Into the Breach (PC)

The far-fetched premise of Into the Breach is that in the future, climate-change-fueled ecological disasters have devastated humanity while neoliberalism-run-amok has left the entire world under the control of four corporate monopolies, one of which is entirely based around exploiting nostalgia. The story gets a little more believable when the planet is invaded by a race of giant bugs from space. You play a pilot from the future who travels through time back to the present day to destroy the original space bug hive before they breed and overrun humanity. To do this, you bring along three giant mechs to punch the space bugs in the face. Unfortunately these futuristic mechs have an achilles heel: they’re apparently powered by extremely long extension cords and if the local power grid goes down, so do your mechs. So keeping the giant bugs off the civilian infrastructure is an even bigger priority than preventing damage to yourself.





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Lords of Xulima (PC)

Lords of Xulima is an epic cRPG.

I’m not using the word “epic” lightly here. Nor am I talking about epic story elements. I’m saying Lords of Xulima is huge, it’s challenging on many levels, and it is LONG. You will not finish this in a weekend. There are no Lords of Xulima speedruns. Much like Might and Magic, Lords of Xulima is a project, and attempting to rush it will burn you out. But wow, is it a rewarding project!



The premise is an out-of-control war is raging in the world while a parallel civil war between the gods is raging in heaven. You play a Ranger named Gaulen who’s visited in his dreams by the trickster god and tasked with gathering a party of heroes then sailing to the holy Isle of Xulima to tilt the war in heaven against the god of death. Xulima is home to a small civilization of humans whose culture is based on direct contact with the gods, as well as fantastic creatures that are the leftover results of earlier experiments by the gods before they created humanity.

Exploration

As I said, Lords of Xulima is huge. Fortunately the designers made the island a very interesting place from a gameplay perspective. Every region has a different challenge to overcome. In one area you’ll be reading riddle stones scattered through a vast plain, in another you’ll be carefully sneaking around giant stationary mushrooms that out-level you, in another you’ll be wandering around the corpses of dead soldiers trying to find your way around the sleep spells in an enchanted wood. Likewise some dungeons are monster dens to be cleared, some lack any combat and instead are filled with puzzles, and some are garrisons filled with soldiers and deadly traps. There’s always something new around the corner, and some of the puzzles were so challenging I had to take notes or draw maps on paper to figure them out.

You explore Xulima from an isometric perspective with Gaulen’s figure representing the whole party. The best comparison to Lords of Xulima’s exploration is the map portion of Heroes of Might and Magic. You’ll often find stationary groups of monsters blocking off treasure chests or alternate paths and you can mouse over them for an estimate of your chances in combat as well as showing a clearly defined zone of control to avoid. There are invisible random encounters as well with a gem that indicates how close one is to triggering. Interestingly, every map screen has a finite number of random encounters, and you get a bonus prize once you’ve cleared a map of all enemies.

Exploration has a light survival mechanic. Your food supply is measured in time and the passage of time is based on the difficulty of the terrain you’re traversing. It’s totally worth the effort to stay on the roads. One of the most challenging parts of the game is wandering through a desert looking for a giant as your rations drain alarmingly fast on the deadly terrain.

Fortunately the Ranger Gaulen has several survival skills. He can replenish food stores from berry bushes that grow back over time, he can pick herbs that can be used to permanently boost the stats of his teammates, he can hunt for meat, and so on.

Combat

One of the big weaknesses of Wizardry-style “blobber” cRPGs is the combat becoming repetitive. The fighters and healers do the same thing every fight and the only tactical decision is whether or not to have the wizards burn through their spell power or just use their pathetic bonk stick this round.

Lords of Xulima has an excellent tactical combat system that constantly has you weighing the merits of multiple options. The trick is that every attack type in the game also carries with it a corresponding status effect. Swords cause bleed that damages over time, maces cause stun which shifts enemies back in the turn order, axes cause wounds that permanently reduce stats, and spells have even more intense status effects. Not only does it make for interesting tactical choices with fighters, like which monster would be most advantageous to delay with a thump from the paladin’s mace, but enemy-inflicted status effects make even the humble cleric’s job interesting. Do you use a spell to raise your barbarian’s hit points, or do you use a spell to staunch the 40 damage per round bleeding that’s been inflicted on him by cumulative raptor attacks? I almost never sat back and auto-attacked my way through a fight in this game because it would be suicide.

Your team consists of Gaulen plus five custom heroes from nine different classes arranged on a 4×2 grid. A character can only be in the back row, out of reach of melee enemies, if there is another character in the grid in front of them, otherwise they shift to the front row automatically. This happens for enemies as well. Fighters can only target adjacent front-row enemies, so re-shuffles of your team’s formation are frequent.

But unlike an old wizardry game, the interface is simple and straightforward to use, with time compression and a generous belt of hotkeys for your favorite spells and consumables to make the process as painless as possible.

Negatives

The biggest weakness of this game is random shopkeeper selection and random container drops. This can easily lead to situations where you have a character with all his skill points invested into axes, but there are no decent two-handed axes to be found anywhere.

The music is great, but the graphics are serviceable at best, especially half the character portraits that are clearly Kickstarter donors with medieval armor painted onto them.

Gaulen himself feels like a third wheel in combat for the first 15 or so levels, sinking most of his skill points into crucial survival skills. It’s only after he unlocks Poison Strike that he starts holding his own in battle. Consider creating a front-line character with a bow, then trading for Gaulen’s starting axe when the game begins so Gaulen can shoot safely from the back row at the start, and poison snipe casters in the later game.

Finally, like I said before, this game is of an epic length and can easily burn you out if you try to rush to the end. This is a game for sipping, not chugging.

Deluxe Edition?

It’s a good question whether the deluxe edition upgrade is worth buying for this game because it has actual gameplay consequences. In the deluxe edition, Gaulen’s amulet equipment slot is permanently occupied by a living artifact and you get an extra challenge: a worldwide scavenger hunt to find floating blue orbs that charge the artifact. The artifact will tell you where to go next any time, and you can spend charge on a variety of blessings from gold to food to an extra skill point for every member of your party at full charge. On the flip side, there are some super powerful amulets available in the late-game that Gaulen will not be able to equip, putting him at a disadvantage to his party-mates, so it’s not like you’re necessarily missing out if you don’t get deluxe edition.

One of the deluxe edition guides has some valuable vital statistics on character classes and their skills to help with party-planning, but that’s info you could always get online. And one of the deluxe edition books spells out the general plot of the whole game including massive ending spoilers, so be careful!

In Conclusion

Lords of Xulima is a modern classic of cRPG design, creating a world that’s rich and vibrant with gameplay that keeps you thinking throughout its massive length. Beat this game and you truly have accomplished something great. Spanish developer Numantian games have really outdone themselves with this title. I can’t wait to see what they’re doing next!

Oh… They’re making a tower defense game… With zombies… Steampunk zombies… Oh…

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Mischief Maker

Overgrowth (PC)

Nine years in the making, Overgrowth is one of the all-time most hotly anticipated games of the PC indie scene. It’s a sequel to Lugaru: The Rabbit’s foot, one of my favorite games years ago that I included in my (now out of date) top 100 indie game list. Overgrowth was a pioneer in the “early access” concept of doing alpha testing through preorder customers. In fact, one of their marketing experiments ended up becoming the massively successful Humble Bundle. So after all these years of experimentation, is the final game as fantastic as everyone hoped?

Uhh…

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Ys: The Oath in Felghana (PC)

Everybody should try the Ys series, and The Oath in Felghana is the best place to start.

If I were to sum up the Ys series in a single word, it would be “speed.” Ys has mirrored the Zelda series by taking a few core gameplay concepts and experimenting with different genres over the years. In the case of Ys, the core gameplay includes high-speed combat where you tear through crowds of basic enemies, light grinding for XP and better equipment, and ball-stomping boss battles set to squealing heavy metal guitar riffs.

Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, like Zelda II, was an abortive attempt to realize the Ys formula as a sidescrolling platformer. It’s considered the worst of the series in terms of gameplay, but the best of the series in terms of soundtrack. 15 years later, Falcom took the story and soundtrack of Ys III, mixed it with the 3D isometric engine of Ys VI, and the result is one of the best action games I’ve played since Devil May Cry 3.


Here’s Anime Zack and Slater visiting a fortune teller.

“I can see my future in that crystal ball, Slater!”

“I can see my future in those golden globes, preppy.”


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Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

In one final push to beat Hotline Miami 2, I decided to skip sleeping last night and blast my way through the game’s last five scenes. By 2 a.m., the tendons in the back of my hands burned so bad I had to start taking short breaks. At 3 a.m. I unlocked my first achievement, KARMA, by dying 1,000 times. Somewhere around 4 a.m., I fell asleep in my chair.

As the game’s synth-heavy soundtrack continued to pulse through my speakers, I dreamed that I was still playing the game. I was stuck in a never ending hallway filled with doors. The only way to see inside each room was to kick open every door and deal with whatever was hiding behind it. Some of the rooms were empty. Others contained hoards of enemies. The hallway was painted with blood. Much of it was mine.

Around 6 a.m., my wife entered my office to see if everything was okay since I hadn’t come to bed. The sound of the door opening woke me and almost caused me to fall out of my chair. She’s very lucky I didn’t have a nail gun or chainsaw within arm’s reach.

If you thought the plot of the first Hotline Miami game was twisted and confusing, don’t bother trying to unravel the sequel’s. Unlike the original game which had two playable POV characters, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number has thirteen, with a story that takes place both before and after the original. In flashbacks we see at least one character die that appears later in the game, which means either the earlier story line was a hallucination, or the latter one was. Or maybe both of them are. I’ve read Wikipedia’s plot summary of the game a dozen times and understand twice as much as I did before, which still isn’t much. Fortunately, Hotline Miami 2 can be played and enjoyed without understanding a lick of the plot, which is good news for dullards such as myself.

Summaries of the game sound like the fevered nightmares of someone suffering from malaria. At one point in the game I was a prison inmate, disguised as a cop, killing other cops, and eventually other inmates. I think. In another level I played as two swans — one armed with a chainsaw, the other, a revolver. A few minutes later I was a girl wearing a zebra mask with deadly fists. Each level is designed with a touch of genius and a sprinkling of masochism. Get caught in an enemy’s line of sight and they’ll either charge you at full speed or fill your face full of buckshot. Walk around the wrong corner or past a window and a dozen enemies may come at you. If you happened to bring a knife with you to that gun fight, you might as well use it to start digging your own grave.

After beating the original Hotline Miami I swore I’d never play it again, and I loathe myself for playing the sequel. With unlimited lives you can play each level an infinite number of times until you figure out the pattern, but many times I just wished it would end. Some levels took me hours to beat. Once I was dropped weaponless into a room with two enemies, the only solution being to knock one out, steal his knife, stab the second, and slash the first one’s throat before he bashes your brains in from behind. On another level I appeared in a room (again without a weapon) with an angry cop and an aggressive dog. Killing dogs is a big part of Miami Hotline 2. Dogs killing you is an even bigger part.

With so many playable characters come different rules and limitations. Some characters can use any weapon they find in the game, some are locked into using the ones they start with, and a few cannot use any weapons at all. On a few levels you can pick which character you wish to control, but more often than not, one is assigned to you based on the narrative. On at least one occasion, I spent several hours attempting to beat a level only to run into a glitch that made completing it with that character impossible. My only two options were to restart the level with a different character and lose a few hours worth of progress, or curl up on my futon and cry myself to sleep. In the end, I did both.

Along with hundreds of dogs, I’ve slaughtered soldiers, mafia men, cops, inmates, and thousands of other people over the past month. Beating the game unlocks hard mode, something you’ll need if you want to earn the Genocide Achievement (50,000 kills). After a month though, my nerves are shot. After beating pixelated men to death with a lead pipe for hours, I… I just wanna go home.

The game’s final level is a drug induced nightmare where the walls bend and sway and motion blur distorts reality. Compared to the rest of the game, Hotline Miami 2’s final stage is relatively easy, and your reward for enduring some of the most sadistic game play of all time is literally nuclear annihilation. As for you… well, let’s just say anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day.

I need somebody to hold me.

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Flack

Resident Evil 7 (Opening Review) – PC

I haven’t finished Resident Evil 7. I don’t want it to end. I’m going slowly — not because I am bad at video games, though I am. It’s because the home and family is such a beautiful change of pace from my own life and situation that hanging around the antagonists and central setting actually seems like a vacation.

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Star Hammer II: The Vanguard Prophecy (PC)

Star Hammer II a single player turn-based tactical naval combat game in 3D space. You take the role of the underachieving daughter of the first game’s hero as she’s thrust early into the role of fleet commander when a race of gigantic alien squid monsters attacks their colony a second time. Gameplay consists of a long campaign of scripted missions with your surviving ships gaining veterancy between missions, as well as random skirmish matches.

You control your ships by dragging a ghost image inside a movement arc to where you want the ship to be at the end of next round. You can also adjust energy levels, transfer shield energy, designate preferred targets and deploy limited ammo systems like torpedoes and countermeasures. This game makes Z-axis movement much simpler than Homeworld by dividing height into seven distinct planes that ships move between.

Being a singleplayer-only game, the two factions are wildly different. I really like that every ship in the human fleet serves a specific purpose, from the swift corvette to the defensive frigate to the hangar dreadnought. The aliens, on the other hand, usually outnumber the human fleet by a huge scale and their function serve to force you to keep moving and repositioning your firing lines. Spitters shoot lines of liquid that hang in space and disrupt your shields, disruptors fire spherical blasts that sap your powerplant, and sentinels act like living minefields.

The soundtrack just about trips over itself to bring the epic military excitement. In game graphics aren’t state of the art, but I like the look. Character portraits in plot moments are shockingly bad.

I recommend this game for its clever gameplay innovations, great music, and the satisfaction of wading into a swarm of hostile aliens and taking it apart piece-by-piece with T-crossing positional tactics until all that remains is your fleet and a messy cloud of dead squids.

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Mischief Maker

Resident Evil HD

Resident Evil is cinematic in the most literal sense. The fixed camera angles from which you view the some-action-but-mostly-puzzle-solving are carefully composed to show only what you need to see, to direct your attention precisely where it needs to go. Those static cameras make what could have easily been a nauseating amount of grunting along walls for hot spots in a conventional first- or third-person game feel as natural and soothing as scanning your mouse cursor over the pre-rendered stills in Myst.

In other senses, Resident Evil isn’t cinematic at all. Though it’s only about two hours long (if you play it right), no part of your character’s experience is edited out. The entire game takes place in one single, coherent location, and every second of your traversal through that location is entirely under your control – in fact, it’s kind of the entire point!

I’ve heard the gameplay in Resident Evil described as resource management-based, and while that’s true, it also tells you virtually nothing. A dogfight simulator, for example, is all about resource management, pilots balancing thrust and gravity to preserve potential energy while simultaneously spending that energy to maintain an advantageous position or optimal maneuvering speed. So it’s probably a good idea for us to take a minute and nail down exactly what kind of game Resident Evil is.

In Resident Evil, you the player are trapped in a spooky old mansion with a variety of ghouls and other monsters. Standing between you and escape is a series of very basic lock and key puzzles. The mansion is segmented into a ridiculously (but not unrealistically) large number of self-contained rooms and hallways, all connected to one another by brief first-person door-opening animations. The player can pass through doors, while the slow, predictable monsters can not (if they could, the whole game would essentially become a very pretty version of Pac-Man (I would like to play that Pac-Man)).

The “adventure” part of this action-adventure game involves exploring the mansion to find key items to open previously encountered lock puzzles, then figuring out the most efficient route by which to backtrack through already charted territory without exposing yourself to any more danger than necessary. Actually traversing dangerous rooms is where the “action” component comes in, requiring you to either evade and outmaneuver the monsters, or fight them using a very limited amount of ammunition – either way, failure will deplete your equally precious healing supplies.

The traversal puzzles gradually become more complex as more interconnected rooms are unlocked and faster, scarier enemies are introduced. However, it’s not until subsequent playthroughs that the final element of resource management shows up, and that’s when the whole design clicks into place. Resident Evil is a timed game; there’s no hard limit that I’m aware of, but a game clock is displayed on the final score screen (spoiler?), and the player is assigned a letter grade largely based on it. Surprise! It looked like The 7th Guest, but it was really Crazy Taxi the whole time.

Finding faster solutions to the traversal puzzles – and there are ALWAYS faster solutions – becomes the core of replayability, though all the various unlockable alternate game modes certainly spice things up (one of them makes the enemies invisible; by the time you get around to it, you’ll probably already be so well-versed in where they are and how they move that it’s not even particularly challenging). And I haven’t even talked about the most important alternate game mode, the choice of player character at the start, which determines not only how many hit points and inventory spaces and stuff you start with, but also how some puzzles are solved and which NPCs you encounter and basically the entire course of the story line.

Resident Evil is one of those games you sit down to write one paragraph about and end up writing eight. Every element of it sounds dangerously sub-optimal on its own (fixed cameras! backtracking! inventory juggling! attrition-based combat! zombies!). It’s only when you fit those parts together like the pieces of an ancient mask that you realize how brilliantly they all complement one another, activating the elevator to the locked off part of your brain that’s still capable of experiencing childish delight at a video game.

Resident Evil HD was released in 2015 for PC, PS3, PS4, X360, and XO.

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Dream Cast

Pumped BMX+ (PC)

The 1980s introduced me to many radical things (including Rubik’s Cubes, Showbiz Pizza, and the Thompson Twins), but perhaps the most radical was extreme sports. Yes, technically skateboarding predates the Awesome 80s, but we’re talking about Christian Hosoi pulling McTwists off of half pipes here, not hippies surfing down sidewalks on pieces of wood with metal wheels nailed to them. Right around the time my interest in breakdancing began to wane I discovered Thrashin’ and Rad and quickly traded my Converse in for a pair of Vision Street Wear. No longer was it cool to build little ramps and ride around in the dirt — suddenly it was all about adding pegs to your bike and, if you had crappy brakes like I did, toe endos.

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Air Traffic Controller Games Round-up

How would I define the magic of an ATC sim? Well, it’s the one simulator which can nearly perfectly recreate the actual experience it is trying to simulate. Being a controller involves sitting in a room, staring at a bunch of blips on the screen, and making them move around. So does playing an ATC sim. I would imagine a perfect ATC sim would make it impossible to tell if you were actually doing it or not, other than the screams of doomed passengers as they plummet to the ground in a fiery ball. More than that, though, the magic is that it’s kind of like slow-motion, three-dimensional Asteroids. And who wouldn’t want to play that?

Now, let’s take a look at the contenders.

Endless ATC

For a free Android app (and a $3 PC game), this gets so much right that many of the other “more sophisticated” (and expensive) sims get wrong that it’s kind of embarrassing to the other sims. It is definitely a “game”, as planes just keep coming, more and more, until you can’t handle it, and the more planes you can handle, the higher your score. That’s it. You can “cap” your score to keep traffic from increasing, but by that time you’ve probably had enough anyway. It’s terrible easy to use, perfectly suited for a tablet/phone, and just does the whole “line ’em up like a string of pearls” stress-fest about as cleanly and well as possible. If I was going to introduce someone to the genre, I would definitely, without question, tell them to start here. The PC version is slightly superior, but they’re both just fine. Score: 8



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