Unknown Pleasures has been on unplanned hiatus as I have been grotesquely ill. The lack of communication or cover was entirely my fault, and I apologise for that unreservedly (and extend further thanks to the Hivemind for their extraordinary patience). I’m sorry.
Wait, hang on, Adam’s leaving. I can blame him! It was Adam, everyone! Shake your indignant fists.
There’s a bumper of 12 games this week, and then we’ll be back to normal. So, assaulting our ailing bodies this week: third party candidates, pugilistic ducks, and a JRPG that wait where are you going no come on, be fair.
Omen Exitio: Plague
Omen Exitio (a Latin phrase meaning “I know Latin”) is – foreshadowing alert – going to win pick of the week. For one thing, it’s much better at foreshadowing than I am, and for another, it’s the most compelling interactive fiction I’ve played for ages.
It charts the experiences of a former doctor turned soldier of the British Empire as he clomps about Tanzania in the late 1890s, trying to forget his past. Naturally, war breaks out, and you encounter a panicky local guide, a drunken Irish boy, a stoic Captain, and a genial but conspiratorial figure with a vague invitation. And then you start to hear about the plague. Its descent from a grounded historical setting into something dark and alien is exactly gradual enough to feel convincing, and keep you curious enough to keep going.
I don’t want to spoil it. Omen Exitio includes many of the tropes you’d expect from an Imperial British Adventures type story, but employs them with such skill and concision that it was a struggle to stop playing. Game-wise it’s perfectly pitched – a handful of simple stats and items (the latter manage themselves) combined with frequent decisions kept me from ever losing interest. I found myself carefully considering which of two offered weapons to pick up, not based on dull statistics or second guessing enemy weaknesses, but based on the relative pros and cons I imagine each would have in the real world, if I were really in that situation. That’s bloody special.
In Celebration of Violence
Possibly the best name ever. How could you possibly not be curious? It’s a top-down rogue-whatever in which you create a little ladydude or boydude or ???dude and go out stabbing stuff up for reasons that, while possibly noble, I couldn’t be bothered to listen to, so immediately pitchforked the person who was trying to give me the exposition.
The game reacted to this by having his scrolling text seamlessly turn to “AAARGH” as he bled all over the place and died. I cackled, and proceeded to slaughter everyone I saw, just because I could. There is love at first sight. I describe this because it passes an important test: it lets me play, even if I want to play in a stupid, self-defeating way.
The combat is satisfying and comical, and it seems to let you make things as easy or as difficult as you like. Hints of secrets and oddities abound (I dug up a random grave with my shovel and it was full of angry wasps), and it feels fair; I experienced no instant kills or mean spirited tricks, and probably the worst thing to happen (an entire forest caught fire) was my own fault for flinging a fireball at a wooden barrier.
A title that must presumably be shouted. It is, and this will put some of you off, a Final Fantasy-style RPG, although without so much intrusive blathering and gibberish. JRPGs (although the devs are Norwegian) get a bit of a raw deal on Unknown Pleasures, as they tend to be slow burning, and EARTHLOCK seems to be no exception: I couldn’t tell you much about the plot beyond that you’re a treasure hunter with a sick uncle, and some sort of rookie space ranger may be a deuteragonist at some point.
It’s here simply because I enjoyed it. What I’ve seen of the plot was quickly established and not beaten over my head, the dialogue is pleasant and clear, and the combat isn’t the gruelling grindfest common to the genre (please, please, please stop recreating the laborious menus of the mid-90s, JRPG devs). The overworld map is a tad sparse but it’s otherwise colourful and generally likeable. The levelling system is something of a rabbit hole, with points used to create links on a board to special powers that you can swap around, and in battles you can build up a bond with your party members… somehow, which… does a thing.
Look, it’s a JRPG, but good, alright? I tried.
Hellmut: The Badass From Hell
It’s like The Binding of Isaac, but good. Oh, don’t worry, there’s plenty of mileage in that line yet.
I kid (sort of), but Hellmut is cousin to Isaac, and I enjoyed it a lot more, not least because it tells you what things actually do. You’re a mad scientist who appeals for power to the forces of darkness, who laugh and splat him, as is a force of darkness’s wont. With help, you’re resurrected as a floating brain, able to shoot little beams and wear a selection of powerful beasties like an Edgar suit and run around blasting with them.
Yes, it’s twin stick shooter time, and a damn fine one, with lots of narky demons, odd powers, and fun weapons. It’s another roguelike too, which regulars will know isn’t my thing, but it’s hard to fault as the shooting and movement all feel very precise, and the joy of blasting, that shooter fundamental so many neglect, is knocked out of the park.
Those guns are terrific, ranging from mundane shotguns and uzi-likes to barmy exotic nonsense like a rubber rat launcher, and you can swap gathered skins back and forth as needed, rather than being locked into one. Purchased weapons are usable by any skin, too. Essentially all this gives you both more options and multiple lives, and the overall feel is of a game that will challenge you, but never at the expense of your entertainment. Highly recommended.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: You’ve inherited a run down farm in a small town, right, and… yeah. Gleaner Heights is a Harvest Moon type game about farming and wandering about chatting with NPCs and, unusually, fighting monsters.
I have mixed feelings because I spent most of my time farming and fishing, with the faint suspicion I should have been somewhere else. You start each day with a fixed pool of energy, which drains with every swing of a hammer or tilt of a watering can, and when that’s run out you can go into town to buy seeds or chat to locals. Alternatively, you could focus on digging through the mine killing monsters. I didn’t do much of this, but I think that’s sort of intended – you can pretty much do what you enjoy and not worry.
I’m not sure if I was just unlucky and missed all the good conversations, but I never learned anything about the locals, despite a few hints that something sinister was going on. I feel sure there’s something more to Gleaner Heights, but as the dialogue changes so little from day to day, and the townsfolk wander around so much (a cool feature, but there’s no way to FIND them), I didn’t feel enough motivation to find out. Which is kind of interesting because I’m accidentally roleplaying one of the oafish townsfolk who don’t think about the hellmouth/alien/estate agents clearly running the show.
But! I did enjoy farming and fishing, so who knows. Put it this way: I was supposed to just play it for an hour at most, which is far more than some releases get. I played it for six hours.
Oh, and the keyboard controls are really weird – a pad is somewhat better.
Shape of America: Episode One
Maybe you don’t want to be naive. Maybe you’re a savvy modern(ish) operator who decides to enter politics pretty much on a whim. Maybe it’s 1999 and the internet is still a place to escape from the misery. You poor modern kids, you have no idea.
Shape of America is about winning the US election. But it’s not about policies or principles or even giving a damn about the country. It’s about the back-scratching and double crossing, the greed, corruption, and sheer bullshit it takes to even become a viable candidate for the US presidency, regardless of your political stripe.
This is unique thematically, and an interesting mix of role-playing and interactive fiction. You’re a waiter who gets a lesson on politics from a passing Senator, then shows up at a political event and blags his way in. From there you need to flukily impress the right people by winning a fight, which here is a THROWDOWN!! where you trade verbal abuse and fire off rhetorical devices in place of blows, and use bragging instead of healing. Second-guessing your opponent’s personality, and thus the moves they’re likely to use, is key.
It’s great fun, and faintly paranoia-inducing. It’s made abundantly clear how murky and ugly and crooked politics is without beating you over head with it or picking sides – you need money to gain skills, for one, and the main source of money is getting people to invest in your company, which produces nothing and is run by a guy who (a) might be a crook and (b) is obviously using you. But you could be using him, too! It never matters what you say or what you stand for, just that you sound like you believe it.
The CRT video effect is way overdone, though. It’s supposed to be 1999, not 1983, damn it. Stop being young, all of you.
Bio Inc. Redemption
Patient Gary Flange (my name. I’m not sorry.) presented with memory loss, mood swings, chest pains, muscle weakness, hypertension, and basically by the time I finish reading this out he’ll probably also have a migraine and be on fire.
After 239 days it was found that the patient had ALL THE DISEASES IN THE WORLD I mean jesus christ man, how are you even alive? Oh right, because of me.
Bio Inc. Redemption gives you a spookily transparent patient and a list of symptoms, and leaves it up to you where to go from there. Points are gained by harvesting weird anomalies that appear on their organ systems, and spent on testing for whatever you think they might have. Tests take time, and patients tend to decline and selfishly die if you squander points or prioritise poorly. Once you’ve got a diagnosis (or two, or however many illnesses Gary’s trying out this week) you make similar choices for the treatment, and hope for the best.
It’s a simple, near self-explanatory system with a great UI and help text, but far more than the sum of its parts. Time will absolutely race by as you try to figure out what’s wrong, and the slow disintegration of a particularly sicky patient is as infuriating as it is exciting.
Speed Dating for Ghosts
Turns out that preventing ghosts is unnecessary: being dead isn’t so bad, just a bit lonely.
You’re a ghostie who’s gone speed dating. Once you’ve picked a venue you’re introduced to three other ghosties. You get a little conversation with each, then go round again for a second go a bit like in the footballs (see, we can do this!). Once that’s over, assuming you hit it off with any of them, you get to choose which one to go on a date with. I was asked out by all three, because I am a priceless catch in all universes. Here’s what I was asked:
Come with me to the scene of my own murder.
Come with me to be with my elderly friend while he dies/enghostens.
Come with me, it’ll be a surprise (SUBTEXT: “I’m lonely and I like you”)
I wanted to go on all three. That never happens. Normally most of the romance options are hateful. It hurt my heart to turn down not just one but two of them. These poor sad, sweet people. But the murdered guy, I mean, come on. He’s gonna be wandering forever if I don’t oh goddamn it, this is why I don’t do “dating”.
This is what Speed Dating for Ghosts does. And it only got more bitterwseet from there. It’s short and simple but well worth it.
Shrouded in Sanity: Freebirth
Ghosts? KILL! Re-kill! Whatever, the point is GET ‘EM!
It’s Dark “I’m not sapping away your precious mortality” Souls as a 2D pixel art thing. With a Victorian-ish theme. But goo… oh, shush.
This really does hew close to the Bloodbone, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Once again this is very much Not My Thing, but I got into the groove and it seems less obnoxious than its idol. The art is rather lovely (if far too dark – I could barely see the spike traps in some rooms even with my monitor set to “gremlin attack”) and the combat is necessarily simpler and less precise. But it feels very meaty and nasty, which fits the grisly setting. I can’t say any more without just describing how Dark Souls works. Oh, the controls are a bit weird, but if you played DS on the PC and somehow didn’t flip out and deep fry your own head, you’ll be fine.
The Esc key doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t do anything at all. Devs, if you’re reading: This is the one warning. Don’t ever do this, because it will result in instant disqualification.
You are Patobox, a legendary boxer who has a duck’s head but nobody ever mentions it.
There are lots of weird games on Steam, but few that are weird in such a stylish and gripping way. Patobox has been cheated in the ring and left for dead, and now brought back by an unseen figure to get revenge on Deathflock, a glitzy organisation full of colourful boxers who were on his side once. I think. You wander around a striking monochrome world, sometimes talking to people or fetching items but mostly taking in the strange setting, and punching things. Punch punch punch, that’s our Patobox. Once you’ve pummelled your way through to wherever you’re headed, you’ll likely get into a fight with a colourful villain. There the game reveals its love of Punch-Out, as you defeat your foes by dodging, blocking, and whalloping them at the right moments.
It’s a refreshing change for a narrative game to be about something other than wearily clicking on absolutely everything and rubbing all your stuff on all your other stuff. The action is fun, and the sheer oddness, gorgeous style, and steady drip feeding of plot make it hard to resist. It should definitely tone down the first boss fight’s difficulty though, or cut it a bit short.
Winds of Change
£14.99/$19.99, Early Access
Omen Exitio gets to be pick of the week, and Shape of America leans more into RPG, so Winds of Change gets to be Interactive Fiction of the We… Time Period.
That’s not to say it’s not deserving: this is perhaps the highest quality I’ve ever seen in a visual novel. The artwork is gorgeous and full of life, the writing is strong and it even has solid voice acting.
The plot brings out another string to its bow: you’re a Seer/ess, who has visions of the future. During these visions you lose your memory, but your guide and friend is trained to recognise these moments so she can fill you in on what’s happening. So when this happens, she knows she doesn’t exist, and you know it’s just a vision, so you can do anything it takes to get information about what’s coming.
How goddamn cool is that? In one move, Winds of Change turned two of the biggest clichés in games into a brilliant narrative device and revealed that its characters are capable of rational thought. It goes further: while visiting quiet areas you can click on icons in the corner to see optional scenes going on elsewhere in the world. You can opt in or out of “meanwhile…” segments as you like. And the dialogue options give you a respectable range to express yourself, including the oft-forgotten “I don’t care/I don’t want to talk about that”, or just saying nothing.
The story’s fine so far too. And yeah, sure, they’re weird animal people but come on, you played a giant quivering brain in Starcraft, for god’s sake.
Pretty and calming and pleasant: these are strange words to come first to mind about a fighting game. Mulaka is inspired by the culture and history of the Tarahumara, a people indigenous to what’s now Mexico, famed for their long distance running over difficult terrain.
Your job is to run around the deserts and canyons of the region, doing battle with wild animals and monsters, and ultimately defeat the evil creatures who’ve corrupted the land, both aiding and aided by your people’s demigods. Structurally it’s nothing you haven’t played before, but it’s competently done, with an art direction and setting that brings it all to life well. Heavy attacks, fast attacks, dodges, stunning the armoured thing so you can stab it in the nads. Collect the things to open the stuff. All tried and tested, but with a warmth and quiet joy, and also a refreshing lack of grind. The combat seems like it’ll remain quite straightforward too, and not dive down the combination/unlocking rabbit hole. It’s gentle enough but seems like it could get quite tricky.
Phew, eh? There are some damn fine games in there, many well worth a punt even if they’re outside your usual genres.
Pick of the week is… Omen Exitio: Plague!
Its greatest strength is hard to single out because it’s great across the board, and delivers exactly the right degree of interactivity. Many IF games are barely interactive, or are so gamified that you’re hardly ever stuck into the story. I can’t even tell where the boundaries of Omen Exitio’s illusion (a neutral word here – all games rely on them) lie.
It also lets you fail, even quite catastrophically, but continue the story, with your character and companions noticeably traumatised.
Surprise second Pick of the Week! It’s Bio Inc. Redemption
I SAVED GARY FLANGE. NAME ME HERO.
Maybe it just feels good to feel in control after two months of exciting autoimmune adventures, but gosh this one snuck up on me. Novel games that nail what they’re trying to do are precious indeed. Obviously medicine is more complicated than it could possibly present here, but there’s a tonne of illnesses in here anyway, and the “this symptom could mean you need to drink more water. Or your immune system is going to eat you” dilemma never gets old.
It’s like being horribly ill for unknown reasons. But good.