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21

Unknown Pleasures: The Incredible Sulk

Does not commute

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They’re sending me to EGX next week. Playing games is one thing, but talking to people? Talking? With my mouth? The whole point of games is to stay indoors, damn it. I know how it’ll go, they’ll all be there playing proper games that normal people have heard of, and here’s me going “eh um, have you played Bees vs Cops II? It sold almost several copies”. Ridiculous.

Anyway. It’s time for Unknown Pleasures, our regular, borderline masochistic dive into the depths of Steam’s murky new releases, all in the name of retrieving shiny gamepearls for your, uh, play earrings.

Liberated from the clams this week: automata, wheeled acrobatics, and the ball of america.

Neon Tail
£9.20 / €10 / $10, early access

This could become something special. Neon Tail is what it looks like to you – yes, you, the suddenly hopeful Jet Set Radio fan. You’re a skater (or arguably a blader, but that sounds far too edgy) about town, whose only purpose is to skate and flip and grind and spin like a maniac. Right and left controller triggers skate forwards and back respectively (it’s very much a controller game), and you’re off. Your initial goal is to impress everyone with your sick stunts until you’re allowed to become a skating pro, although frankly why you need anyone’s permission is beyond me given what you can do out of the gate. There’s a plot to follow about gaining magic space powers and stopping an interdimensional invasion or something and that’s fine, but honestly, I could have just scooted around mucking about for hours.

There’s an open world, or rather will be – at present most of it is still under construction, but even the narrow strip of city already there is terrific fun. Whatsherface feels great on the move, scooting and sliding with a real sense of momentum. She leaps beautifully, and even with just the basic jump and spins there’s already something great here with a tonne of potential. It takes skill but also invites rather than demands it, as even the very first mission gives you no time limit at all, encouraging you to collect scattered orbs however you can. I completely lost track of them for about twenty minutes, too busy with practicing and experimenting. It’s a bit weird but also amusing that skating up a gentle slope gradually slows you to a halt, but you can grind at full speed up a vertical rail or pipe just fine. I sincerely love this, it’s what it should be like.

It is, of course, all about the grinding just like the classic Jet Set Radio it’s surely inspired by, and though it doesn’t have the freewheeling anti-authoritarian vibe that brought that game to life, Neon Tail is super fun already. It feels better in motion too.

I always disliked the way you had to constantly hop while grinding in JSR and that’s been repeated here. More frustratingly, it’s out of time with the music, so I just stopped bothering with it before long. It needs more of everything, and when that comes I will be excited to play it again.

Mindustry
£4.79 / €5 / $6

I feel like a drug dealer. Mindustry could be very dangerous. Take the mining and conveying of Factorio, filter it through tower defence (yes, I know about the aliens in Factorio, they’re rubbish though), and add a little aircraft to fly around in mining and building and zapping attackers. Look out of the window and realise it is now Thursday.

Mindustry takes a little while to open up, although it doesn’t beat you over the head with tutorials at least. Experienced automation game fans ought to give it an hour or two before the real game begins, but everyone else ought to find this friendlier than most Factorio imitators. It doesn’t sacrifice complexity, though. Mine yon copper and lead by plonking down miney squares, lead them to your base and/or the turrets you put down, then scout about the map for other resources you can hoover up. Waves of enemies come every few minutes, and they’re pretty tough so it pays to stack the guns up and fly around yourself shooting at them, if only so they’re not damaging your production lines.

Every 5 waves you’ve the option to launch the HQ into space, ending the level and adding any resources in it to your bank. You use this to unlock more machines in the tech tree, gradually adding more options and complications at a pace you’ve some control of, as you can stay on a given level hoarding resources for as long or little a time as you want. After a few levels you’ll get access to liquid pumping systems for putting out fires, processing ores into refined alloys, and using lubricants and coolants to run your systems more efficiently.

It’s colourful and pleasant and generally easy on the eye and finger. There’s a co-op mode too, and even a competitive mode, which I look forward to terrorising the rest of the treehouse with at some point.

Rain of Reflections: Chapter 1
£14.49 / €19 / $19

Sprogs! I maintain that we should stop having them for, I dunno, ten years? People argue, saying that’s eugenics, but they misunderstand. I’m not talking about only specific groups being denied their right to pass the consequences for our mistakes on to some innocent unborn. I mean everyone. No sprogs, anywhere, for ten years. Problem solved. Oh, but what about if people do it by accident, say the doubters. Well, don’t do that. Honestly, it’s not complicated.

Rain of Reflections is set in a wonderful pramless world, although admittedly the oppressive cybercops are a bit of a downside. Yes, it’s dystopia time again. Although RoR’s world isn’t quite as extreme as you might assume, it’s still not a good one, although the key issue here is that a bairn has been born all of a sudden, in a world where everyone was thought sterile. You play as Wilona, a scientist aiming to free the child from sinister government laboratories, and also you invented a raincoat that can make you invisible because sure, why not.

It’s part talky adventure (with a bit of RPG in there as far as dialogue choices go, although I don’t think they make a huge difference to the plot direction), part turn based stealth and part hacking minigames. They come together well, as you escape your tower block by dodging and distracting guards in a two-action movement system. You can use your actions to move, recharge your cloak by taking batteries from robots and machines, and sometimes hack into a door. The minigames are fine, if nothing special. There’s one where you have to roll a ball to an end square turn by turn, controlling its speed and momentum, that’s actually kinda fun.

It’s a bit on the short side, and the characters and setting could use a bit more fleshing out, but I appreciate that it gets going right away rather than frontloading acres of tedious back story, so maybe I should shut up. This feels very much like the short opening to a series rather than a stand alone story, and I’m curious to see where it leads.

Axis Football 2019
£23.79 / €25 / $30

Americaball, or How To Make Rugby Even Worse. I do not get on well with American football, it is slow and dull and convoluted and other, bad things that will labour the point. Axis Football 2019 is a bit good though. Somewhat sadly, it’s not an alternative history game in which World War Two is resolved through sport, but a sort of arcadey traditional sport game instead. I say “arcadey” because it’s about as fast and simple to set up and control as the overwrought tacklefest gets.

You’ve got all the teams – the North Dakota Fish, the Texas Administrators, even the Cincinatti Omelettes – ready to play one-off matches or dive into a management mode which again balances complexity with comprehensibility well. You can upgrade facilities, scout for players, and fiddle about with training and such. All the main things you’d expect, and none are overly fussy or confusing (beyond the necessary terminology for those of us who’ve no idea what an “OB” does and why I need a dozen of them. Or it might have been OL? Whatever). The matches can be simulated or played yourself, which I had a good laugh with and found easy to control, although tackling can be a little soapy and catchers tend to move far too slowly when the ball’s coming their way. There’s also an option to coach instead, giving up all direct control and reducing your input to choosing the formations and plays for each… drive? Turn? Turn. This was surprisingly tense, to the point where Matt became quite worried about my mental health.

The commentary was alright as well, and even gave me some vaguely comprehensible advice more than once. Experienced ovoid enthusiasts may have a different interpretation, but they’re likely to say so using so much jargon that the rest of us won’t have a clue what’s going on anyway.

There’s a refreshing breadth of options to disable various kinds of penalties (which I learned this week are something coaches can just refuse to go along with in Americaball. I choose to interpret this as a bribe option), and even make injuries and fouls more or less common, a strange but welcome innovation. I couldn’t find a button to surreptitiously kick a downed player in the stomach, though. And this is a tiny detail but one I respect: when you choose what stadium to play on, they’re rated on how much they’ll hit your framerate. I didn’t have any technical problems, but that’s a thoughtful, friendly idea.

A lack of a quick cup or mini-league option seems like a big omission in any sport game, but there’s very little faffing about. This is as approachable as I’ve ever seen the sport get.

Hexxon
£2.09 / €2.39 / $3

Hexes! Imagine puzzle games without hexes. It’d be like having sandwiches without bread, or the middle class without condescension. Hexxon is about rotating hexagons.

Oh fine. Minimalist Puzzle Game of the Week it is. Some rotatey hexy games are dull or too abstract, or too simple, or all three somehow. Hexxon gets it just right, with a simple, near intuitive idea and crucially, a narrow solution gap (the solution gap is the amount of time and/or hassle in between realising what the solution is, and implementing it. It is extremely important to puzzle games). It’s also paced well, introducing new things quickly and clearly, and trusting that you understand them without too much repetition.

So. Your hexes on the right side of the screen are colour wheels, and must be aligned in the correct way to proceed to the next level. The left side of the screen shows how many connections, and what colour some or all of those connections must be. Some of the hexes act as bridges to otherwise non-adjacent ones, and these too can be rotated, so you can get well into an almost solution and spend a good long while scratching your head over a consequentially impossible corner somewhere else. It’s not frustrating, either, which is a big plus. The right kind of challenge if you’re looking for something relaxing but not mindless. The music is oddly moody, although not to a distracting degree, and on reflection I think I prefer that to the insipid soundtracks that sometimes accompany puzzlers with a similar tone and concept.

Pick of the week: We’ve some really good stuff this episode. But it’s Axis Football 2019 that won me over.

The referee watches closely, ready to stop play immediately should it start to get good

Honestly, I’m as surprised as anyone. I’m well up for a fun sport game but American football is almost as obnoxious in virtual form as in reality, so this was a real treat. Of course I had no idea what I was doing at first, but it’s simple and quick to get going. Each turn, be it attacking or defending, you pick a maneouvre from the list and try to feck the ball up the pitch to one of the fast lads and/or just peg it away from the other team. Or you try to stop the other team from doing that. Sport, innit. Simply trying random options until some of them made sense works, and by the end of the first match I was even vaguely competent. Even if my defensive strategy was to constantly charge the entire team at the ball thrower until the paramedics begged me to stop.

The coaching mode is really fun, even if it does expose some AI flaws a bit. Your players are far too obedient, sticking to the tactic you picked no matter what. They’ll huff the ball to the designated catcher even if he’s been bundled and your other catcher is jumping up and down in the opponent’s endzone with enough room to build a house. But this made sense when I looked at the contract screen and realised half the team were paid millions of dollars a year, proving the axiom that stupidity increases in direct proportion to wealth.

It’s good!

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Sin Vega

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