Kingsway (PC) Review – Roguishly Inventive; Royally Fun

Kingsway (PC) Review - Roguishly Inventive; Royally Fun

If I’m being honest, I missed the whole Rogue thing when it first came around. In my defence, I didn’t own a PC until long after the days of ASCII art and vicious lichens. I was eventually introduced to NetHack, a game long descended from the original dungeon crawl but with more depth and some funky literary allusions, and I quickly fell in love with the concept. Now, I have never been able to steer my plucky @ symbol to victory, but I try again every few years. So, when Rogue-likes came back into vogue, it got old for me fairly quickly. With that in mind, I was a little surprised by the big goofy smile Kingsway put on my face.

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Kingsway gameplay images via Adult Swim and Steam

Kingsway is a retro style Rogue-light RPG published by Adult Swim’s consistently surprising games branch. Adult Swim has put their name on a number of high-quality indie games in the past few years, and Kingsway is no different. It is important to note that the retro style is reminiscent of the act of playing an older RPG, rather than the original Rogue.

So, upon starting up a game the player is presented with a very simple computer desktop and a few curious desktop icons. These display all sorts of important information, like the world map or your character’s vital statistics. There’s even an email client to alert you to new quests as they become available—no job boards required. The quests themselves have some amusing flavour text and typically just require you to collect so many items from so many monsters.

Now, I said that Kingsway was a Rogue-light rather than the traditional form of the game. Between playthroughs, you can spend gems earned through levelling. It’s always nice to visit the shop after another character dies and buy a fancy new mouse cursor, an item available on future playthroughs, or even keyboard shortcuts. It cuts down on the crushing feeling that a run was useless to be able to affect future runs, even if it is just with a cool skeleton hand mouse pointer. It’s a good investment.

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Kingsway gameplay images via Adult Swim and Steam

It’s important to note that Kingsway can be played in relative, meditative silence. That is until you find the music icon, which brings up your playlist of tunes—and these tunes are pretty sick. The music itself is top notch, and the added bonus of being able to play your favourite track whenever you like. However, this approach to a soundtrack segments everything in a weird way, so the music may not have anything at all to do with the action on screen. Fighting a boss to happy travelling music can be funny, but it does get old after a while.

The actual meat of Kingsway lies in choosing a point on the map and watching your little hooded figure walk there, dealing with any battles along the way. Occasionally the player may be presented with small “choose your own adventure”-style challenges. During battles you’ll be issuing simple orders while tracking the movement of the window containing the actual battle noticing any additional windows for enemy attacks or additional monsters eager to fight. Some monsters can do weird things to your screen like closing random windows, or otherwise messing with the player.

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Kingsway gameplay images via Adult Swim and Steam

There’s really very little story here to speak of. There are cryptic drawings of mysterious monoliths and dark caves filled with mad cults. Your ultimate goal is the King’s castle, and to get there you’ll need to deal with some bosses and the beacons they guard. The bosses are tough, and grinding is a necessity if you ever want to make any progress in this game. The difficulty feels sudden and can be daunting to those unprepared.

Honestly, that difficulty is my biggest complaint here. The game does some novel things with the battle mechanics and it certainly isn’t afraid to dabble in some silly fun. The fact that Wingdings is an unlockable font should be enough to tell you how seriously Kingsway takes itself.

Rain World Review – A Milestone in Animation

Rain World Review - A Milestone in Animation

Even though it’s a loud platformer at heart, Rain World always keeps things subtle. The world, the narrative, all of it minimally plays out with very little dialogue. Its intro is told through slides, setting up the premise of the hero, a young Slugcat, who is separated from their family. It’s very Land Before Time or An American Tail inspired, but not nearly as hopeful. Okay, it’s a lot less hopeful, as it’s completely bleak and terrifying, with nightmarish imagery to boot.

Juxtaposed to a beautiful score, the journey is perilous from minute one. Nearly everything is out to eat you, and in a twist of fate, you actually eat some of its smaller inhabitants (like bugs) yourself. It’s such a subtle thing but I’m glad that the development team added that bit in, as you’re typically acquiring meta-items like hearts, or even fruit (which is also in Rain World) as the sole pickups in most platforms – munching on living creatures (and ripping their wings apart) adds a little more depth to the survival aspect.

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Your job is to get from start to finish with almost no offensive capabilities, just jumps, and occasional defensive item. You can throw sticks to temporarily halt enemies, or if you’re lucky knock them off a ledge, but they’re still going to come for you like the Nemesis in Resident Evil 3. The Slugcat is a spry fellow, capable of big leaps, climbing or shimmying across just about any pipe, and a small wall jump mechanic. Rain World’s loose physics take a while to acclimate to but they do make sense over time, and the more I played the more I appreciated them.

Because really, after encountering your first foe you can clearly see why the game took so long. Enemies are in their own way procedurally generated in terms of behaviour, not only as it pertains to the AI, but the animation side too. It always makes them unpredictable, whether they’re fighting each other, working together, hunting you down with reckless abandon like an apex predator, or ignoring you like an idiot. It’s all random, but it assists in creating rich stories that vary from run to run. For the latter situation I’d often imagine that some enemies would refuse to consume me because they were full, and didn’t need to gobble me up that second. Silly, I know, but Rain World begs for the player to make a connection with its universe.

As you might expect its randomness can work both ways. Sometimes I’ll go through an area after a death and find it to be a complete joke that I can breeze through in seconds. For other runs enemies form a 300-esque phalanx formation along the critical path, forcing me to juke so hard it would give Barry Sanders weak ankles. I love that thrill, but at times it can feel uneven or even sloppy.

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Occasionally, the action is broken up by “hibernation,” which is an awkward checkpoint mechanic. You’ll have to eat a certain number of food items to do it, and although I see how that idea was enticing on paper, it doesn’t always translate well. It’s mostly because some of the checkpoints are unevenly placed, or tucked away in dark corners of the world map where you’d never think to go. This leads to some instances of passing over checkpoints entirely, and going upwards of 30 minutes without one.

Now, I don’t mind that Rain World is a tough game where one wrong move can spell instant doom. But it’s absolutely frustrating to see that a particular checkpoint is almost completely hidden from view in one obscure block of the map after I’ve just spent an hour chipping away at a challenging gauntlet. I feel like the developer should have fully embraced the hibernation concept and allowed players to use it almost anywhere, similar to Ori and the Blind Forest. I mean, how cool would it be to wake up from your slumber outside of a safe room and have to immediately escape from a pack of enemies?

I think people are going to be looking at Rain World in years to come as a milestone in animation. While that open-ended nature doesn’t always translate to a stellar gaming experience, it’s always mesmerizing to look at. Rain World is a tough game that’s going to alienate those without proper platformer training, but as long as you’re willing to adhere to its rigid ruleset, the juice is worth the squeeze.

Small Radios Big Televisions (PS4) Review

Small Radios Big Televisions (PS4) Review

Can a game be recommended on the merits of aesthetics alone? If Small Radios Big Televisions is anything to go by, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” The latest title from Adult Swim Games boasts a colourful but minimalistic art style, coupled with a hypnotic synth-led soundtrack. Both manage to impress as players explore the five abandoned factories that make up the game’s two to three hour campaign.

Though players can only interact with the world using a cursor to move through doors, solve minor puzzles, retrieve items to progress, and play various video tapes, Small Radios Big Televisions engages as an exercise in therapeutic immersion. As a puzzle game, the team at Fire Face Corporation are more interested in testing people’s memory than their problem-solving skills, as the labyrinthian structure of each factory makes it easy to get lost within their many rooms and hallways, while the poorly designed in-game map doesn’t exactly do anybody any favours for navigation. Though hints and tips are creatively provided through colour cues and other visual aids, effective communication is sometimes lacking for a few of the more complex puzzles.

The real highlight of Small Radios Big Televisions, however, comes in the form of the collectible tapes. Using the “TD-525” player, which is essentially what a virtual reality headset might look like if it was invented in the 80s, these video tapes can be played to transport you to other worlds entirely. Though the main purpose of these small but atmospherically rich environments is to find and collect keys to unlock doorways, the enchanting ambience of each represents a real treat for the senses. The excitement of discovering where the next video might take me was what kept me enthralled throughout my time with Small Radios Big Televisions.

There is, in fact, a story to the game as well, which managed to initially capture my interest, even if it ultimately failed to capitalize on that investment by the end. Though there are a select number of cutscenes that play out after the completion of each stage, the story is told more creatively and effectively through the environment. Each factory provides new questions and answers about the world and your purpose in it, and putting together the narrative pieces that were teasingly drip-fed throughout the environments felt like a puzzle in itself. That said, the self-indulgent climax, trippy as it is, ultimately doesn’t make good on all of the build-up that had led to that point.

Adult Swim Games to Publish ToeJam and Earl

Adult Swim Games to Publish ToeJam and Earl

ToeJam and Earl may be the very definition of the term cult classic. Long before the procedurally generated universe of No Man’s Sky, there were two funky aliens dealing with randomly generated maps on their quest to reassemble their spacecraft and leave the surrealist depiction of Earth. Leaning heavily on bizarre graphics and a funky soundtrack, it makes sense that Adult Swim Games has picked up the next entry of this series as a publisher.

Read moreAdult Swim Games to Publish ToeJam and Earl

Headlander (PS4) Review

Headlander (PS4) Review

Double Fine’s offerings have been off lately, haven’t they? The decorated developer’s output has left me cold over the last few years. It’s been feeling like their trademark wackiness has been coming at the expense of fully realized concepts. This hurts to say about the developers of some of my favorite games, like Brutal Legend and Psychonauts, but it’s just how I feel.

That’s why it’s delightful to see that with Headlander, the developer still has a good head on its shoulders.

Read moreHeadlander (PS4) Review

Wasted (PC) Review

Wasted (PC) Review

I spent the first several minutes of Wasted crafting the perfect character using the game’s surprisingly robust customization tools. Every little detail, right down to thinking out the best name, was put into my creation. Not more than fifteen to twenty minutes later, this character tripped a shotgun trap and was blasted to bits, never to be seen again. The game randomly generated another scavenger for me, and I had to start from scratch.

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This is the first of many kicks in the teeth that indie developer Mr. Podunkian’s first-person roguelike shooter dishes out. Wasted has a cute art style and disarmingly hilarious writing, but don’t let that fool you for a second. It’s one of the most tough-as-nails games to come out this year, and it revels in it. Every twist and turn is loaded with traps, mutants, and deranged scavengers who will stop at nothing to obliterate you.

At its heart, Wasted is a twitch shooter crashed into a procedurally generated RPG. Players take the role of a scavenger in what remains of California following a devastating nuclear war that occurred smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s. Much like Fallout’s 50’s-tinged apocalypse, the culture of America’s Reagan years was essentially frozen in stasis. This means that you’ll hear 80s-influenced tracks blaring on boomboxes, communicate in dated lingo, and encounter roving gangs of NPCs who’ve clearly taken haircare tips from Mike Score.

The basic concept of the game is that players keep trying to progress deeper and deeper into sprawling underground bunkers called Coolers. This is done in search of radioactive drinks nicknamed “Booze,” on top of procuring armor, weapons, and loot to pawn off for toilet paper, which functions as the world’s currency. One death and you lose everything, and have to start from square one with a new character.

This might seem daunting, especially for newcomers to the genre, but where Wasted succeeds in keeping players hooked is that the whole thing is a joy to play. The core combat mechanics are stellar and there’s a surprisingly versatile arsenal to mess around with. There’s more to the game than exploring the Coolers, as well, with NPCs to chat with, quests to take, and more lore about the world to uncover as you progress. While many roguelikes feel content in giving players some dungeons to explore and not much else, Mr. Podunkian’s take on the genre feels much more generous.

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Also impressive is how the developers nailed the aesthetic. The indie marketplace is rife with games purporting to be “retro” or “80’s-inspired,” but the ones that actually manage to pull it off are few and far between. Now, for the first time since Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, a developer has pulled off something that feels sincerely “80’s.” From the way the characters talk, to the synth-laden soundtrack, right down to the basic colour scheme, Wasted is a love letter to the decade and not just some cheap spoof on it.

Wasted is a game that feels genuinely special to me. It’s a shooter more engaging than most shooters, and it’s a roguelike that’s more fun to play than most roguelikes. On top of that, it has a unique art style and a unifying aesthetic that ties the whole package together. Thrown in with a rich slather of content, everything on display works together to produce a game that’s deep, varied, and a total bargain for the price point.

I can see myself putting a significant remainder of 2016 into Wasted’s crazy world, and I’d hazard to say most people would find something here that hooks them as well.

Traverser (PC) Review

Traverser (PC) Review

Valerie Bennett, the hero of Gatling Goat Studios’ Traverser, lives in the underground city of Brimstone. Her home, the wealthy district, is a place where the streets are cobblestoned, the sun never shines, and the women and men wear elaborate dresses, fancy hats, and tailcoats. The surface of the Earth has frozen over and the remaining population seem to have reverted to the industrial age: the oxygen supply is rationed by the Orwellian Raven Corporation and a small group of rebels work together to strike back at the unjust rulers who (quite literally) control the source of life.
Traverserinsert3This premise—and the style in which it’s presented—is the most successful part of Traverser. It’s an excellent children’s story that makes an accessible fable out of real 19th century history and the rise of European socialism. Unfortunately, the gameplay that works to deliver the narrative isn’t executed nearly as well.

At the beginning of the game, Val passes a test to become a “traverser:” an agent of the Raven Corporation who uses a gravity-manipulating glove to move between Brimstone’s aristocratic upper city and oxygen-starved blue-collar lower districts. As Val finds herself drawn into the struggle between the rebels and Raven Corp.’s authoritarian forces, the player navigates the city, sneaking past guards and overcoming environmental obstacles by using the glove’s powers. A button press grabs a nearby object—typically wooden boxes or tin barrels—and rotates or changes its height by moving the mouse around. In order to quietly enter a cordoned-off area, smash through a wall, or, in a few cases, fight off monsters and robots, Valerie uses a combination of carefully timed jumps and physics-based puzzle-solving.

Traverser’s central mechanic initially seems like an interesting wrinkle to introduce to the stealth and platforming genres the game cribs from, but the problem is that it quickly becomes apparent that the action is simply too clumsy to ever be satisfying. Val and the objects she manipulates with her gravity glove have no real feeling of weight, the protagonist not jumping so much as floating through the air and objects only barely feeling as if they’re in the player’s control.

Worse than this are the technical problems that mar the game. Val—and the objects she moves around—often stick to surface or fall right through them, making platform jumping and spatial puzzles more frustrating than they should be. Areas requiring stealth fare no better. Guards sometimes spot Val through a closed door, clump up together so they get stuck in place while searching an area, or switch out of their alarmed state with the player still directly in sight. The checkpoints in these sections are so unevenly spaced out that a single misstep (or programming misfire) can set the player back 10 or 15 minutes, which is tough to swallow when the enemy’s ability to detect Val is so hit-and-miss.

Traverser’s visual design is similarly uneven. While the few hand-drawn cutscenes and in-game posters have a great style—quick, sketchy lines and bold colours that contrast with the intentionally drab setting—most of the environments and character models are muddily 3D, only occasionally taking advantage of the cartoon aesthetic to assert any real sense of personality.

The mood of the game is only properly established through Traverser’s eccentric, melancholy soundtrack. Tracks with swelling strings inspire a sense of heroism to Val’s quest while others, their melodies carried by acoustic bass plucking, complement stealth sections and rebellion errand-running. Mostly, though, the game has a hard time bringing its various elements together into a coherent whole. The music and story may be solid, but the visuals and gameplay are too unevenly executed.
Traverserinsert1There’s the outline of a great game here—one whose aesthetic would likely attract audiences young and old—but it only ever appears in glimpses. Traverser’s creative premise is worth celebrating, it’s just unfortunate that actually playing the game makes this so hard to see.

Duck Game (PC) Review

Duck Game (PC) Review

When I think about games published by Adult Swim Games, the first thing that comes to mind is their absurdly addictive soundtracks and Duck Game is no exception to this rule. The second I fired it up, I was bombarded by a retro-style MIDI-esque score that left me eager to kick some butt. The menu, if I can call it that, is an area you navigate with your duck via Sonic-style springboards, and you’ll find the game has its own level editor, which is a very welcome addition in any game that features arena-style multiplayer.
duckgameinsert4The single-player portion of the game seems simple enough; a series of challenge-style maps presented to you that grant tickets based on your completion times. What quickly became apparent, though, was that these challenges were suspiciously tutorial-y. They are, in fact, the game’s clever way of teaching you all the mechanics you’ll need to know for the multiplayer side of things. I don’t just mean how to run, jump, and shoot, oh no. I mean things like how to slide under low walls, hold fire down with a grenade launcher to arc shots, double-tap a revolver to use the recoil to fire at an upward angle, break through doors and windows, oh, and slide around while using a freaking chainsaw to propel you in a map called “chainsaw racing”! The different time challenges are set up so that a bronze medal will net you the experience you need to grasp the concept of a mechanic, while the silver and gold tiers will require mastery of advanced interactions of those mechanics within the game world.

When I first set about Duck Game, I expected that the single player challenges would be the game’s weak point. After spending some time with them and all the absurdity and nostalgia they contain, I began to expect that the multiplayer couldn’t possibly live up to the ridiculous and frantic nature of the challenges. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The multiplayer feels like Smash Bros. if every hit were fatal, and spawn points were meticulously chosen for maximum chaos. And I truly do mean chaos. Duck Game’s multiplayer is a rare gem that is so intoxicatingly fast-paced that I understand how my input is in some way related to what’s happening on screen, but I rarely felt in control of what was happening. This truly is a great thing, as by five or six of the 1-30 second matches in, I was laughing so hard, I struggled to prevent the last of my breakfast orange juice from parting ways with me via my nose. It reminds me very much of how Hotline Miami feels and there’s a real sense of slapstick comedy to how the battles play out. After several of the tournament-style sessions, I never once cared if I won or lost, as it was just so bloody fun.
duckgameinsert2I’ve grown cynical of videogames over the past twenty-five plus years of playing them. It takes a lot to earn my favour these days, but Duck Game is truly and genuinely fun in a way that I so rarely experience anymore. I love the look of it. I love the music. I love the fact that I stand idle like Darkwing Duck in the NES game. I love that the whole thing feels like a John Woo movie. I love the maps that evoke Commander Keen, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario and more. I love that I can feign death. I love that there are hats and masks to unlock. And I freaking love that there’s a button to quack for no reason. Aside from it very much favouring a controller over the keyboard, I can’t find a single thing to criticize. I’m positively enamoured with Duck Game, and anyone who can’t find something to enjoy in it is truly a sad shell of a human being.