Short Review: DARQ (PC)


Well, I WAS playing it. Now I’m not, because it’s over. If you’re the type who think 2 hours for a $20 game is too much, this MIGHT change your mind, but maybe not. The puzzles are relatively straightforward, only a handful of times straying from “go everywhere, find everything, try to use everything on everything”. However, “going everywhere” is not quite as straightforward as your average graphic adventure, due to the rule/gravity-breaking nature of the game’s mechanics.

But none of that is what gives the game its value. It’s purely presentation that puts this over the top. Amazing, AMAZING to look at, during every single moment of those two hours.

If you’re in the mood for a little creepy surreality mixed with light puzzles and phenomenal production values, I think it’s definitely worth the $20, and I say this as someone who was gifted it.

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Katana Zero (PC)

I’ve become somewhat notorious over the years for my dislike of art games, specifically games that use their artistic pretensions as an excuse for crappy-to-nonexistent gameplay. But let me be clear, if someone made a God Hand 2 with the same quality gameplay wedded to a woke storyline, wonderful! By all means, bring your SJW politics into my videogames, as long as it plays well.

Katana Zero (Steam)seems to be a developer’s intentional attempt to stretch my art game philosophy to the breaking point. Because Katana Zero has really good gameplay, but its arthouse pretentions threaten to smother that completely.


Fast-paced action swordplay!

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Frostpunk (PC)

I bought this on the cheap from a disreputable Steam key seller, and haven’t done much else since other than my job and taking care of my family and shoveling the snow and oh god somebody kill me please


It’s a challenging, tight survival/city-builder set in a frozen crater. The limited, confined terrain doesn’t leave much room for creativity in terms of layout, but the constant threat of freezing/dying/mutiny/BABIES BEING SACRIFICED FOR HEAT keeps the action tense. Everything requires heat, which radiates out from a generator at the center of the map. Key tech upgrades allow cranking up the level and range of the heat provided by the generator, which become more and more crucial as the temperature continues to drop.

Besides that you’ll spend most of your time trying to bring in more resources and research more tech to allow you to support more people so you can bring in more resources and more tech so you can support more people so you can, etc., etc. Then there’s the occasional story point where decisions can be made and laws can be passed, each of which affects the game’s systems, usually in both good and bad ways, so the tradeoffs all need to be considered.

You’re also able to send scouts out to explore the larger world, which consists of a map with thumbtacks on it, which, once you reach them, offer some variety of reward (or usually multiple rewards that you must choose from), reveal more locations to explore, and generally move the story along.

Meanwhile, you’re treated to one of the more gorgeous/well-made city builders you’ll ever seen. Everything looks great, everything sounds great, the writing is strong, everything is spelled correctly. It just screams quality from top to bottom. And it feels cold.

Criticisms (and relatively low average hour-count on the Steam reviews) speak to one possible drawback, that being that once the “main storyline” is complete (which if you succeed, I’m told takes about a dozen hours?) there’s no reason to go back. However, since then, 11bit has added an endless mode, more scenarios, more maps, and have promised even more in the coming year, so there should be plenty to do if you end up digging it. Of course, it may take several tries to complete the main game. It’s pretty tough! I’ve already had to restart a few times, but it’s a compelling enough experience that I don’t mind hitting the “New Game” button again.

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Mischief Maker’s Top 7 GOG Winter Sale Recommendations

Overload

With all this talk about the lost greatness of 90s FPS games, let’s not forget that there is a game that accurately recreates and improves on the gameplay of the classic Descent, by the original Descent team, that’s already out and already awesome. I’m more than a little worried the upcoming game named “Descent” not by the original team is gonna steal this game’s thunder/totally suck.

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Road Redemption (PC)

There is a quote by Shigeru Miyamoto that idiots use because it doesn’t apply any longer. The quote is, “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” This was true when Nintendo was putting games on cartridges long after everyone else did. It doesn’t apply any longer unless you’re making 2600 games for the Atari Age Store, I guess. Road Redemption is one of those games that has overcome extinction events that destroy other games and continually gotten better.



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Madden NFL 19 (Xbox One)

You cannot get an honest review of Madden anywhere. Any notable review site is either too afraid of losing access and early copies, or will rubber stamp an elite rating while not mentioning anything positive about this years edition. I will try my best.The greatest trick Madden pulls is to add “new” features that have either been in previous editions and taken away or were available in games made 20 years ago and EA is just catching on.

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Everspace + Encounters DLC

Everspace is one of the best action rogue-lites to date, but it’s deceptively advertised. The trailers show your ship zooming at full speed and viciously dogfighting like this is the next coming of Freespace 2. It’s not, and the game it reminds me most of will surprise you. It’s Spelunky in space: 50% combat and 50% exploration/scavenging.


Mother-FUCK No Man’s Sky’s camera mode!

The premise of the game is you’re playing a succession of clones trying to figure out your purpose with the only clues being fractured memories from your original, the sardonic advice of your starfighter’s AI, and a distant set of coordinates. Unfortunately the coordinates lead you straight through a demilitarized zone full of pirates, hostile aliens, and other threats. What’s more, your hangar builds underpowered ships unless you can scavenge money for upgrades Rogue Legacy-style so you may have to burn through a few dozen bodies before you find the truth.

The gameplay is a Descent-style 6 degree of freedom shooter in a wide open arena filled with a heavy amount of asteroids, debris, and other terrain. You warp into an area, scope out interesting spots like shipwrecks or large asteroids, then in a limited amount of time fight and explore your way through them to gather as many resources as you can before a hostile army warps in.


Even “oh shit” moments like when your asshole ship AI warps you right into the corona of a star are just jaw-droppingly gorgeous

Like I said, even though it has the look of one, this is not a Freespace 2-style dogfighter. Without getting too technical, games like Wing Commander and Freespace 2 have seperate energy meters for guns and afterburners, allowing for nonstop action as the player juggles the two power sources when switching between attacking or evading. In Everspace your guns and afterburners use the same energy source, and when it runs out you’re out of options, save for missiles and consumables. Enough people were pointing this out in early access that it’s clear it was a deliberate choice by the game designers.

So what DOES Everspace play like? A tactical cover shooter in 3D. Every stage is strewn with asteroids, wreckage, and other potential cover, and a smart player will stick close to it because since every enemy has free movement in this game, you’re a sitting duck in open space. The biggest threat in this game is being outnumbered and shot from multiple angles, so you want to take out enemy forces piecemeal. Blow up an enemy at distance, duck behind cover to let your shields and energy recharge, use afterburners to flee to another safe spot when the main enemy force overruns your position and so on.


Shoulda stuck closer to the asteroids, buddy!

Like FTL, there’s a resource management element to combat. Can you finish these enemies with energy cannons alone, or are you going to have to burn through some missiles to survive? At any time you can pause the game and use resources to manufacture missiles and consumables, but unlike No Man’s Sky you can’t just top up your hit points and shields. There are a large variety of missiles you can manufacture, and the cheapest ones still pack a major punch even against capital ships if you spray them in a full alpha strike. You also want a cushion of resources because if enemies score a critical hit on your hull, they can knock out a subsystem and nearly cripple you until you scrape together the correct resources to repair it.

Which brings us to the other half of Everspace, the scavenging. The asteroids and wreckage all over the map aren’t just for cover, there’s gold in them thar hills! Your ship has a short range sensor which means you have to fly inside giant space hulks and asteroid tunnels to find the goodies within. Sometimes you’ll come across hidden pirate bases with juicy explosive tanks full of fuel and other resources. Sometimes wrecks are surrounded by deadly minefields that need to be destroyed (or need a wing of enemy fighter to fly through them). There are also neutral starfighters and stations from G&B Mining who can put you in a risk/reward situation of whether you should risk turning them hostle to steal their resources. But then again, if someone ELSE is shooting at you and in their zeal just HAPPEN to blow up some G&B shit, the neutrals will get angry at THEM and you get to scoop up the leftover fuel for free!


In order to get the “Return of the Jedi” obstacle course gameplay that every Descent clone must have by law, Everspace gives you limited time and a short sensor range, obligating you to zoom through the insides of these shipwrecks to reveal the space treasure chests hidden within.

Fortunately all that resource scavenging isn’t a chore thanks to the beautiful graphics. If you’re thinking of buying Hellblade and giving money to the studio that ruined Devil May Cry because the graphics for their crazy lady simulator are so pretty, consider spending that money instead on Everspace and get an actual game to go with the eye candy. As of this writing, Everspace is one of the most gorgeous space games on the PC and a real testament to what the Unreal engine’s capable of in the hands of a talented artist. Just the lighting alone is jaw-dropping.

Alas, that brings me to the negatives. First, the music sucks. I don’t know if they were trying to copy 65daysofstatic’s work on No Man’s Sky and failed, but if you want music that captures the grandeur of deep space, lay off the wah-wah pedal. This next may or may not be a negative for you, but like I said, there’s a whole Rogue Legacy system of upgrading ships with leftover money between missions, what I refer to as “unlock cancer,” that requires you to invest hours and hours into the game until you have a fully functional ship. At least there are cool visual changes to your ship’s model as you go up the trees. First-person cockpit mode is just for show and actually puts you at a disadvantage when navigating tight confines because you can’t see your wings. And finally, the game takes a little too long to start trotting out the more advanced enemy ships and for a player who’s still learning the ropes and struggling to get past sector 3 (of 7) the experience can be really samey.


Oh boy, I do so love having to grind for several playthroughs to unlock a fully functional game…

Everspace is a great game, but it’s not the game it looks like. If you want Freespace 2 with modern graphics, get Freespace Open. If you’re interested in a videogame adaptation of the 3D laser tag scenes from Ender’s Game (without the moronic dead legs exploit), give Everspace a try!

Encounters DLC

The main addition is a collection of NPC characters you can talk to and do side missions for. It’s like getting to know the companions in Shiren the Wanderer. Each time you finish their quests, you advance their storyline a step and eventually open up new gameplay options. For example, one character eventually teaches you to use wormholes to jump to an insanely dangerous area where you can steal a motherlode of a rare resource, another NPC teaches you to scan various species of space creatures for extra money. The game kindly displays their position on the sector map so you can pick which NPC’s story you want to advance this playthrough.

In addition, the DLC adds a new ship type (complete with its own upgrade tree) several new weapons and components, and lots of new space scenery, including G&B refining facilities where you can purchase new types of weapon upgrades, refine common resources into rare ones, and sometimes get a partial ship repair for free. Oh yeah, and one of the new weapons is a flamethrower.


SCIENCE!

If you’re buying Everspace, the Encounters DLC is pretty much a mandatory purchase because it directly addresses my biggest complaint: it solves the earlygame boredom problem by adding all sorts of stuff to do in the beginning sectors before the enemy difficulty and variety ramps up.

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Mischief Maker

Civilization: Beyond Earth Codex Mod Review

A lot of people had problems with the base game, but I always sorta liked it. The original developers set out but failed to streamline everything, because by the mid-late game everything could certainly become a lot less fun. You were no longer finding artifacts (if you bothered) because you had all the bonuses and if you build more than four or five cities it all becomes a spammy chore. The game encouraged having a small empire, so I always did and went with it and that way could have fun, myself. But lots of cities is always a pain in the ass and lots of AI units moving around between turns is pure hell. So this mod here fixes all that, in fact it changes everything in the game but diplomacy as far as I can tell. I tried starting a vanilla game to compare how it used to be, though, and even early game is better. I realized I could never play this game again without this mod, and went back to my now main Codex (V.7) game.

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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