TL;DP Reviews: Community Edition (formerly "1 hour in" game reviews)

TB:DF (too boring: didn’t finish): Outlast

Sponsored by: Halloween

Short Review: Wait... this is supposed to be a horror game?

Long Review: So here’s a hypothetical question for you. If you were trapped in a horror situation, a la Outlast or Amnesia, how long would it take for you to stop being scared? As in, how many times would something have to jump out at you, or you find another room full of crudely dismembered bodies, or vaguely unsettling messages written on the wall in blood before the next one was met with a disinterested yawn? Because that’s the point I got to with Outlast.

A good horror game, in my opinion, is one that paces itself. Gives you some downtime between the horror segments, but Outlast doesn’t seem to do that. It has the same problem that the Modern Warfare and Call of Duty series now have (albeit on a completely different end of the spectrum), they’re so consistently high octane that I become numb to the spectacle and lost in the miasma of either bullets or unsettling imagery, depending on the game.

Outlast was one of the few horror titles to come out in the last few years that I didn’t play, horror games being something of a pet genre of mine. I deeply love a good horror game, but am having increasing difficulty finding ones that actually frighten me. Rule of Rose did a decent job, but was more unsettling than outright horror.

So, in honor of Halloween, I decided to give Outlast a whirl. It was either that, or do another retro review on Fatal Frame 2 or Darkfall: The Journal... and the later two I’ve played so many times, I basically know them by heart. Of course, since the night’s still young, I may play them anyway.

But back to Outlast. Remember back in my The Evil Within review (this is relevant, I promise), I started by having you get out your Horror Game/Movie Trope Bingo Cards? Well, fish them back out, because it’s time to drink ourselves to death. Take a shot, then place the glass on the square.

-Setting: Psychiatric Hospital (bonus shot: It’s built like Vlad the Impaler’s Castle)? Check.
-Backup Setting: Hospital for illegal and grotesque experiments? Check.
-Backup Backup Setting: Incongruously large prison? Check.
-Horribly deformed monster that stalks you, but you can’t get a good look at because he’ll eat you? Check
-Randomly placed full sized lockers to hide in? Check
-Massive and totally out of place sewer system? Check
-Dismembered bodies EVERYWHERE? Check
-Cannibalism? Check
-Insane and mutated villagers/zombies patients? Check (anyone get bingo yet?)
-Sane talking yet psychotic doctor? Check
-About half as many flickery lights as are necessary? Check
-The remaining lights reliably blowing up or getting turned off when you start achieving something? Check
-Seemingly straightforward objective that quickly gets sent round the bend? Check.

What is it with the big horror games so strictly adhering to formula? I’ll admit that a couple of the first jump scares got me, but after that, I could see them coming a mile away. And jump scares are the cheapest way to scare someone... it’s not even hard. A cat can jump out from behind a tree on a beautiful autumn day can scare someone, that doesn’t make it a horror element. And the creepy imagery was effectively creepy, if over the top, the first few times I saw it, but after the 100th time, not so much.

The plot’s not really helping either. It’s entirely driven by finding documents scattered throughout the game, but some of them are hidden, and easy to miss. Which I’m pretty sure I did, because some of the ones I did find just before I quit made no sense, presumably because they relied on ones that had come before.

The point that made me quit was the businessman turned doctor turned psychopath with scissors the length of a broadsword (do they make scissors that long? It was longer than any set of shears I’ve ever seen... they were literally as long as his arm). You have absolutely no way of defending yourself in this game, so if you get spotted, you have to hide. Enemies obligingly run more slowly than you, but after the good doctor saw me, and we started running around three rooms like the Benny Hill Show, and I’d dive under a bed, and he’d march up, grab me, pull me out, and start stabbing me again.

After dying five or six times to the emaciated Jack Benny, I finally looked at a walkthrough, because I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. Right before that set piece, I was kinda figuring that I was almost through with the game... it had been about an hour and a half, and some game elements... ok, all game elements, were wearing thin. But then I saw, from the walkthrough, that I was only at around the halfway point. I was so bored, that I turned off the game and wrote this review instead.

Will I keep playing? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA no.
There’s no reason to keep playing. The only thing the game can do now is frustrate me. The horror elements have been repeated too many times, the creepy stuff isn’t creepy any more... there’s just nothing that can scare me.

And what’s the point of a horror game that can’t scare?

Link for Doubting Thomas: Outlast (Taharka)

TL:DP: Flame Over

Sponsored by: mrtomaytohead

Short Review: Hot Hot Hot !!! (The Cure...sorry Buster)

Long Review:

A charming overhead roguelike that has you fighting flames and rescuing civvies (and cats!) in a friendly, cartoon environment. I had Flame Over on my Steam Wishlist forever, but thanks to the latest sale and mrtomaytohead's generosity, the dream is now a reality.

I played for a good 30 minutes with mouse & keyboard before coming to the conclusion that this is a controller game, so I dusted off my 360 pad and dove back in. That's when the fun really started. In Flame Over you play as a well-mustached English firefighter tasked with making your way through office complexes dousing flames and rescuing occupants. At your disposal is a water hose and chemical repellent along with a variety of gadgets that you purchase and upgrade along the way.

You have to be fast though as the countdown clock is always ticking and your water & chems have to constantly be refilled. Thankfully you can pull up a floor-map and pause the clock to get your bearings and
plan your attack. Do you go straight for the electrical room to disable the power to keep respawning electrical fires at bay? Before you do that only chemical repellent will put electrical fires out, after cutting the power you can use much-faster water to douse it. (Though thankfully, cutting the power does not cut the lights.)

As you clear floors you find yourself constantly making decisions of this nature for best time-management. I've found that's the real enemy. Luckily, you can add time to your clock by rescuing people (1 minute per person). This becomes an essential strat when walking the wire of putting out flames vs. escorting rescuees back to the start of the level. Saving cats gives you one health-heart per feline (those flames ouch!).

So the game is a lot more frenetic than I anticipated. But it's wrapped in this super-endearing audio-visual package that makes the game fun & friendly. It's hard to explain, but the takeaway feeling is a combination of old-school arcade action and this polished, cartoony Nintendo-like vibe that you just don't see much outside of the Big N themselves.

Office suites change in theme every 4 levels. So far I've managed to get 6 levels deep before running out of time. There's a global and Friends leaderboard to track your progress (my 2-2 beat your 2-1 record, mth!). But either way the game has me immediately pushing Restart after each session to see if I can get just a little further next time.

All and all I'd say the game impressed me more than I'd imagine. It's polished, addictive, bright & friendly. A killer combo.

Will I keep playing? You bet. Flame Over is a wonderful palate cleanser that works well in both short bursts and longer sessions. It's around $10 on Steam and an absolute steal at that price.

Link for DoubtingThomas: Flame Over (Aaron D.)

Aaron D. wrote:

TL:DP: Flame Over

Will I keep playing? You bet. Flame Over is a wonderful palate cleanser that works well in both short bursts and longer sessions. It's around $10 on Steam and an absolute steal at that price.

But is it the (insert Souls game of choice) of roguelike firefighting games?

So glad you enjoyed it. I'll likely give out a few random copies when the winter sale hits.

Thanks again!

Though truth be told, the legitimate Dark Souls of firefighting games is Firefighters 2014. Woof!

It's... Valhalla Hills

Sponsored By: D-Man777's City-Builder post + "Worth A Buy" Mack's video and GMG discount code MACK20-MACK20-MACK20

TL;DR: More Settlersy than The Settlers

100 minutes in:


At the rate Valhalla Hills unlocks things in normal gameplay mode, 100 minutes is only really enough time to evaluate the aesthetics of the game and the basic gameplay mechanics, and both are outstanding. My Vikings have conquered three randomly generated islands on their way to Valhalla, but I have unlocked what I believe is only a small part of the full complement of buildings. Most players would have made it further by now, but I'm taking my time, building everything I can and trying things out before hopping in the giant glowing stone portal to the next island.

Everything is Unreal-Engine-4-gorgeous, from the adorable little male and female cartoon Vikings with their Scandinavian names floating over their heads, to the animated torchlit buildings that produce the expected Viking Age basics: wood, stone, skins, grain, water, fish, meat, tools, weapons, and so on. The art direction is colorful, bold, detailed but still easy to read. It is deceptively low-poly looking, World of Warcraftish, but there is actually a lot of fine detail in the Vikings and buildings, drawing your attention more than the less detailed plants and terrain. It is not, thank the Allfather, voxel-based or pixellated, a style that has become entirely too popular in this genre of game. May Minecraft inspired graphics rest in peace. Soon.

Valhalla Hills gameplay has the usual rhythm of a game of this type: plop down a building, watch your little people scurry to gather materials and build it, chop down trees to get lumber to build houses and other buildings that let you gather other things to feed and arm everyone (there are predators in those forests, and the portal to the next island has some nasty guardians), and build ever more complex things in a tree of supply of demand. The placement of buildings is easy, and made interesting by limited areas suitable for building, different kinds of terrain, and areas of effect for some buildings. For example, building on hills requires more materials than building on flat land, because the Vikings will first construct a level platform under the building. When placing a building all of that information is clear and easy to see in the interface.

The interface design follows an aesthetic similar to the graphic design. It is straightforward on the surface, with lots of detail if you look deep enough. The game does a great job of teaching you to play it, and the tutorial information is archived so you can look up anything to remind yourself later. You can keep your Vikings' names, needs and tasks floating over their heads, or you can turn all that off if you just want to watch them run around. There's a scrolling list of notifications at the top of the screen that will alert you to important events or problems with individual Vikings. Even that part of the UI can be filtered to show you only the most important things. For the truly dedicated, the game has ridiculously detailed statistics graphs detailing pretty much everything that can be graphed.

The game has been really stable for me. I haven't seen any software bugs or graphics issues, but I did notice one very minor translation error (the German "ist" rather than "is" in one description). There are other little problems, though. When placing a building, the slope of various areas is indicated by three colors, and I'm pretty sure they are indistinguishable if you're color blind. On my third island, I had a really hard time keeping my Vikings fed, but that could just be because I haven't unlocked everything. I have read about "kitchens" that put together meals from different basic foods and those meals sate your Vikings' hunger longer. I found some Early Access complaints about pathfinding and Vikings refusing to feed themselves, but I didn't run into those problems.

It'll take a bit more play time before I can tell whether this game will be just a brief amusement like Banished was, or if there's enough variety to keep me going. Banished had random maps, too, and a variety of buildings that seems similar to what's available in Valhalla Hills. Funatics Software will be supporting this game with at least 2 DLC packs. I imagine there's a lot of room for add-ons: new races (there are apparently Dwarves in the game already), different kinds of buildings with different effects, and maybe even different styles of terrain. On the other hand, there's no Steam Workshop support in Valhalla Hills. Still, I have a feeling I'm going to get more than my $24 worth of fun out of this game.

Will you keep playing? Oh yeah. This charming game has put Anno 2205 on the back burner.

Doubtinglinkus: Valhalla Hills (BadKen)

I apologize to everyone for the abysmal job I've been doing curating this list. I haven't made time to keep up with it.

I'll try to do better in 2016.

Promises, promises!... Also, a lot of the links that predated the forum migration don't work anymore, so you have that to look forward to (as an example, I just tried to look up the three Divinity: Original Sin reviews, and no dice, it links to the top of the page).

Game: Relive

Sponsored By: Arimajinn, who posted on Steam an intriguing screenshot of a cel-shaded man having chest compressions performed on him in first-person.

2 Breaths: A free, short sci-fi first-person adventure game, and CPR edutainment tool.

30 Compressions: I initially wasn’t sure if this was the real edutainment deal, or some ironic indie game jam work. But it really is a game developed to get people interested in CPR. An intense nanite storm is ravaging a Martian research base, and it’s up to you, Error 404, to follow directions from your superiors and obdurate medbots, Dead Space-style, solve adventure game puzzles, and learn and perform CPR, to help the survivors and station withstand the storm.

A commendable amount of thoughtful work has gone into this game, between the story (I think the nanites are sentient, or controlled by a rogue AI—it’s not a natural storm), the compellingly ugly purple and brown cel-shaded art style, the puzzles, and a Half-Life 2 reference. If you like combing the environment for items so you can combine them together and such not, here’s a couple hours of that, in first-person.

I encountered some issues that more testing might have cleared up—sketchy collision detection, stuck UI messages, getting trapped against a wall by an opening door, and locking myself into a room which necessitated restarting a whole chapter—but that’s the price you pay. And when that price is “free”, the product is educational, and the time investment minimal, I can’t bring myself really to complain.

The best part about CPR (other than the whole live-saving) is that the medically recommended way to perform the compressions is in time to “Stayin’ Alive”. That hasn’t come up in the game yet, but I will be sorely disappointed if that isn’t the closing credits song.


Will I Keep Playing? Why not—I’m halfway through and have yet to perform CPR in anger. Relive could probably be done in one sitting, but some jank and my ineptitude at adventure game puzzles has dragged that out a bit longer.

On a Scale of 1 - Dark Souls: In its genre, Relive really is the whole scale (as far as I’m aware).

Relive (Gravey)

Hands up, who spends more time writing their TL;DP reviews than they did playing the actual game. o/

Not usually. Even if I don't finish the game, I'll put 10 hours or so into it. It doesn't take me that long to write the review.

Well, assuming one's writing it after one hour of play. I'm probably just a slow writer.

Edit: Also, apparently I have a meeting now, so this'll take even longer to write.

Gravey wrote:

Hands up, who spends more time writing their TL;DP reviews than they did playing the actual game. o/

I spent more time writing my ETS2 rant, deleting, and re-writing in a different thread / place than the 1 hour I did playing it. I honestly still feel like I failed at not sounding too targeting / angry. But I see you took it well in the other thread.

TL:DR - Not for me at all.

Game: GRID Autosport

Sponsored By: Humble Codemasters Bundle

Sprint Review: My multi-discipline simcade motorsports saviour.

Endurance Review: If you compare screenshots of the three Grid games, you'll see the font weight in the UI get lighter and lighter with each iteration. Grid has this cool, flashy 3D UI, and Grid 2 has some weird story going on with live action ESPN cut scenes (I think? I skipped it, cockpit cam purist that I am), but Grid Autosport has pared that all back and lightened everything, from the font to the flash. There's no goofy story and no gimmicks, just a clean, light presentation, and a wide open career mode that puts the racing first. I think half the battle for my heart with any racing game is a minimal front end, from Forza 3 to Dirt Rally to Grid Autosport.

That racing is all against fictional teams in fictional but identifiable series (BTCC, Formula 3, Stock Car Brasil, etc, with the serial numbers filed off), complete with practice sessions and qualifying—unlike Forza Motorsport, Grid Autosport remembers that the second part of its title means something. RaceRoom also offers proper motorsport, and more, but this is where Autosport's simcade handling is a huge draw for me. It's not as drift-encouraging as Grid, but it's not so demanding as a sim. I was on a quest to find a Forza equivalent for PC, waffling between Project Cars and Assetto Corsa, then spending $60 on RaceRoom content without an equivalent investment of time (which is why I mention them). But with Dirt Rally pulverizing me into a shaking, exhausted wreck after each session, it was a simcade racer I needed on the circuit front, something I didn't even realize until I plopped $20 down on GAS on a whim and fired it up.

The cars so far feel quite light, almost as if they're origami, but the driving strikes a perfect balance between accessible and technical with all the assists off. The AI drive respectably, giving up space when needed, which encourages me to drive more respectably, even in 16-car argy-bargy touring car races. That, combined with a race weekend format, grids of (fictional) liveries, team objectives, teammate orders, ye olde "beat Joe Schmoe from rival team" objectives (rather than "win win win you're awesome bro"), and some basic radio communication all add up to an authentic racing game feel. GAS nails the right things—which don't necessarily include super-rigorous handling or a career mode with ego-stroking cutscenes—to make me feel like a pro race driver.

That lack of ostentatious flash manifests in the graphics too. Visually GAS isn't a world-beater, or PCars-beater, or even Forza 4-beater. But it isn't in thrall to some kind of questionable "style" (piss filter—never forget). The cars and track are competent and effective, and even more important, very well optimized. A locked 900p60 on medium/high on a 750M is very appreciated. The car sounds are a little anemic, at least what I've heard so far, but then everything short of reality will sound a distant second to Dirt Rally or RaceRoom. The sound of tires reaching their limit of grip is effective and informative.

Oh right, and about that cockpit cam. Well, I take what I can get. The dashboard cam is quite nice, though I like to see the on-screen wheel turn (I use a controller). A no-blur mod takes care of that, and I just hope for the future.

[E2A: Full disclosure, this review is coming 20 hours in to the game, but my feelings (and available car tiers FTM) haven't changed since the first hour.]

Will I Keep Playing? I can't stop.

On a Scale of 1 - Dark Souls: It's simcade but doesn't hand me victories—a finish in the points is often my challenge on Hard, or just getting a RWD GT car to the end without spinning out. That said, I was watching Inside Sim Racing play it for the first time, and the guy topped qualifying and then cruised to an easy victory on Very Hard. So there's that.

GRID Autosport (Gravey)

Game: Shift 2 Unleashed

Sponsored By: Steam Winter Sale, and Qt3's old game diary

2 Minutes In Review: LOUD NOISES

1 Hour In Review: Take the complete opposite of my Grid Autosport review. Flashy, obnoxious, loud, and distractingly stylish, from the moment it loads. If Soulpatch Jr. isn't yakking at me, then rafts of XP are flying across the screen while awful music blares (EA Trax—never forget). When I finally get into a race (which Soulpatch invariably interjects with a "LIGHT'S GREEN GO GO GO", just in case I was beginning to enjoy the game, just in case my monitor suddenly shut off) the camera is juddering, everything is blurring, and my view is uncontrollably swinging left and right.

Shift 2 takes the complete opposite tack of GAS in deciding what is important for an authentic professional racing feel. I understand it, but I don't like it at all. My eyes already focus and blur out what I'm not directly looking at—I don't need the game to decide that, especially when it actually has fully functioning cockpits. I also have a decently-sized widescreen monitor, and am capable of looking at apexes that aren't in the centre of my screen.

If miring that racing in an out-of-race experience with enough relentless bro-titude to make Dirt 2 feel inadequate isn't sufficient (to not feel like professional racing, or just be simply unpleasant), there are numerous issues. Shift 2 is significantly unoptimized (nowhere near 60 fps at 900p on medium, in a 2011 game); it requires the keyboard in the menus; and Autolog wouldn't accept my valid password (well, it initially did, then never would again, nor is there any way to re-enter the password). To cap off this complete opposite of my Grid Autosport review, the tire sounds are unnatural, either at maximum or not at all, sounding more like OutRun than a modern racing game.

Bro, You Gonna Keep Playing? I've already stopped. The track selection is bountiful and excellent, there's a point in its favour, so maybe I'll return to it. I've paid more to rent worse anyway.

On a Scale of 1 - Dark Souls: The Dark Souls games are very deliberate and nuanced experiences, as contemplative and mature as they are exciting. So a 0.

Shift 2 Unleashed (Gravey)

Thanks for reminding me I own Grid Autosport Gravey! Gotta dive into that!

Veloxi wrote:

Thanks for reminding me I own Grid Autosport Gravey! Gotta dive into that!

I recommend it! I sat on that review for a few days since it was basically a love letter; that's the chopped down version above. There are more valid criticisms of GAS that are apparent from the off that I didn't mention, like no pit stops in endurance races and no weather, but a lot of it can be summarized as "GAS is missing what the first Grid had"—particularly creating and running your own team, and the day/night Le Mans event. It's not a perfect game, but it's still a solid "great".

The gushing won't stop with me though, as I had a fantastic moment last night: coming out of a corner, I got behind my rival while my teammate got ahead of him. I ordered my teammate to hold his position and he dutifully blocked the rival for a couple more corners while I passed them both. Now maybe they would have driven those lines anyway, maybe more racing games let you order your teammate, I don't know. But it felt awesome.

Also, in addition to having minimal front-ends, I realize I also like my racing games to have chill-ish electronica soundtracks.

Word to the wise: just because you have time on account of being home from the hospital, don't think that means you can catch up on sorting every review you failed to update.

I got everything from the backlog into the main post and then proceeded to accidentally click the "Close tab" button on the edits because my hands aren't behaving right now.


Retro Review: Shadow Hearts

Sponsored By: Rose Colored Glasses

TL:DR: This review sponsored by fear and hesitation.

Long Review: So, if I'm honest for a moment, I've kinda been avoiding doing this review. Partly it's because we got into the holiday season, and there was a big new game to play, then another, and another after that, and so on. But the other reason I've been avoiding doing this review because I really liked Shadow Hearts when I was younger. I remember it as such an innovative game, with fun characters and an interesting story, and every time I thought about going back to play it, somewhere in the back of my mind, something whispered at me... whispered that if I went back to play it, I'd find something, or several somethings, terrible about it that would ruin my rose tinted memory.

But, while I certainly still have plenty of games, both new and old, I can play, it really was past time to get this review going, time to face those nameless fears. So with no little bit of trepidation in my heart, I set off to ruin a childhood memory.

First impressions were bad. This is a PS2 game, but it looks pretty terrible. The textures are blocky, the models jagged, and in cutscenes, everyone looks like a plastic doll, all smooth skin that’s slightly too pink and incredibly stiff movements. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Final Fantasy 9 looked better than Shadow Hearts. But maybe that’s not fair, maybe that’s showing my gaming privilege, showing how accustomed I’ve become to an era when even the low budget and indie games have good, if stylized, graphics. Maybe I should accept the graphics and focus on the good.

And there’s plenty of good to enjoy! The innovative impression I retained over the years was well founded. Combat is a fairly standard JRPG turn based affair, but instead of some random number generator determining whether or not you hit your target, or cast your spell, based on an invisible stat percentage, you get the “Judgement Ring”, which was named, I can only assume, after the producer watched too many episodes of American Gladiator. It’s a clock dial thing, with an indicator that swings around. Inside the ring, you have anywhere from one to five wedge shaped areas. As the indicator sweeps past the areas, you hit the action button. Get all the areas, you do whatever you wanted to do. I like the system, because now combat is focused on your skills, if your character misses the punch, or fails to cast the spell, it’s not because some invisible force has willed it, but because you missed hitting the area in the judgment ring. Maybe it gets a little tiring after a while, since, in combat and frequently out of combat, you have to use the judgement ring for everything (why do I have to correctly hit three areas on the ring just to pick up a metal bowl?), but I still appreciate that it’s my ability that’s dictating turn based combat.

Another thing I really like is that most of the game mechanics are built around risk vs. Reward. In the above judgement ring, each hit area is actually split in two. There’s a large wedge that’s “good”, and a smaller wedge right at the end of the hit area that’s “great”. Hit the great areas and you do more damage, heal more, just do “better” BUT it’s a small area, and quite easy to miss, so you risk not doing your action at all. Even combat itself has risk vs. Reward going on. Get this, with each enemy you kill, the world’s “malice” goes up. The higher the malice, the tougher the enemies are. Now, you can go and clear your malice at any point by fighting an enemy in one particular area that’s always easily accessable, however, the higher the malice, the better the items that drop. Some items are only available if you fight in the highest level of malice. Risk vs. Reward. Even buying items has this discount system that again uses the judgement ring. Hit all the hit areas, get a discount. Fail, and you pay more. Or ignore it altogether and buy for base price. It shows a level of planning in the game, a decision to base pretty much every mechanic around the concept of risk vs. Reward, and I like it. I wish more games would use the judgement ring, or use risk vs. Reward as a central mechanic, because I feel a lot more involved.

The story too, is a lot of fun. It’s a bit over the top, but is decently gruesome, pulling dark and twisted monsters from shintoism and Japanese folklore, and the overarching plot is sufficiently epic, with enough twists and turns to keep the viewer involved, and ends, spoiler alert, with you and your team killing some ancient god from the depths of space which you lured there using, no joke, a magical, giant fishing bobber. It’s strange in all the right ways, even if it does feel at times like I’m watching one of the weirder animes.

Sadly, for all that’s great about the mechanics and story, I fear I must now turn to the bad, to that little voice in the back of my mind, correctly warning me about all those dark things I missed as a kid. Shall we start with the gender depictions, which I’ve addressed in each of these retro reviews so far, or shall we start with the new complaint, homosexual depictions?

Let’s get the easier one out of the way first, and go with gender. There are two main characters, Yuri, a brash young man who’s constantly leering at the main female character, Alice. Now, while Yuri is dressed in normal clothes, Alice, who’s the religious and innocent/naive daughter of a priest, is dressed in long sleeves, a corset, stockings... and a mini skirt that only preserves the wearer’s modesty in the world of anime which this game was born from. Now, believe it or not, I could almost give all that a pass. Yuri’s personality is a mask, born of him being terrified of the monsters that he’s fighting, and terrified of the malice that’s building up inside of him, the more he fights. He acts like an uncaring, lecherous idiot to keep others at bay and to fool himself, but as the game progresses, he has a really nice character arc, first getting angry at his fate, then accepting, and finally breaking free of it. He stops acting as much like a lewd guy and starts showing his true feelings, which are much more normal, and he becomes a sympathetic character for it. Alice, too, undergoes a character arc, from timid and innocent to confident and strong, eventually sacrificing herself for Yuri, who she’s gotten to know and love.

Sadly, while their character arcs almost get the gender politics a pass, it’s ruined by two things: the other male characters, all of whom are just as lecherous, but don’t have the redeeming character arc, and the developers themselves who added a couple of special hidden items in the game, white and black underwear, complete with a very specific model change for Alice... Ugh.

But, you know, there’s also a degree of self awareness to the gender politics. At times, the stereotypical male and female roles reverse, it becomes clear that Yuri isn’t much of anything without Alice, and there’s a lot of dialogue that suggests the developers were doing it for fan service, yes, but also tongue in cheek, so I’m left more ambivalent about the gender politics than angry.

What does get me angry is the homosexual politics. There’s this one NPC in the game, a vendor whom you’ll run across quite a lot, who is flamboyant in all the worst stereotypes. He has a special running animation that can only be called “prancing”, and he constantly hits on the male characters... pretty much every line he has in an innuendo. Now, I could stomach his behavior if it wasn’t so obvious that the developers were being spiteful, and I think the easiest way to illustrate that is to use some dialogue that comes within the first two hours of the game. The gay character has just left, and here’s what the three remaining characters say:

Zhuzhen, “He really is great at his job, you know. [he’s an acupuncturist]”
Yuri, “But who’d want to let him touch them?”
Alice, “Huh? He’s a nice man, isn’t he?”
Zhuzhen, “Oh, you’re perfectly safe, missy.”

... So in a few lines of dialogue, we have disgust and implications that the one gay character isn’t “safe”. And I know that you could say they’re talking about that character only, not the entire homosexual population, but, if I remember correctly, all the Shadow Hearts games had only one or two homosexual characters who were basically walking stereotypes which the other characters treated with blanket scorn, so it starts seeming like the developers themselves have a very dim view of homosexuality. Honestly, I really didn’t “get” what those characters were when I first played the games. I mean, I knew that they were gay, but I wasn’t as tuned into the politics of it.

I suppose you could say, well, it’s an anime... anime from that time wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of social justice. And while that’s true, it’s also an excuse. I know that games can do better on the social issues, Primal proved that, but Shadow Hearts just... panders.

Glasses Off Review: So where am I now? What is Shadow Hearts, 15 years later? Still one of my most fondly remembered games? Well, I’m definitely more ambivalent about it than I was 15 years ago. I still feel that there’s a lot of great innovation in the mechanics that more games should use, and I really do like the story, the monsters, and... some of the characters. But now... now I’m cringing at the politics of it. The gender politics, those are at least a mixed bag, showing some level of self awareness and genuine character development that makes them tolerable... but the homosexual politics? No. Just no.

Sadly, I don’t know that Shadow Hearts could get a remake in this day and age. Taking out the homosexual stuff, that’s hard enough. But if you tried to remove the gender politics, you’d have to change almost every character... and then, it’s not Shadow Hearts. So while I’d love to see the judgement ring, and the risk vs. Rewards mechanic get used more, and I’d love to see more games built on creepy folklore... I think that Shadow Hearts, as a game, is pretty much done.

And my childhood weeps to admit it.

Link for Doubting Thomas: Shadow Hearts (Taharka)

TL:EF (too long: eventually finished): Contrast

Sponsored by: The Pile, 2016. And persistence.

Short Review: Take a long drag on that cigarette and finish your gin and tonic, ‘cause it’s time to go back to the 30s.

Long Review: Contrast is a noir game, through and through.

You get that feeling, that vibe, from the husky jazz singer crooning smooth tunes in a smoky basement bar; to the father, newly out of jail, down on his luck but looking to do right by his family; to the gangster loan sharks, smartly decked out in pinstripe suits as they demand their money; to the grimy cobblestone roads dimly gas-lit and washed with tears and broken dreams; to the electropunk magician/inventor...

Wait... what?

Electropunk anachronism aside, Contrast is an amazing artistic achievement. It drips with the weight of character and personality, setting you in a world and making you long for a whiskey in hand. The people all have struggles, hopes, and broken-dream despair, which is impressive, considering that all you see of them are shadows projected on walls. It’s Plato’s Cave, rewritten for the jazz age. And all of which comes across in volumes in less than three hours, drawing you in and drawing you on, making you want to see the end, even if the fear is always that the end won’t be anything good. But such is the impetus of the noir genre, equal parts sorrow and determination.

In fact, I could only level two criticisms at the game: jumping mechanics and shifting mechanics.

Unfortunately, since Contrast is a precision platformer based around the mechanic of shifting in and out of shadows, those two criticisms are as the double barrels of a shotgun. Both mechanics could most charitably be described as ‘finicky’, prone to not registering a button press, or suddenly pushing you away because of the scene’s geometry, making you start the puzzle over again.

It wasn’t enough to make me toss the game aside though, that atmosphere, those characters, the story, all kept me invested enough to see the game through, even if I got the game at launch in October 2013, and only finished it January 2016...

Contrast is a far better than average freshman effort from a new studio. They nailed the world and everything in it. If the mechanics needed a little more tightening, I can forgive them, for I’d rather take a hundred beautiful artistic games with frustrating mechanics than a single perfectly polished game with a bland world.

How Dark do these Souls go? Contrast, even if it had flawless mechanics, would be a tough game. It’s precision platforming, perfect timing and frustration are part and parcel with the experience. Call it three and a half dimly burning lanterns out of five.

Will I keep playing? Nah. I finished the story today, and all that would be left is to go back and get the collectables, but I really don’t feel the need to OCD that. So I’m done with Contrast, but not with this studio. Whatever they release next, I’ll be very interested.

Link for Doubting Thomas of the GWJ Cabaret: Contrast (Taharka)

Green World Review: Order of the Thorne: The King's Challenge

Sponsored By: Kickstarter (I was a backer on this project)

Staccato Review: Do you believe in fairy tales? Because you're living in one.

Legato Review: This is the second commercial effort by the team at Infamous Quests, although it's actually their fourth game if you count their freeware remakes of King's Quest III and Space Quest II under their former name of Infamous Adventures.

Whereas their last game, Quest for Infamy, was an "edgy" homage to Sierra's Quest for Glory this one is a straight-laced tribute to the King's Quest series.

However, where King's Quest felt like a series about fairy tales this game strikes out its own path in creating a fairy tale world of its own. Sure you'll find trolls guarding bridges, mischievous pixies, anthropomorphic animals, grumpy gnomes, and other tropes but the world feels like its own thing rather than King's Quest's habit of putting classic stories in a blender and spreading the resulting slurry across its world.

You play as Finn the Bard who's come to the Faerie Realm to participate in this year's "King's Challenge" as a source of inspiration for his next song. This year's challenge involves finding the Queen who's voluntarily hidden herself somewhere in the realm, and it's up to Finn and the other six competitors to locate her. Along the way Finn will need to use items from his inventory as well as using magical songs to solve several puzzles and challenges in the realm. It's a very is pretty simple premise but the team uses it well to keep the game world fairly small but while still making it feel like there's a much bigger world beyond its borders like many early adventures.

Interface is very standard for this type of game. Rather than retaining the SCI style interface (ie. discrete icons for walk, look, talk, touch, etc.) from Quest for Infamy the game uses the modern two button interface. Left click interacts with items of interest (or moves your character) and right click gets you a description of the item of interest.

Puzzle-wise the game hasn't thrown anything too complex at me although I really haven't been able to dig too far into this since my first hour and a half was primarily spent surveying the land, meeting the characters, and trying to abscond with anything that isn't nailed to the floor. It's an adventure game, that's just how things roll. However, I have to admit I'm kinda stumped right now as I can see multiple pieces of the current puzzle chain I'm on but can't seem to figure out how to proceed past the current step.

You also have your trusty lute which you can use to play songs you've learned. I haven't really had to use this much so far but I have gotten reactions from NPCs for playing songs around them. The game allows you to play the lute by clicking on the individual strings in a sort of "Simon Says" mini-game that starts after you select the song you want perform which feels a bit Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker to me. Conveniently, the developers allow you to bypass this if you don't want to deal with it which is nice since it's starting to get a little old especially if you miss a note and have to start over again. Fortunately, there's no penalty for goofing up a song if you stick with manually playing your instrument.

So yup. It's King's Quest with some Loom mechanics (I think? Don't ask me about Loom as I never really played it.) blended in. Exactly what's on the tin.

Will I keep playing? Absolutely. The team really nailed the early 90's Sierra look and feel again, and I'm enjoying my time in this world and looking forward to seeing more of it in the next installment later this year.

Also, the production quality is improved from Quest for Infamy, in particular the voice recordings are a lot more consistent in quality.

Liner Notes for DT: Order of the Thorne: The King's Challenge (shoptroll)

You've never played Loom?!?!? (Yes, sorry, that was my main takeaway) It's so simple and lovely and wonderful!!

Thanks for the feedback, Shoptroll, I guess Order of the Thorne is going on the wish list (also known as the "will buy eventually" list).

Eleima wrote:

You've never played Loom?!?!? (Yes, sorry, that was my main takeaway) It's so simple and lovely and wonderful!! :)

Nope, I actually missed the boat on many of the classic series since we didn't get a proper PC* until like 93/94 and we were mostly playing Doom, Populous, Rebel Assault and SimCity on it. I think my first proper introduction to the genre was Myst although I had read about the Maniac Mansion and King's Quest V ports in Nintendo Power. I guess this makes me a "fake adventure gamer"!

Now you know why I'm so hyped for Day of the Tentacle Remastered

* My dad had an Apple II with only a word processor and some of the MECC edutainment titles we borrowed from the school during the summer. I didn't have access to PC gaming magazines until much later, so my knowledge of PC games was very limited at this time.

I also missed the boat on Loom and a couple of the classics (like Grim Fandango), but I had a major adventure game renaissance in the 2000s, which is when I played it.

And of course you're excited for DoTT!!! Who wouldn't be, it's going to be awesome!!!

Eleima wrote:

I also missed the boat on Loom and a couple of the classics (like Grim Fandango), but I had a major adventure game renaissance in the 2000s, which is when I played it.

I wouldn't call it a renaissance but I've been trying to set aside time to play more of the older games I missed (I would love to make my way through the entire LucasArts and Sierra adventure catalogs in my life) although I did a bad job of this last year. So many titles and a lot of upcoming ones look really good. I just really like exploring a lot of these worlds and picking away at them at a relaxed pace.

You can pick up Loom on Steam now. I also missed it, but will get around to playing it and Grim Fandango soon!

Taharka wrote:

You can pick up Loom on Steam now. I also missed it, but will get around to playing it and Grim Fandango soon!

Oh I'm aware I can get it. I just haven't pulled the trigger since I have plenty of other old adventure games to burn through first

There are lots of ways to tell if you like a game, but I find a good general rule of thumb is to look at how much time you’ve put in, especially if it’s a lot of time over a short period. Such as 21 hours over 3 days... It’s winter up here, what do you want?

But rather than reviewing just that game, I thought I’d do a compare and contrast style review of three different open world/crafting/survival games. Why? No clue, I just thought it a good idea, and apparently I don’t have enough to do at work. This is quite a long post, and I’ll spoiler individual areas to avoid wall ‘o text. No real spoilers in any of them, though.

Anyway, the three games I’ll be looking at are Don't Starve (and its same-studio spinoff, Don't Starve Together), Ark: Survival Evolved, and Subnautica. Anyone want to hazard a guess which of those three games I’ve averaged 7 hours a day in? Well, since you can’t post until after I’ve put up this full review, which will include the name of the game, I guess it’ll be hard to tell if you got it right. We’ll go on the honor system.

Like my review of Witcher 3 vs. Dragon Age: Inquisition, I’m going to break this review into categories, both for ease of judgement, and to be completely boring in my style.

It’s the End of the World as we Know it:


Survival games tend to live and die by their world, especially in an open world sandbox, like these three are. A great world can forgive a lot of flaws, while a bad one will condemn an otherwise wonderful game... wait... I’ve done this before.

Still, it’s true. Although, perhaps I should say that a boring world will condemn an otherwise great game. Don't Starve gets the immediate boost to first place for two big reasons. 1) The world is procedurally generated, adding to replayability and 2) The art style is incredibly unique and beautiful, sort of if Edward Gorey illustrated the Cthulhu mythos. Characters talk, but don’t speak, instead they have instruments that play snatches of music, one instrument per character, Peter and the Wolf style. It’s highly stylized, and every part of the world feels unique. Some might be put off by the cartoony feel of everything, but I, for one, am not.

This is not to say that Ark and Subnautica aren’t good worlds, they just fall a little short when compared to Don't Starve. Both worlds are static, so once you learn the map, there are no surprises left. Now, with Ark, that map is gigantic, so it’s going to take a while to effectively learn. And as they’ve proved through patches, they’re not afraid to change up the landscape from time to time. Sadly, even though Ark has the larger of the two worlds, it still comes in third place because that world is aggressively boring. There’s nothing unique about the landscape, no special features or interesting art styles, and barely any change from one biome to the next.

Subnautica, too, is a fixed world, and compared to Ark, quite a small one as well. Yet Subnautica's underseas adventure is so jaw droppingly beautiful post H2.0 patch (yes, they called it that) that I happily give it second place. Yeah, I can go from one end of the world to the other in under five minutes, but I don’t care because it’s such an interesting world to traverse, and each biome has distinct feels. It seems to me that the developer took the time to lovingly craft a world, rather than what Ark feels like, which is making a bunch of landscape pieces and throwing them together.

Don't Starve: 3, Subnautica: 2, Ark: 1.

The X Factor:


How does a game differentiate itself from the slurry of survival games clogging Steam’s pipes? It’s something that survival games, and perhaps games in general, seem to struggle with, and the more attentive readers amongst you will notice that none of the games I’m reviewing involve zombies. Zombies are the white noise of survival games, but fortunately the more savvy game designers seem to realize that and are distancing themselves from this trope.

Don't Starve has two unique factors First, its art style. I really don’t know of any other game that looks like a Gorey illustration... maybe Neverending Nightmares? Regardless, the art style pulls double duty as both world and a unique factor, which, unfortunately, is a negative. The second unique factor is the survival metric. Everyone has health and hunger/thirst as a metric, so that’s not unique, but, in deference to the Cthulhu origins, you also have to manage your sanity. As your sanity drops, you start getting attacked by living shadows. It’s nice, but I feel that they didn’t go far enough. Eternal Darkness showed us back in the Gamecube era how to really play with a sanity meter, and considering Don't Starve's art style, I feel they missed an opportunity.

Still, better than Ark! Ark's sole unique point is the dinosaurs. You hunt them, you tame them, you ride them, you use them as pack animals, they sometimes hunt you (In soviet Ark, dinosaurs... sorry). Somehow, though, it fails to grab me. Maybe it’s because fighting the raptors (they don’t call them that, but they are raptors) is a pain. Maybe it’s because taming anything is a poorly explained pain. Maybe it’s because trying to even start the taming process on a flying dino is a pain and a half. It’s hard to get enthused about Ark's USP because it’s so difficult to do, and after a while, I just couldn’t be bothered.

Subnautica also has two unique points, the first is the game’s setting. I don’t know of any other survival game set underwater. This opens up the third dimension to play with, such as labyrinthine caves that are easy to get lost in, causing anxiety as you watch your air supply (the second USP of Subnautica) tick down. Or massive kelp forests and towering earthen pillars with resources dotted around. Or dealing with the crushing depths and all the freaky animals down there. Or going out into the ocean and hearing the deep, low moan of some obviously large monster somewhere out in the depths that actually terrifies me and makes me turn around. It’s wonderful and freeing. Yeah, you can eventually fly in Ark, but there’s no survival aspect to it, it’s just a transportation system. And Don't Starve is completely flat.

Subnautica: 3, Don't Starve: 2, Ark: 1.

What I Do Have is a Very Particular Set of Skills:


Something else that all these crafting/survival games seems to struggle with is staying power. What keeps the player coming back, when there’s so much competition for a gamer’s time? Part of that is the slow drip feed of new items to craft. Interestingly, all three games take different approaches to that drip.

Don't Starve's approach is to lock the new items behind specific inventions. You can build some easy items by hand, but eventually you’ll need to build the Science Machine for the first tier of items. Those 1st tier items will let you brach farther and farther out to get the materials needed for the Alchemy Engine to access 2nd tier items, and so on. With Don't Starve, accessing these higher tier items is great for survival, but also for accessing the end game (more on that later). It’s an interesting system, especially since it encourages players to build a single base and use that as a hub. This, in turn, makes striking out away from that base akin to being an old time explorer. You need to make sure you bring enough supplies with you to survive your trip into the unknown. I like it.

Ark locks away its items behind an RPG style leveling system. Everything you do grants EXP. Enough EXP, you gain a level and a certain allotment of points to spend on unlocking the blueprints. Some blueprints require you to unlock other blueprints first. Pretty standard, but I have two problems with it. First, it’s not organic. You have all the blueprints in your techno wristband thing from the beginning, they’re just artificially locked until you purchase them. Second, and on a more basic level, I dislike the RPG leveling system, because it also applies to the dinos, which, in turn, makes those pain elements I mentioned above even more painful as they take longer.

Subnautica takes the third approach by giving you almost all the blueprints from the word go, but puts the materials necessary to craft the advanced ones further away from your starting position (you always have the same starting position). So what you end up doing is moving in wider and wider circles, first grabbing the nearby easy materials to craft basic items which let you move farther away to get more materials... etc. Some materials are only found in certain biomes, or at certain depths, and it’s great for encouraging exploration and tinkering with your builds. Unlike Don't Starve, though, since the machines that actually make items are cheap to build themselves, you’re encouraged to build multiple sea bases, putting underwater habitats near resource areas and building the two submarines to make moving between bases, and areas without bases, easier.

So how do I reconcile this? It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Well, I clearly dislike Ark the most, so that gets third place. But Don't Starve and Subnautica? Hmm... For no definable reason, I’m giving first place to Subnautica. It’s just a gut feeling, I just like that method better.

Subnautica: 3, Don't Starve: 2, Ark: 1.

It’s the End of the Game as we Know it:


This is more an FYI, and I’m not going to give points for this section, but what do these games do for end game content? Well, the simple answer is that only Don't Starve has an end game, though not its multiplayer spinoff Don't Starve Together. And it’s hard. You get through the first world, building yourself up and up, eventually building an item that lets you move on to... another world. Only this new world is more difficult (maybe it’s perpetually winter, maybe its got a load of monsters). You build yourself up again and move on again, and again, and again. Eventually, you reach the final world, beat the final boss, and win the game. Neither Ark nor Subnautica have that, you just keep crafting and surviving until you get bored. So if having an end point/victory state is important to you, keep this in mind.

Do you Even Survive, Bro?


These games all come under the heading of “survival”, so how difficult is it to survive?

Don't Starve again arbitrarily leads the discussion with two fronts. First, metric management. Eat to... not starve. Sleep to regain sanity. Heal to... heal, make stuff to manage body temperature. It really feels like the passage of time is your biggest enemy, because you have to manage all that while also searching for materials and building. It’s a juggling act. Second, monsters. Who would have thought that a Gorey/Lovecraft world would be full of monsters that want to tear off your face and wear it as a beret? But yes, combat in Don't Starve is a big impediment to survival, second only to metric management.

Ark feels like resources should be the most difficult aspect to survival, but it’s a bit confusing. You see, it takes a LOT of resources to make anything, or to fill your hunger, quench your thirst, etc. but resources respawn very quickly. I can be clearcutting a forest to get enough wood and thatch to build a new wing on my house, and when I get to the end of a path, I turn around and half the trees have grown back. So you have to spend a lot of time gathering resources, but the resources aren’t hard to gather. Yeah, you sometimes get attacked by dinos while gathering, but that’s more a diversion than anything. Really, the limited durability of your gathering tools is the hardest part, though again, that falls into the pain category.

Alright, I have to be honest, at this time, Subnautica isn’t hard to survive. The biggest problem is air, but once you’ve crafted a few air tanks and at least one of the subs or a seabase or two, your air is sorted. Exploring caves is the only really tricky part. Yes, there is aggressive wildlife, but they’re also remarkably easy to avoid. Yeah, you have hunger and thirst to manage, but those metrics decrease slowly. Catch one fish every 30 minutes and you’re set. The only thing that’s really hard is that resources don’t grow back. There’s a lot of resources, but it’s very possible to eat all the fish, mine all the quartz and titanium, and be left with a very pretty, but barren land. In part, that’s a good thing, because it’s going to force you to move away from your starting area, but it’s also a pain, as even basic resources require longer and longer trips. So I guess you can say that Subnautica has an ending, but it’s only a failure state. Eventually, and this will take a very, very long time, you’ll run out of resources, and then your subs will stop moving, you won’t be able to construct any more seabases, and you’ll starve. But again, that will take a very, very long time, and otherwise, it’s very easy to stay alive.

Don't Starve: 3, Ark: 2, Subnautica: 1

Is It FiniSentence Under Construction


So how close are these three games to being a finished product? How polished and bug free are the ones that aren’t finished?

Don't Starve is a finished product. They patch it occasionally, and have released a few DLCs, but really, you can pick up Don't Starve now and it’s not going to change in the coming months. The spinoff, Don't Starve Together, which adds multiplayer and rebalances the difficulty to accommodate four people is an Early Access and currently lacks that end game I mentioned before, but the single player experience is done and highly polished.

Ark and Subnautica are both early access games, but Ark feels more complete. Maybe it’s because Subnautica is still using some placeholder models, or that some models are lacking textures. Or maybe it’s because Ark has more to build and a larger landscape to build in (even if it’s bland). Or maybe it’s because Ark has regular, seemingly weekly updates, while Subnautica favors the less frequent, but bigger style of update. Or maybe it’s a combination of all those things, but no matter the reason, Ark just feels more complete. Yeah, Subnautica is extremely pretty, but it could be more complete.

Don't Starve: 3, Ark: 2, Subnautica: 1.

It’s the Final Countdown


So what’s the score? What wins, what loses?
After the great reckoning in a little thread, we have:

Don't Starve: 13
Subnautica: 10
Ark: Survival Evolved: 7

So that’s it, then? Don't Starve is the winner? Well, yes and no. I think Don't Starve is good if you want a finished, bug free game, but at the same time, I don’t play it anymore specifically because it’s a finished game. There’s no more excitement, no more magic. I’ve done all there is to do in Don't Starve, outside of some DLC content, and I don’t find myself wanting to come back to it. Subnautica, on the other hand, I’ve sunk (pun intended) 21 hours into in the last three days (who guessed it?), and while I fully admit that I can see the borders of this fish tank (pun again intended), I also know that they’re updating the game and adding new content on a regular basis, and I’m excited for that. I want to see what else they’ll add, maybe a new, lovingly crafted biome, or more to build, or maybe tweak the survival difficulty. I want to keep playing in it. Ark... meh, I’ll check back again after a few updates, but while the concept of Ark is great, the execution leaves me lukewarm.

But Taharka, what about...?


Yeah, me, what about The Long Dark, or Planet Explorers, or Craft the World, or Starbound, or...

There are a lot of survival games out there, and not all of them revolve around zombies. I just picked three that felt somewhat similar and I had been playing recently, which people might be interested in. Of the four I just mentioned, get The Long Dark, and avoid Planet Explorers for now.

Link for Doubting Thomas: Survival Game Roundup (Taharka)

The updating the game thing is actually one reason why I first got into roguelikes, way back in the day, because at the time they were the only game type that had continuous updates for a game that was already mostly finished and polished. It adds a whole lot to know that the game might become better while you're playing it.

Gremlin wrote:

The updating the game thing is actually one reason why I first got into roguelikes, way back in the day, because at the time they were the only game type that had continuous updates for a game that was already mostly finished and polished. It adds a whole lot to know that the game might become better while you're playing it.

Yup, I agree. It also helps if the game is one I can get involved in. For example, Ark is still getting updates, but I'm just meh about it, so I don't care. Subnautica, though, I really want them to update.

You know what I realized I want, after writing that review?
I want someone to remake the Oregon Trail as an open world/survival/crafting game.
Haul your wagons westward, gathering and hunting, repairing your wagons or building new ones, building boats, rafts, etc to cross rivers, dealing with thirst, hunger, and disease.
Can you make it to Oregon? Maybe you'll stop and build a settlement somewhere along the way.

Or the gold rush, that would also work.