bringing in a reactor explosion. Nevertheless, if you consider this a hot-button topic, maybe give it a miss.

Although honestly, I can’t really take it as a serious exploration of the topic in the first place. I mean, the female lead is a time traveler from an apocalyptic future, and naturally the wacky pseudoscience is on full display. In a way, climate change is just the game’s version of a zombie apocalypse, so I’m not really inclined to conflate it with our real-world problems, even if it is slightly more dangerous to us than zombies. Y’know?

Anyway, the story starts off with Bent Svensson, a bitter old-ish man who nearly worked himself to death after his wife died, meeting Fay, a naive young woman from the far future who believes that Bent’s research on algae is the key to saving the planet. The first two chapters of the game are basically Fay telling Bent about her experiences in 2050, where her team first landed only to be almost entirely wiped out by rogue weather events. The best part is Bent’s reaction to her story, which is probably the most natural reaction to a person claiming to be a time traveler: almost unrelenting skepticism.

The story and dialogue is actually fairly well written, although slightly forced at times; but it would be natural if you failed to notice, since the voice acting is just… Man, I don’t even know. Inconsistent is the nicest term I can use, I think. I’m aware that English was not the game’s first language, but still, many of the lines are awkwardly delivered by the voice actors, and often extremely emotional deliveries are undercut the very next second by extremely flat performances. On the other hand, some of the lines can be perfectly delivered, particularly many of Bent’s more bitterly humorous lines had me laugh out loud. It certainly isn’t the worst performance ever, but it does tend to make me treat the heavier moments with an inappropriate amusement.

The mechanics are OK, though I’m not a big fan of holding down the button and moving the mouse to select actions; I am a big fan of double clicking on exits to skip the walk, however, so let’s call it solid enough. Oh, and though the game’s tutorial doesn’t mention it, you can hold down spacebar to display all interactable objects on screen, which is very helpful if you’re wondering if you missed something.

The art direction is excellent, although the animation is a bit meh and the characters slightly cartoon-y. Actually, let me reinforce that it is a very pretty game, since I really enjoyed the static background environments. Sound and music was functional, that is to say, I never really noticed it specifically.

All in all, I’d call it a good adventure game with multiple nitpicks, and I was never sure if I should take the theme seriously or not. I kinda want to see where the story goes, though, so I guess it succeeds as a game, for what it’s worth.

Time played: 3 hrs, would continue.

Pros: Beautiful art, mostly logical puzzles, two main characters that are each humorous and interesting in different ways.

Cons: The voice acting is inconsistent, the animation isn’t great, and the theme and characterization can be very heavy-handed.

Worth playing: Yes, as long as you don’t take the subject matter too seriously.

Worth the price: $10 isn’t unreasonable for this game.

Random observation: Three words: “Red Curry Coke.” I can’t decide if that sounds disgusting or amazing. 😯

Arbitrary grade: B+

Tomorrow, it’s time for a different kind of adventure game. Next on the list is A Story About My Uncle, as told by Gone North Games and Coffee Stain Studios. What did you do, Uncle…?

JaMiRe #2: 99 Levels to Hell

99 Levels to Hell

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As expected, none of these reviews are going to be timely; this game, for instance, came out in 2013. That’s just the nature of GOG.com, and my library therein, I’m afraid. Still, I’m sure there are plenty of games in my list that most people haven’t heard of. I sure hadn’t, after all…

This review is going to be short, because there just isn’t a lot to say about this game. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but in essence, it is an extremely simple setup. You are an English dude in a hat, invading Hell because Hell happens to exist. You’ve got a gun, some bombs, and a can-do attitude. Good luck.

So the first impression that comes to mind is ‘Spelunky,’ while the second is ‘flash game.’ You enter a level, find a key to unlock the door to the next level, and keep descending. There are different weapons, elevators that can either let you skip floors or bring you back to previous levels, and an assortment of enemies that will try to kill you. Each set of ten floors has its own theme, enemies, and traps, with a boss fight on the tenth floor. Beating said boss lets you start from that point next time. Pretty standard roguelike, actually.

If I were to point out its most frustrating point, it would be the jumping physics. The character retains his momentum when he jumps, making it nearly impossible to jump straight down; this often leads to careening into traps and enemies, and can be an exercise in frustration.

I also had the game freeze on two occasions, which was quite upsetting. While the game suspends your character’s progress if you quit through the menu, if the game stops responding, you won’t have the opportunity and the game will treat it as though you died. This is frustrating, especially if you happen to be fighting a boss at the time. Like I was.

Time played: 2.5 hrs

Pros: Simple control scheme, colorful enemies, satisfying roguelike gameplay.

Cons: Occasionally difficult to distinguish enemies from background (especially easy to lose track of red spiders and bats due to copious amounts of blood), hit box detection is a little rough, jump physics and movement in general can be really messy.

Worth playing: Sure, although if you are already stressed it will probably be somewhat frustrating.

Worth the price: Probably worth the $5, certainly not worth more.

Random observation: There is a story literally hidden in secret rooms along the way, and finding a piece of the story makes it appear in the floor select corridor so that you can eventually read it in order. Whether this story has anything to do with the game itself seems unlikely, though. 😛

Arbitrary grade: B- (Would have been an easy B+ if it wasn’t for the game freezing and losing my hard-won progress)

Right, back to point and click adventures. Tomorrow I will be looking at A New Beginning: Final Cut, by Daedalic Entertainment.

JaMiRe #1: 1954 Alcatraz

1954 Alcatraz

wallpaper-1954-AlcatrazI have to say, I didn’t really want to play this game when I woke up this morning. It’s not that I expected it to be bad, of course, I just wasn’t in the mood for a point-and-click adventure game. But I’m not getting paid to care about my mood (nor am I getting paid in any other way) so here we go.

Main character Joe pulled off an armored car heist, got caught, and sent to Alcatraz. Now he’s trying to escape with the aid of his wife, Christine, and grab the cash he hid before he and his wife escape to Mexico and Hawaii. Yes, Mexico and Hawaii, always in the same breath, which makes me wonder if Joe and Christine realize that there is a significant distance between the two.

Regardless, the game handles like your standard point and click adventure game, albeit one very much channeling the era it is set in; expect lots of slang. You play as both Joe and Christine, and can switch between them at will… Although in the two hours I played, Joe got tossed in solitary almost immediately, and I spent the rest of the time wandering around North Beach as Christine. I found most of what I needed to have Christine get Joe released, but couldn’t quite figure out how to seal the deal.

There are, apparently, different endings depending on how you play, and specifically how you manage the relationship between Joe and Christine. Honestly, I found it a little off-putting how you could arrange for the two to betray each other, but it didn’t much affect the early game I experienced, as far as I can tell. I should mention that neither Joe nor Christine are especially good people; setting aside Joe’s armored car escapades, even Christine has a criminal record as a petty thief. But they aren’t irredeemable either, and at least the way I played the game, they care for each other very much.

One technical issue I must mention: when I first started the game, the default resolution caused my monitor to freak out and put about a quarter of the opening menu off the left side of the screen. I could barely find the ‘Settings’ button, and the ‘Save Changes’ button in the menu after I switched the resolution to something different. Fortunately I fixed it, but it was a worrying moment. I’m 90% sure that it’s simply a problem with my monitor, but still.

Played for: 2 hrs.

Pros: Solid mechanics (as expected of Daedalic), interesting and somewhat nuanced story, fully voiced, cool jazz soundtrack.

Cons: Some of the voice acting can be a bit awkward, conversations tend to be extremely abrupt, the slang can get really dense, no run/quick movement option (which can be annoying when you are wandering around locations you have been to before).

Worth playing: If you are a fan of point-and-click adventures, you could do far worse, so I can recommend it…

Worth the price: …although I’m not sure I could recommend it at $10 unless you really like adventure games.

Random observation: The art design of the characters leans in a slightly ‘Psychonauts’ direction, though fortunately not quite to that level of fugly. Ears stick out quite a bit, and the men have very, very large hands. O.O

Arbitrary grade: B-

Moving on from an adventure game I hadn’t played and wasn’t sure I would enjoy, to an action game I have played and certainly enjoy: 99 Levels to Hell, by B-evil and Zaxis Games, ladies and gentlemen!

(*Apropos of nothing, JaMiRe stands for “Jackel’s Mini-Reviews.” Even I think it’s dumb, but don’t want to bother coming up with anything better. 😉 )