Category Archives: Review
The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Books: 1-10 (complete)
I waited until finishing the very last book in this epic fantasy series before writing this review, but going forward, I am not entirely sure whether that is the best way to handle works of this size and scope. Especially series of this size and this scope.
At its base, The Malazan Book of the Fallen mostly follows the tale of the Bridgeburners, a special squad of marines in the Malazan army as they are tasked with acts of sabotage and subterfuge in a world with magic, undead warriors literally hundreds of thousands of years old, actually immortal shapeshifting dragon mages, gods, ascendant gods, elder gods, reality-destroying chaos magic, and good old-fashioned armies of human meat and bone and iron. While the Bridgeburners are an integral story arc, there are actually two more completely different ones that are of similar heft and importance.
The very first book, Gardens of the Moon, was perhaps one of the worst possible opening books in any epic fantasy series that I have ever read – it immediately tosses you into this new world, confuses the hell out of you with a cast of hundreds of individual characters, and doesn’t pause to explain anything. For example, the magic in this world comes from Warrens, which are a sort of pocket dimension aligned with certain traits. Thus, when the books says “they opened a warren,” it can both mean they are casting a spell or actually opening the warren as a means of physical escape. Or both, simultaneously. None of that is explained anywhere in Book 1.
I’m highlighting the failing of the first book because the rest of the series is so mind-boggling good. It does not have the cleverness of Name of the Wind or the timelessness of Lord of the Rings, but it’s close. Each book is designed to sort of stand on its own, following the world’s (suspiciously convenient) tendency towards a convergence of powers, but the weaving of characters and story arcs is tremendously good. While the internal monologs are consistent with the book’s fiction, they often bring up devastatingly good philosophical arguments regarding the realities of war, the existence of god, and the general ugliness of the human condition, all with not being too overt.
This is the sort of writing you can expect:
There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one’s own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage along a foul, tortured path – made foul and tortured by our own indifference – is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.
I defy this notion of paradise beyond the gates of bone. If the soul truly survives the passage, then it behooves us – each of us, my friends – to nurture a faith in similitude: what awaits us is a reflection of what we leave behind, and in the squandering of our mortal existence, we surrender the opportunity to learn the ways of goodness, the practice of sympathy, empathy, compassion and healing – all passed by in our rush to arrive at a place of glory and beauty, a place we did not earn, and most certainly do not deserve.
And this (a piece of narration):
He hurried on, grimacing at the ache in his chest, still feeling the parting kiss of his wife on his lips, the careless hugs of his children round his waist.
He was a man who would never ask for sympathy. He was a man who sought only to do what was right. Such people appear in the world, every world, now and then, like a single refrain of some blessed song, a fragment caught on the spur of an otherwise raging cacophony.
Imagine a world without such souls.
Yes, it should have been harder to do.
Still gives me chills. Maybe you have to
have been there read the greater context. In any case, the series can feature both heavy emotion – there were three separate instances across all the books where I contemplated killing the author – but also welcome moments of great levity. Some examples from the latter:
‘Excellent, and your name is?’
‘XXXX. Er, we got references—’
‘No need. I am confident in my ability to judge character, and I have concluded that you two, while not to be considered vast of intellect, are nevertheless inclined to loyalty. This here will mark an advancement in your careers, I am sure, and so you will be diligent as befits your secret suspicion that you have exceeded your competence. All this is well. Also, I am pleased to note that you do not possess any parasites of a debilitating, unsightly sort. So, XXXX, go yonder and find us one, two or three additional guards. In the meantime, I will attend to YYYY.’
And another (context: the female sergeant is an alcoholic):
‘That snake! I knew it, a conspiracy! Well, I’ll deal with him later. One mass-murderer at a time, I always say.’
‘This is madness, Sergeant! Let go of me – I can explain—’
‘Save your explanations. I got some questions for you first and you’d better answer them!’
‘With what?’ he sneered. ‘Explanations?’
‘No. Answers. There’s a difference—’
‘Really? How? What difference?’
‘Explanations are what people use when they need to lie. Y’can always tell those, ’cause those explanations don’t explain nothing and then they look at you like they just cleared things up when really they did the opposite and they know it and you know it and they know you know and you know they know that you know and they know you and you know them and maybe you go out for a pitcher later but who picks up the tab? That’s what I want to know.’
‘Right, and answers?’
‘Answers is what I get when I ask questions. Answers is when you got no choice. I ask, you tell. I ask again, you tell some more. Then I break your fingers, ’cause I don’t like what you’re telling me, because those answers don’t explain nothing!’
‘Ah! So you really want explanations!’
‘Not till you give me the answers!’
The bottom line is: if you enjoy fantasy novels at all, I highly highly recommend picking up the entire series. However tempting it might be to skip the first book based on my experiences, it would be a costly error – the characters introduced in the first book are integral in how the rest of the books play out. The first five books can technically stand on their own, but everything will be more meaningful if you know what the characters had to go through to get to that point.
Which, believe me, is a lot. I mean, Jesus, wait till you get to the Chain of Dogs. Or the Pannion Domin. Or what happens to your favorite characters in Darujhistan even though you can cynically see it coming from a mile away and yet you squirm and sweat and try to close your eyes but you can’t because you’re reading a goddamn book and the words were already written anyway and oh no, this can’t be happening… why do you do this to me Steven Erikson?! Why does your fiction both inspire and destroy my faith in all that is good and right in the world?
Ahem. Read these books.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzlers, Hilarious but too short games
Gunpoint is a short, 2D indie puzzler with some of the most hilarious writing I have ever seen in a videogame. You take control of Richard Conway, a freelance spy whose latest customer was murdered before he could get the details. From that classic film noir story hook, you get a classic film noir plot broken up by bouts of mildly interesting puzzles.
At their simplest level, the puzzles in Gunpoint revolve around interacting with a computer and then exiting the map via subway station. The central conceit is Conway’s ability to rewire a building’s electronic systems, such that getting caught on a surveillance camera actually opens the locked door instead of triggering the alarm. Some of a building’s circuitry is “hardened” (it has a different color), which means you have to reach a certain (color) breaker box before being able to reroute that circuit’s wires. Completing maps will give you currency to purchase more gizmos, including the ability to electrify certain devices or even the ability to (temporarily) reroute a guard’s gun – causing them to either open a door when they pull the trigger, or forcing them fire the weapon at a buddy when you flip a light switch.
The puzzles are fun, but… well, they end up being only mildly interesting. Rewiring electronics turns out to be fairly powerful as a sort of default ability, which is reflected by the fact that the latter half of the game basically features only 2-3 things you can actually interact with (one light switch, maybe a camera). There are some mechanics that prevent you from simply pouncing/shooting your way through all the guards (the subway gets locked down after any gunshots), and as a result the game becomes incredibly abstract by the end. Normally, that might not matter for, you know, a puzzle game, but I actually enjoyed the early gameplay over what it ends up “evolving” into.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, Gunpoint is extremely short, clocking in around ~2 hours of gameplay. Given that, and given my ambivalence towards the later gameplay, I would suggest waiting until Gunpoint hits $5 or a bundle. It is a game definitely worth your time to play at some point – trust me, the dialog alone is almost worth it – but that time doesn’t have to be now.
Game: Rogue Legacy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Harsh action platformers, RPG-esque indie games
Rogue Legacy is a sort of indie hybrid RPG roguelike action platformer. The developers describe the game as “Rogue-Lite,” as the central premise is that while the game features permadeath, your children will take up the family mantle and invade the procedurally-generated castle to avenge you. This design is actually pretty compelling, especially considering that while purchased equipment/abilities cary over from one character to the next, the gold used to purchase these things do not. So what ends up happening is failed runs (usually!) end up leaving you with enough gold to be stronger for the next one, while not encouraging you to hoard gold in the meantime.
The castle itself is divided into four main areas, each with a boss at the end. While the general location of the areas are stable, all of the individual rooms and transitions are randomly determined. I say “random,” but the vast majority of rooms have a high level of coherence, as opposed to the truly random nonsense of games like A Valley Without Wind. You do not technically need to clear a room of enemies to move on, but it is generally a good idea considering getting better equipment and stats requires gold. That being said, there is an entire class (Miner) that encourages you to avoid combat as much as possible while quickly snagging as many treasure chests as you can.
The gameplay itself is pretty unforgiving. While you can equip a bunch of Vampiric gear later on, and occasionally find a piece of health-restoring food when destroying furniture, for the most part damage you take is permanent. This can lead to frustrating scenarios in which an otherwise solid-looking boss attempt is stymied on the way to the door because you landed on some spikes in the prior room. Or misjudged a screen full of projectiles. Or faced one of those goddamn wolves that seem to charge half a second earlier than you’re prepared for.
And by “solid-looking boss attempt” I mean that at least one of the three children you can select for your next castle run had a good class/characteristic/ability combination. For you see, sometimes your favorite class might be Farsighted (makes the center screen fuzzy), or the screen is upside down, or they have an enormous character model (increased weapon reach, but increased hitbox too), or maybe everything is good except they have a weak magic ability.
I am not attempting to dissuade you from purchasing Rogue Legacy, but I do want to point out that while the devs say “Rogue-Lite,” the game is still pretty roguelike. I had a pretty solid 9 hours of fun, and a less fun 4 hours of being stuck grinding gold and new abilities to give me the hope of downing some of the bosses. Admittedly, being better at the game might have reduced that time, but then again, being worse would have increased it exponentially. So in your game purchase decision, be sure to take into consideration how good you are at semi-twitch platformers.
Game: Elven Legacy
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 71
Completion Time: ~21 hours
Buy If You Like: Hex-based strategy games, old games
Elven Legacy is a somewhat more traditional hex-based strategy game featuring PS1 graphics, a somewhat abbreviated plot, and an incredibly brutal single-player campaign.
What I recognized early on was that I had not actually played many “strategy” games before, as opposed to more tactical affairs. The underlying mechanics were fairly simple: units can move and attack each turn, all units have 10 HP, sometimes there are special abilities or perks that can come into play, units gain XP and levels, and you can move your entire team each turn. When all the moving pieces come together however, you begin to realize how much the odds are against you on each and every map.
Allow me to present an example. During your turn, you move your spearman up to attack an enemy unit. Before committing to the attack, you see that you will deal 5 damage and take 2 damage in return. During the attack, the damage numbers were actually 4 and 3 – the projected numbers are simply the average range. The damage a unit takes is counted as either wounded or dead, with the spread being determined by perks and… well, I’m not actually sure how its counted. I noticed higher level units take more wounds than deaths, so I’m sure stats are somehow involved. Regardless, your now-7 HP unit will deal less damage than that same unit at full health. On your next turn, you can choose to order that unit to Camp, which will heal all wounded (not dead) units, at the cost losing both its attack and move phase.
Another wrinkle is morale. Units attacked below a certain baseline will Break, reducing their attack and defense scores by 4 until they Camp, while also retreating a hex away. Even units that do not Break will retreat a hex back when low on HP. This can wreck havoc with your plans should you attempt to attack with two units, only to have the first attack send the enemy out of range of your follow-up. This can lead to some odd behavior, like attacking with your weakest units first, probing for the breaking point, before sending in the big guns to hopefully annihilate the unit.
Then you have the hero/monster units, which can heal to full all the time. Then you have magic spells, which have unlimited ranges by only 1-2 charges per spell. Then you have terrain bonuses/penalties. Then you are picking one of three Perks for each level a unit gains. Then you are sending units around the map looking for artifacts that you can equip to give certain units more abilities/stats. Then you realize you often have a time limit to complete the map. And so on.
While the game was surprisingly strategic and all, literally everything else was forgettable. I have not dabbled much in the strategy game genre, but I know enough to know that there are likely better titles out there to buy. I purchased Elven Legacy at some ridiculous discount a year or so ago, and it is probably only worth that much (or less). It was fun while it lasted, but it really only succeeded in me wanting to look at other strategy games.
Note: I purchased the DLC along with the normal game, but was unable to get any of said DLC to actually work. The new campaigns showed up and were selectable, but none of the dialog or win conditions or any text was visible.
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Portal-lite, FPS puzzle games
QUBE is a first-person puzzle game in the Portal tradition. In fact, basically all you need to know is that QUBE is Portal-lite. Throughout the game you can manipulate the behavior of a series of colored cubes that have standard behavior: red ones extend out one square at a time to a three-square distance, yellow ones make a step-ladder patterns, blue squares act as spring-boards, etc. Actually, why stop describing them now? Purple cubes rotate a section of the wall/floor, and green create either a block or ball, depending on the puzzle. Oh, and there are magnet walls. There, that is 100% of the set pieces.
While all this sounds simple, QUBE veers into some ridiculously fiendish puzzles before the end of its ~4 hours of gameplay. At one point, you have to solve a puzzle in the dark, with only one element at time being lit up. Another requires the fine manipulation of otherwise inert cubes of differing sizes by using magnetic walls. Yet another requires the navigation of a sort of Wheatley-esque robot that only makes right turns through a maze.
Overall, QUBE provides a lot more depth than I originally thought it could, but it did not provide enough to overcome the otherwise deserved “Portal-lite” title. Just image Portal minus GLaDOS, minus the threat of death, minus the ability to move blocks manually, and minus the ability to put portals almost anywhere. Oh, and minus about ~10 extra hours of gameplay.
Grab QUBE as part of a bundle if you can.
Game: Don’t Starve
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 20-60 hours (variable)
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes that don’t kid around, amazing indie games
Don’t Starve is a harsh, survival indie roguelike with dark humor, a fairly unique visual style, and a pointed lack of hand-holding. You control a man named Wilson who suddenly wakes up in the wilderness, is told that finding some food before dark would be a good idea, and then… you are on your own. From there, the basic idea is to scrounge for some carrots/berries while using available materials to craft torches, tools, traps, and other basic gear as you do your best to survive in a world that wants you dead.
Moving around and interacting with the world is surprisingly easy and intuitive. You can move around via left-clicking the ground/objects or by using WASD. Interacting with objects is done either with left-click or right-click. Pressing the Spacebar will cause your character to perform some context-sensitive activity, like start chopping a tree if equiped with an axe, pick up something if it is nearby, or attack an enemy. Combat is not particularly deep, but the “shallowness” combined with the roguelike nature of the game lends a tremendous amount of gravitas to battles. It reminds me of survival horror games that have clunky combat on purpose, to ratchet up the implicit difficulty.
The default game starts you in Survival Mode, which is really more of a Sandbox mode. While there is not really an “endgame” in this mode, the game’s structure naturally (and ingeniously) lends itself to a sense of progression and escalating danger. Establishing a base camp is pretty typical and allows you to stockpile materials and research structures, making the maintenance of your Hunger, Health, and Sanity easier. On the other hand, resources generally do not regenerate very quickly, which forces you to forage farther and farther from your base camp with each passing day. And ultimately, the arrival of Winter will stretch your capacity to survive to the very limit, given how traditionally easy sources of food dry up (plants don’t grow, ponds freeze over). This is on top of an escalation of random hostile encounters by the Hounds, or other boss-level mobs.
Those in search of a more structured endgame can seek out Maxwell’s Door, a set piece randomly located somewhere on the map. Once entered, you are in Adventure Mode, tasked with surviving five randomly-determined theme worlds while collecting four Things in order to open the gate to the next world. Even if Don’t Starve consisted entirely of Adventure Mode, it would be enough to cover at least 20+ hours of gameplay. Especially given how the brutality of Survival Mode holds nothing to Adventure Mode worlds in which you are trapped in an endless Winter, or constant rain, or even a world with zero sunlight.
While I have been infatuated with Don’t Starve for quite some time, the game isn’t for everyone. Don’t Starve is extremely unforgiving, even in roguelike terms, where death is both easy to stumble into and results in a deletion of your save file. That said, while death is easy, it is almost always going to be due to mistakes you have made, rather than randomized deathtraps. Even if you get one-shot by a particular mob, that is only because you chose not to wear armor at the time, or because you were being reckless in not running away. Compare that to a game like The Binding of Isaac, where a white pill might randomly give a buff in one game and permanently reduce health in another.
If you are someone willing to play and lose dozens of hours of progress in a roguelike though (or cheese the system via console commands or making backup save copies), I cannot recommend Don’t Starve enough. It has style, it has substance, and it is receiving developer updates every 3 weeks (at the moment). It is simple to get into, impressively complex when you start planning ahead, and always engaging while you struggle to survive.
Game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Turn-ish-Based RPGs, Indie Humor
Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is an indie roguelike RPG wrapped in a fluffy layer of humor and genre in-jokes. The goal is simple: navigate your way to the bottom floor of the dungeon and kill Dredmor. Along the way, you will explore rooms, evade traps (a LOT of traps), kill monsters, loot treasure, and level up.
The core of DoD is its extremely interesting combat/exploration system. Essentially, everything is turn-based: for every step or action you take, all enemies make one too. These “turns” occur instantaneously, so you are never waiting on some action on the part of the AI, which makes the action go as fast or slow as you want. This ends up feeling rather amazing, as it avoids the “spacebar fatigue” that accompanies other tactical games. This system ends up putting a premium on actions though, and it’s quite easy to get surrounded and murdered if you’re not careful.
The statistics part of DoD is intentionally obtuse – your six base stats affect 18+ other stats – but the “joke” belies a pretty robust equipment and talent system. When you first roll your character, you can choose seven different categories of talents, which either grant new abilities or a direct increase in stats as you spend skill points. For example, taking the Swords talent will let you get new abilities (not all of which require a sword), and perhaps some bonuses for using swords. There is a pretty huge number of talents though, and it’s entirely possible to pick a combination that simply won’t work. On the other hand, you could pick 6 warrior-ish talents and then grab the one that let’s you shoot fireballs. Armor generally decreases your magic ability, but it’s possible to either craft or come across armor that hurts it less.
DoD is definitely a roguelike (although you can turn off permadeath at character creation) and thus contains certain abilities/scenarios in which you are likely to die pretty quickly, if not arbitrarily. This is… dangerous, for lack of a better word, in a game where you can spend 22 hours on a single character exploring every room of each level (which you may want to do to stay ahead of the curve). Indeed, in the titular Dredmor encounter, I about died within three moves before I “cheesed” the rest of the encounter via judicious use of invisible mushrooms and the all-powerful ability to close doors.
At the end of the day, I spent 28 hours in Dungeons of Dredmor and could see myself replaying it again with another character setup, or perhaps after picking up the two DLC. It’s a fun game, perhaps a more cerebral version of Binding of Isaac, but where Binding of Isaac and FTL come out ahead is giving more focused gameplay with their permadeath. Had I lost my 20+ hour character, I probably would have quit altogether right there. Luckily for me, I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I did not make three backup copies of my savegame. So if this game sounds fun to you, I recommend turning off permadeath until you wrap your mind around the game’s many idiosyncrasies.
Game: A Valley Without Wind
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 54
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Metroidvania action platformers, infinitely long games
A Valley Without Wind (hereafter AVWW) is a procedurally-generated action-platformer in the Metroidvania style. The premise is that some unknown cataclysm has rent time and space, placing enemies like robotic mechs into Ice Age biomes. As a “glyph bearer,” your job is to scavenge materials from bombed out buildings, complete missions, and then take out the continent’s Overlord after killing off his/her/it’s lieutenants.
If all this sounds… strangely disjointed, that is because it is. The entire game comes across as more complicated (or simply arcane) than it has any reason to be. Basically, you jump around and kill enemies with ranged spells. The spells you have access to come from “spellgems” that you can either craft from materials you scavenge or earn via Missions. You also have several slots for enhancements, which are items you equip that have randomly-determined stats and abilities. For example, you might have a Foot enhancement that let’s you double-jump and have +20 mana, or Pants that eliminates all falling damage and gives +20 Haste.
Missions are one of the few things that give direction and meaning to AVWW, but after a while they too seem irrelevant. Essentially, Missions are a guaranteed way to acquire some particular thing, like a Spellgem. Missions themselves come in different types, such as Falling (character floats down long shaft avoiding enemies/spikes), Boss towers, Perfection (must restart if hit by any enemy), Rescue missions for additional survivors, and so on.
The problem is that not only is everything procedurally-generated, e.g. infinite in scale, there is not any real sense of progression. The “world” levels up after you kill an enemy lieutenant, but all that really means is that you need to re-craft all your Spellgems to the higher level to match the increase in monster HP. Finding stash rooms in buildings feels fun at first, but then you start to realize that the actual number of materials you need for any one thing is tiny. Alternatively, maybe you are missing just a single resource type and are forced to delve into dozens of buildings in order to find one inside.
But the biggest buzzkill for me was how absurdly limited the spell selection was. Once I found the most useful spell (and one backup of a different element type), every other spell was practically useless, which meant getting mats for them was useless, which meant pushing back the wind from new terrain squares (e.g. unlocking them) was useless, which meant farming the building to push back the wind from the lieutenants to access the Overlord and end the pain was useless tedious.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting things going on in AVWW. The hybrid roguelike feature that is permadeath-but-you-keep-all-items made enemies feel threatening without punishing exploration, for example. Of course, the designers then made the decision that your avatar is a faceless nobody you have no attachment to, and the survivors are essentially reduced to extra lives with slightly (very slightly) different base stats. The granularity of the difficulty is extremely nuanced, allowing you to increase mob strength, platforming difficulty, or “citybuilding” complexity all independently.
At the end of the day though, I just did not feel particularly compelled by A Valley Without Wind. There is a vague sense of progression – defeating the lieutenants and then face the Overlord – but that never really trickled-down to the individual levels you were navigating. When the game comes right out and tells you to not bother exploring every nook and cranny for items (since the world is infinite), it makes you start wondering why you are looking for anything in the first place.
Game: A Valley Without Wind 2
Recommended price: none
Metacritic Score: 68
Completion Time: n/a
Buy If You Like: Throwing money away, poorly implemented games
There are very few games which I simply give up on. Of those games that I abandon, it is usually due to either frustrating game design or simple boredom. When it comes to A Valley Without Wind 2, it joins that sorry company with the distinction of having both qualities.
If you have played the original A Valley Without Wind, the first thing you should know is that the “sequel” has really nothing to do with its (much better) predecessor. The formula has changed. Radically. The premise is that after infiltrating the inner circle of the Overlord Demonaica and being gifted with an Oblivion Stone (aka the Glyphs of the first game), you reveal your true intentions to fight the Overlord’s power. You do so by… running away.
Basically, you order members of the resistance to move around the overland map in a turn-based manner, constructing farms and scavenging scrap to build other structures while you unlock more of the map by destroying rain machines (evil versions of the Windmills). Each resistance member can move once a turn, and they will not actually perform any actions until the end of the following turn. The turns themselves are advanced only when you enter into one of the rain machine maps and destroy it. Before doing so, you are free to explore any of the maps to look for Perks or… no, that’s it.
If this sounds nothing like the Metroidvania of the first game, that is because it isn’t. At all. In fact, the platforming aspects of AVWW2 has taken a thousand steps backwards. You cannot aim with the mouse any more, meaning that you are firing spells in just (usually) the cardinal directions. Instead of your own custom spells, you have to choose one of five “classes,” which have a total of four spells that do not necessarily even cover a wide range of situations. On top of that, spells have a sort of “priority” system where your projectiles are almost always destroyed by enemy projectiles, unless you have some specific spell with a high priority in your repertoire. This might sound tactical, but it’s really not. All it means is that you jerk clumsily around the screen, spamming your spells in a few directions while plowing into a screen full of enemy projectiles.
This is not even getting into the fact that the random loot and equipment strategy of the first game has been cut off at the knees neck. You have exactly one “equipment” slot, with no inventory; if you pick something else up, it replaces whatever you had equipped. The equipment also degrades as you take damage, so it will eventually break on its own. While the equipment you find is still random, there is no strategy or even thought required. “Is this better than what I have/an empty slot?” If yes, equip. If no, skip. The only customization you have is choosing which Perks to use, which basically amounts to 1 of 4 different Perks per level. Do you want +10% jumping height or +1 Heart (even the HP has been dumbed down)? Then again, considering that the platforming aspect is practically nonexistent, the Perks don’t really matter.
The funny thing (in a sad way) about all this was that the turn-based part of the game seemed sorta passably fun. Monsters would periodically come out of the Overlord’s tower, and you have to position your resistance members intelligently to intercept them without getting overwhelmed (each deals damage equal to their HP to one another), while also not leaving valuable structures open to destruction. Plus, around Turn 14, the Overlord himself was going to come out and destroy everything in his path. From there, you had a few things you could do while on the run, and the race against time angle was kinda compelling too. The problem was that the platforming aspects necessary to advance the turns and beat the overall game were so comically bad.
Ultimately, I am not even sure who A Valley Without Wind 2 was even made for. Metroidvania fans of the original will encounter perhaps the worst, most boring platformer ever made. Strategy gamers might have some fun, up until they are forced to play the worst, most boring platformer ever made to advance the turns. And… that’s it, the entire audience. The game simply fails at everything it was trying to do, when all they had to do was do what they did the first time around. I am not sure what the designers were thinking when they made this game, but whatever it was, it didn’t work.
Game: Hotline: Miami
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Violent twitch games, Retro style, puzzlers
Assuming you are not already familiar with another of the darling indie success stories, Hotline: Miami is an old-school top-down twitch puzzler game featuring a truly amazing soundtrack, a disturbing narrative, and pixelated ultraviolence. The “premise,” such as it is, involves the main characters receiving a voicemail listing an address under some other pretext (cleaning, going to a business meeting, etc). Once arriving in a DeLorean, the player can choose one of the unlockable animal masks to put on (which grants various buffs), and then gets busy brutally murdering every single person inside.
What is so engaging about the gameplay is precisely how manic, and yet deliberate it all feels. A single bullet or mistimed weapon swing will kill you instantly, leading to a reset of the entire floor. But while there is “stealth” in Hotline: Miami, it is not really a stealth game either. Some of the enemies follow scripted patrols, and yet others will simply stare exactly at the only means of egress into the rooms they occupy. This is why I called the game a “twitch puzzler,” as the best way to approach most levels is to simply barrel into each room, dispatch everyone inside, and speed onward… following a route and sequence of action derived from dying 10-20 times in a row. Think Super Meat Boy, not Tenchu.
Overall, Hotline: Miami is a pretty good game as long as you are not overly squeamish over pixelated blood and gore. While it is true that there may be a more philosophical undercurrent to the narrative that questions our delight in murdering virtual people, that really isn’t why you should play the game. You should play because it’s fun… provided you have the reflexes to keep up.
Game: Magic the Gathering: Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 77
Completion Time: 15+ hours
Buy If You Like: Magic, TCGs, Strategery
Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013 is a self-contained simulation of Magic Online, featuring the ability to play a number of semi-customizable theme decks against AI or human opponents. As you win games using the same deck, you unlock up to 30 more cards which can swapped out for other cards, or simply added to the deck; while the unlocked cards are usually just duplicates, sometimes they are brand new cards that you did not have access to before. Beyond the duels, Magic 2013 also offers 10+ “Magic: the Puzzling” matches, where you are usually tasked with winning the game in the current turn (or next one) with a predefined board situation.
As an avid Magic fan that hasn’t had the opportunity to play in years, Magic 2013 was a very compelling substitute for the time I spent playing. There is a pretty wide variety in the theme decks presented, ensuring there is a deck for your playstyle regardless of whether that is Burn deck, Goblins, Milling, White Wheenie, Blue Flyer, and/or any of the multicolored decks. On the highest difficulty, the AI was pretty merciless; across my dozens of hours of gameplay, there were only a few convoluted situations in which I felt that a real human opponent might have played better.
There are really only two downsides to Magic 2013. The first is that customization is extremely limited. As mentioned, each deck can unlock only 30 additional cards. While most decks feature unlockable cards that can subtly shift its tactics in certain directions, on the whole you are stuck with what you have. It would have been nice to be able to create your own deck out of the entire pool of cards you have access to, perhaps by adding goblins to your Burn deck, for example. The second issue might be somewhat unfair, but… well, it was hard for me to maintain my interest in the game past a certain point since I knew the environment was self-contained. There was never going to be new cards in Magic 2013 (I purchased it after the DLC expansions was released). Now, Magic 2014 is
just around the corner out now, of course, but that will have no interaction with 2013 at all. Magic fans or fans of TCGs in general will hopefully understand what I’m talking about.
Overall, Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013 is a pretty good Magic simulator for those looking for a pick-up-and-play TCG experience. Sometimes you will get mana screwed, sometimes the computer will top-deck some outrageous card, sometimes you will win because the computer never drew anything of consequence. That is pretty much par for the Magic course though. When it gets good, Magic 2013 feels like the real thing. Which is really all you can ask for from a game you can pick up for less than the price of three IRL booster packs.
Game: Prime World: Defenders
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: Unrated (likely ~58)
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Tower Defense, Grinding, TCG
Prime World: Defenders is a Tower Defense game I bought in its Beta (what we used to call pre-purchasing) almost entirely based on a relatively glowing Penny Arcade review. I would not necessarily say I am a tower defense-er – I do not specifically seek the genre out – but I am pretty open to this gameplay in a general sense. Indeed, the only real problem I have with Tower Defense games is how binary things end up being: you are either murdering the enemy masses or you are overwhelmed. Well, there is that problem and the other intrinsically related problem in that there is always an optimal configuration of towers/abilities that usually renders entire levels moot.
But, hey, Prime World is Tower Defense plus TCG elements plus you can use magic spells; surely it could not fall into that same trap. As it turns out though, the things that make Prime World: Defender unique are the very things that make the game worse.
The central game conceit is that the player’s tower arsenal is represented by TCG-esque cards that can also individually level up to gain in power. The player also can gain levels, which only really affects the unlocking of tiers in the “talent tree” – something that ends up being more of an unlock menu since choices aren’t mutually exclusive. Winning battles will result in five cards being shown and then shuffled together, with the player choosing one effectively at random; up to two additional cards can be selected by paying in Silver. There is also an in-game “store” in which to purchase booster packs of cards, although it is entirely contained within the game – there is no RMT going on here.
As an aside, isn’t it sort of sad that we have to put in disclaimers like that?
Beyond the leveling mechanic, there are a few other interesting things going on. You can use Magic spells (which also level-up) during combat, for example. I also appreciated the ability to trigger the next wave early, which not only ramps up the difficulty but also gives you bonus resources, making it an interesting strategic decision. At first, anyway.
When it comes to Tower Defense games, I always use Sanctum as my high-water mark for the sub-genre (I count Orcs Must Die! in a different category). Under that sort of rubric, Prime World… is no Sanctum. For each story mission that you unlock, there are three satellite maps attached to it that correspond with Easy/Medium/Hard. These satellites are basically random battles in a typical RPG, allowing you to farm in-game currency and get additional cards/towers. The overall map structure in these random battles varies very little (there are less than 10 unique maps), but the empty squares available to place your towers might be filled in with rocks, enemy towers, or power-ups that boost the efficacy of any towers placed there. Enemy composition is variable as well, along standard genre lines such as mass of weaklings, tough tanks, flying enemies, and so on.
The overall effect of this random battle setup makes completing said random battles fun… at least for a while. The problem that arises, and my core complaint about the game, seems inevitable in retrospect: grinding/farming is required. The story missions increase in difficulty pretty linearly, although you will likely experience huge leaps every 4-5 missions. Sometimes the leaps will be in the form of Boss encounters, which feature an ultra-tough mob that standard towers are unlikely to defeat; other times mob HP just scales out of control.
Simply put, it does not matter how awesome your tower strategy ends up being when the game is balanced around you leveling-up your towers. And, indeed, if you dedicate enough of your time to power-leveling at the beginning, certain towers will basically allow you to coast to victory with no thought required. A level 1 tower costs the same the place on a map as a level 25 tower, despite the latter dealing +800 more damage and having a greater area of effect.
I do not necessarily want to give the impression that the game is broken or anything. It’s just that, well, I was stuck on one of the story missions for the longest time, trying all sorts of different strategies and tower setups. I even looked up how other people were completing the mission. Nothing I did worked… until I dedicated 5 hours to farming random missions and got enough currency to upgrade my towers five or six levels apiece. The whole time I was farming, I was winning those missions using, literally, three of the same tower.
The whole game isn’t like that, but this particular story mission was a badly tuned break in the progression curve. And the sad fact is: this is technically a viable solution to every mission. Will you still feel clever replaying a tricky mission over and over knowing that you could technically just out-level it? And sometimes have to? Those questions are something you will have to answer for yourself.
If you are a fan of Tower Defense games, I would say that Prime World: Defenders is a solid entry in the sub-genre. If you care less about the sub-genre and more about compelling games themselves, well, you will probably still have fun for a while. As an on-and-off-again MMO player, I experienced considerable pull towards playing “just one more map” and farming money/XP fodder for my towers. As long as you know what you are getting yourself into, you will probably be fine with Prime World: Defenders. Just to be safe though, I would wait for a Steam/bundle deal.
Game: Journey [PS3]
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 92
Completion Time: 2-3 hours
Buy If You Like: World peace, Justice, Art, Sand simulators
I do not even know where to begin with describing Journey. Perhaps the beginning? That always seems to work for most people.
Journey starts out as (and continues to be) the most impressive sand-simulator I have ever seen. Sliding down the first sand dune instantly transported me back into childhood, or at least as far as Super Mario 64. But Journey is not a platformer; it is an emotion, an experience. One that only gets more and more compelling as the minutes pass.
Describing your mechanical actions as you play the game almost feels like missing the point, but to not mention them would miss the point. Nearly every single thing about Journey is perfectly crafted. You move around with the left analog stick, and can pan the camera by either tilting the PS3 controller or using the right analog stick. In the opening desert-scape, you get some extra fabric added to your avatar’s scarf, which allows you to jump and glide for a few seconds. The only other button used is “O,” which lets out a little “energy chirp” or longer blast if held down.
That is it. There is no UI, no hearts, no power meter (aside from the scarf), nothing to distract you beyond the immensity and immediacy of the moment.
After the tutorial “level,” gamers connected to the internet will encounter perhaps the most sublimely executed feature in videogames: another human being. That sounds facetious, until you realize how often games treat other players as competitors, enemies, or judgmental peers desperately trying to foster virtual respect. Your fellow traveler in Journey is exactly that, no more, no less. Except… it is much, much more than that.
Remember when I mentioned the player’s scarf controlling the ability to jump? While there are items scattered around the landscape that add length to said scarf to further increase one’s hang-time, the ability to jump is always limited to how much of a “charge” the scarf has. One can only replenish this charge at certain locations along the map.
Unless, that is, there is another player around. Merely being in close proximity to a player with charge remaining on their scarf, will cause your scarf to recharge to full as they entwine. This is not a draining of power, but rather a creation, a resonance. Similarly, the sort of “energy chirp” players can do will also charge your partner’s scarf if they are in range.
I am spending so much time talking about this because the way Journey fits together as a whole led me to one of the most intimate experiences I have had in videogaming – all without voice, text, or even names. I felt connected to this stranger, as we slid down sand highways and soared above the dunes while alternating our energy chirps. I had a suspicion that my anonymous partner had played this game before, but he or she seemed tolerant of my exploratory inclinations. If they wanted to direct my attention towards something or indicate that we should give up on trying to get that tricky scarf-extension orb, a series of chirps was enough. Of course, as we traveled, I would occasionally chirp to keep up his/her power level, and after a while I think he/she realized what my seemingly random chirping accomplished (and then returned the favor).
I am not going to talk any more about the rest of the game and the environments explored, both to avoid “spoilers” and because the game itself is only 2-3 hours long. But suffice it to say, it’s brilliant. Absolutely, devastatingly, goddamn brilliant. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which is universally praised and adored. And have I mentioned the visuals? I believe I have, but they too are striking and sublime – there were a few moments during Journey at which I seriously considered buying a $150 video capture device solely to take screenshots of this one game.
Sometimes I struggle with these shorter, more artistic games insofar as how much they are really worth. A game like LIMBO can be amazing (and it is), but spending $15 on something you finish in a single sitting? Perhaps I should have waited for a sale there. But with Journey I do feel it is enough of a novel experience to be worth skipping one night out at the movies to play. Not to mention it comes with two other games, although I have not yet played them. Possibly all combined they could make a full MSRP ($30) worth it. Even if it is just Journey though, anything more than a 25% sale means this bundle will be worth it on the strength of Journey alone.
…”Journey alone.” Whatever you do, don’t Journey alone. Christ, I want to play again.
Recommended price: $10 (full)
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: 50+ hours
Buy If You Like: 2D Minecraft, procedurally-generated Metrovania platformers
Up until I started playing a few weeks ago, the entire mental space Terraria occupied for me can be summed up as “that 2D Minecraft knock-off.” I am not even sure which game came first, and it did not seem to matter: Terraria was just another game about digging for ore and crafting better pickaxes to mine for more ore. In only two dimensions.
After seeing an entire weekend evaporate in a flurry of clicking pixel blocks however, I am here to say that Terraria is not just a 2D Minecraft clone. It is an unholy union between all the addictive parts of Minecraft combined with legitimately entertaining Metrovania gameplay with a liberal dose of SNES graphical/musical nostalgia thrown into the mix.
Terraria starts out innocently enough, with your character equipped with a copper sword, axe, and mining pick. The beginning hours will be spent chopping trees, building your first crafting station, killing some slimes to turn their quivering innards into fuel for your torches, and so on. Much like Minecraft, zombies and other uglies come out at night which drives you to create shelter and then start digging underground for wont of something else to do.
While it might not initially seem so at first, there is a surprising amount of depth (har har) to Terraria’s gameplay. While you are hunting around for Copper and Iron ore, you will of course encounter enemies in the deep places of the earth. You will also frequently encounter priceless clay pots of a forgotten age which can be broken and looted for coins. You will eventually start coming across chests filled with goodies/equipment, and even crystalline Hearts, which can be broken and then consumed to increase your HP.
As you hit certain milestones, the world around you changes. Once you have accumulated 50 silver pieces, a Merchant will hang around your house, provided you build a room for him to sleep in. Finding and hoarding bombs will cause the Demolitionist to start peddling his explosive warez. And once you surpass 200 HP, there is an increasing chance the Eye of Cthulhu (the first boss) will settle its gaze upon your growing hamlet.
Not only does all this progression feel natural, it is also addicting. Your hunt for better ores to craft better armor and weapons to make your life easier leads to encountering stronger foes and ever more secrets. While crafting is a lot less complex than with Minecraft – you can talk to the Guide to see every craftable item that a given ingredient can produce – it simultaneously feels a bit deeper. Hitting Diamond could be accomplished relatively quickly in Minecraft, at which point you were essentially in the endgame. Contrast that with Terraria, where the natural hardiness of your foes directs your exploration of the whole of the game map before culminating in a Final Boss… whose defeat unlocks the Hardmode version of your world, with new enemies and even harder bosses.
Of course, all of this implicit progression leads to a necessarily more finite resolution. While there are quite a few different set pieces to play around with, you are probably not going to spend the same amount of time building castles and mountain fortresses here as you would in Minecraft. That said, my game clock read 53 hours by the time I finished off the last of the Hardmode bosses and crafted the final piece of my ultimate armor. I could farm these bosses a few more times for their exclusive material drops – who wouldn’t want to run around with a flamethrower? – but it almost seems superfluous at this point. What would be next? Would I reroll a new character in a new procedurally-generated world? I could. But I feel I have already mastered these mechanics, and would simply arrive at the same destination a bit faster this time around. Hell, I could even equip my new character with the flamethrower and best pickaxe in the game to further speed along the process. Or I could go play something else.
Overall, the only real regret I have with Terraria was having spent all the time up to this point thinking of it as just a 2D Minecraft. Both games share many similar qualities, but why would another instance of “cause one to lose all track of time” or “become obsessed with mining better ore” be considered a deficiency? Both games are fun, in slightly different ways. Indeed, I am not even sure which one I would recommend first to someone who has played neither. Show Minecraft first, and like me, you might be a tad disappointed in the more limited forms of customization and Terraria not quite comparing to the sheer scale of an infinite 3D world. With Terraria going first though, you run the risk of having the person balk at Minecraft’s lack of direction and flat sense of progression.
In any case, having indie game companies force these tough choices on us when the AAA industry is falling over themselves pumping out derivative, 6-hour long sequels is ultimately a good problem to have.