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Unknown Pleasures: The Machine Starts

Through obscurity to success

Week 3. The invasion has failed, but I'm still alive. What cruel fate awaits those of us who assail the walls of Castle Shotgun but are not slain? But they still have to catch us first. In the meantime, I comfort myself by tearing through the endless round up of the best new games on Steam. It is time, it is always time, for Unknown Pleasures.

Fiddling in the dark this week: Postal workers, alien blasters, and advance warriors.

Adventures of Isabelle Fine: Murder on Rails
£4 / €4 / $5

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I'm as surprised as anyone by how fun this was. It's not polite to nack off a game's appearance as your opener, but I'll lose you all if I don't acknowledge that this one isn't winning even £10 in a beauty contest any time soon. But it's functional and clear and the point of it is largely in the writing, as well as the intriguing setting and how its plot is established.

It's not made explicit who exactly you are, but between you and your friendly, sassy ghostish sidekick, it's pretty clear that you're some sort of dimension-hopping do-gooder. You (harmlessly - they don't even notice, which seems a bit alarming in itself, but whatever) possess a human in a given place and time in order to set something right, in this case solving a murder on board a train. Very much like Quantum Leap, although it seems voluntary, and at times you can transfer into other people to possess them instead, in order to access new areas and, most interestingly, talk to other characters multiple times. As detectiving powers go, that's probably the most useful I've ever seen - you're probably already imagining how easily you could root out a killer simply by climbing up their accomplice's nostrils and asking how the murders are going.

It's necessarily limited to specific moments, and as it turns out, solving (or not) the murder is only the introduction to a bigger story. An evil spirit vampire thing is present on the train, so you naturally need to track it down and figure out what to do about it. This leads into some slightly fiddly memory game bits where you have to question people and remember key things about them, which coupled with a little busywork brings the game down just a little. But the core of it is in the writing - NPCs show just enough personality and background to fit in, and the dialogue between the two leads is warm and flows with a natural rhythm and humour. A clever wee thing. I look foward to more in the series.

Combo Postage
£2.09 / €2.39 / $3

I did the post for an accountancy firm once. Well, I say 'firm'. They were pretty shady. And they made me do loads of phone calls to pass on information that I had no way of undersetanding. It was a very badly managed business. Didn't often get crushed by boxes though.

"Enjoyably stressful" is a particularly narrow strip of fertile ground that few action puzzle games stick their landing on. Combo Postage plants itself firmly there. The concept is, like a lot of dinky little games that nonetheless have the power to directly metabolise time, simpler in practice than theory. You work in a pit into which large packages constantly drop. Your job is to tag them and process them by bumping them from the side or bopping them from above (the latter tags an untagged box but sends off a tagged one, netting points and clearing it out of the way), without getting crushed.

Points are scored by clearing tagged boxes away (a simple case of jumping above them and then tapping jump again), but while bashing off a bottom-level box nets 100 points, letting them pile up before diving in clears away the entire stack, with bonuses piling up exponentially so that a full tower of cardboard bags thousands instead. But of course, if you let another box land on that stack before clearing it away, you lose the whole thing, and a terrible red skull package appears at the bottom, permanently blocking that square. This is the classic risk/reward pull that a game like this needs, and it's great. After a time, the terrible gods of post start dropping in electric boxes that periodically zap deadly horizontal lasers, and fire-spewing health and safety violations just to mess with you. Productivity is down, get a flamethrower in there.

Games will typically only last a few minutes, with everything getting faster and more frantic, and the simple challenge of building up and clearing whole stacks gives way to a compromise where you must balance those sexy tower clearances with being able to actually climb up and tag them in time without getting squished, or killed by a laser across the screen that you missed.

Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble
£12.59 / €14 / $15

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It's Advance Wars.

Oh, alright. Tiny Metal is a turn based strategy game, extremely influenced by the excellent Advance Wars series, which sadly never made the jump to PC. Full Metal Rumble is a follow up to the first Tiny Metal game, very much in the same vein. They are by design super friendly and I want to say "simple", but that's a bit misleading as they're really just clear.

Where your typical turn based shooter is overflowing with numbers and statistics, most of that is pushed aside in Tiny Metal in favour of broader strengths and weaknesses. Infantry are cheap and good against other infantry, scale hills, and capture neutral or enemy cities (generate money) and factories (produce units for said money) fastest. Rocketbabes are great at puncturing vehicles but weak defending against most things. Scouts are fast and eat soldiers alive but fall apart against real vehicles. Levels and turns tend to be much shorter and less gruelling than most offerings in the genre, and the cartoony, mildly slapstick soldiers and colourful, near bouncy vehicles bring a levity to even a tough fight. This instalment also has a slightly bizarre overworld map in between levels, which doesn't seem to serve all that much purpose, but probably matters to the story.

I'm not gonna lie, I skipped the story entirely. It was very easy to do that though, and the tutorial was likewise very brief and skippable. It doesn't assume you know much, but it credits you with a bit of sense and dignity.

While the usual strategy game caveat applies - it's hard to tell how this measures up in the long term - a couple of levels are enough to sell this. It's as friendly and comfortable a turn based game as you'll probably find anywhere on PC.

Kingdom Wars 2: Definitive Edition
£15.49 / €16.79 / $20

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Goodness, it's another strategy game. Although I rolled my eyes at the premise of the human kingdoms of whatever and the orcs and the elves of sure okay, Kingdom Wars 2 kicked off right away with a decent tutorial that revealed this one as something of a throwback, on account of being a remaster. Real time strategy games like this have been hinting at a minor comeback recently, and I honestly can't quite put my finger on why this one did the trick for me. It's solid, I think is the word, and units come in large batches rather than individuals, and can get taken down extremely fast by siege defences, making for a pretty enjoyable sense of scale and carnage.

You've got your peasants (labourers for the orcs - I've not got into the elves yet, for reasons of time and elves being arseholes) gathering food and putting up buildings, and looting bodies for cash, which can get pretty entertaining when they're under arrow fire and thus generating more cash for the next lot. You've got your marauders and swordsmen and upgrade buildings to unlock trebuchets and fire arrows and big pots of boiling oil. A nice touch is that after spending the starter mission fending off a sea of orcs, you're flipped over to their side to learn how they work and how to assault rather than defend, without leaving the level.

I risk doing the 'faint praise' thing with this, and repeating the standard UP time limit disclaimer. But I got into this quickly and my hour was up long before I was bored or annoyed, which is even more common for fantasy RTS business than for most. It's been a while since I enjoyed one so readily.

Total Party Kill
£4 / €4 / $5

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The eternal conflict of moron / nerd / bastard continues in this inventive puzzley platform game that is weirdly co-operative considering the whole point is to murder each other. You control a trio of stock fantasy character classes, distinguished by their form of attack, through a series of mini-dungeons. There are no enemies, no treasure, exploration or anything of the sort. The job is simply to get to the exit, and you do that by killing each other.

The knight delivers a deadly whack that knocks the other two across the screen. The wizard's bolts freeze the others in ice. The archer's arrows pin people to walls, acting as a small platform. Between these three you navigate each room, and as long as one of them gets to the exit you win. It's got a nice variety of straightforward levels you'll muck through without thinking, almost by accident, ones that look a lot trickier than they are, and ones that are really quite clever. Though very different, it shares with Etherborn some levels where you can sense a solution is in your brain somewhere, but you can't quite make the leap you need to get there. Consequently there's very little frustration, and the solution gap - the space between figuring out what you need to do, and the amount of work and time needed to actually do it - is tiny. It's also well presented, and oddly satisfying to freeze and in particular to stick your frienemies with arrows. A clever and simple thing.

Break the Game
£7.19 / €8.19 / $10

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I can be very protective of the fourth wall. Walls tend to exist for a reason, and most people who mess with it have no idea what they're doing. Games in particular have a poor history with... well anyway. Break the Game is all about a little blob called Kevin who escapes from a factory "inside the game", and grants you control to help him escape the whole world. A sort of comedic Thomas Was Alone follows, in which you guide him through a platformy world, collecting pixels (cash) and gathering weapons to shoot the robots who want to recapture him. Kevin is a chatty sort, and a nice lad all round, and mostly wants to meet up with his friend Maggie and get away from the stresses of the game.

It's not clear exactly what game, and other characters also take over the narrative for a bit. There's talk of memories being wiped, and characters going mad, and a few other hints that this is a very unpleasant existence. But the drama is downplayed in favour of a gentle humour and a lot of cut scenes (which are frustratingly unskippable, but they're also more important than the platforming / shooting itself, making this less damning than it'd be otherwise. Not all the jokes land but the good ones are cute and the misses are harmless. I'm very curious to see how this goes, and I'm impressed that they've made a game so heavily invested in messing with the fourth wall that is never smug or sanctimonious.

£15.49 / €19 / $20, early access

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Strat. Egy. Ga. Me. S. It's a triple. We have a triple.

I mistook Kubifaktorium for another spin on Dwarf Fortress, but it is not. It escapes the shadow that behemoth cast over the colony management game, and it could teach a lot of its peers a thing or two as well. You lead a group of chunk-o-block colonists off their boat onto a land where trees go unchopped, rocks unshattered, and wildlife stubbornly alive. This will not do. Gather ye thine resources, build some houses and farms and all the usual biz, and fill the land with your mewling, cretinous infants.

The interface is terrific, I'll say that now. Plonking down buildings and stockpiles and linking them together is so easy I figured it out with a few speculative clicks. It's awkwardly difficult to tell some of the resource icons apart, as the massive 3D pixel-block art style strips out so much detail, but the nuts and bolts of getting things built and moved the way you want are really... bol... bolty and nutty. I don't know how to praise the quality of a bolt, sorry. Similarly, seeing your colonists' strengths and allocating them to tasks and buildings is, frankly, as easy as all these games should make it. I will not slag off DF. I will not slag off DF. I will not

Once your your basic settlement is in place, Kubifaktorium offers the tantalising promise of expanding it into a semi-automated machine with trains, conveyor belts, and zeppelins to take care of your logistics and let you focus on building and spreading and generally defiling the Earth. But it remains attractive, with even combat merely tiring your people out rather than killing. A very impressive game already, and it still has scope to improve through its early access period.

Blazing Chrome
£13.49 / €17 / $17

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I'm not very good at Blazing Chrome. Therefore it is bad and you are bad if you like it. This is how it works.

Again, I bewail the number of games inspired by 'retro' that and 'classic' this that miss the point, or pointlessly repeat the same mistakes as their idols, or faithfully recreate something that aged poorly, or was bad to begin with. Again, I do this to praise a game by contrast, because Blazing Chrome absolutely nails the aesthetic and feel of the over the top early 90s arcade shooters it was going for.

It's the nearish future, and everything is grindy, faintly 80s-style punk metal and gungy aliens and cyborgs and mechs and techno-dystopia stuff. The future bits of the Terminator, but through the lens of badass action funtimes instead of terror and horror. You scroll sidily across 2D levels, blasting aliens and robo-mooks with your rifle, picking up hovering support bots and extra weapons like a grenade launcher, chargeable lasers and the weird short range purple whip laser thing. Monsters splatter apart delightfully, mechs and bosses explode in chunks that bounce and flicker out of existence, rival hoverbikes on the hoverbike level are rival hoverbikes on the hoverbike level. There's a moving train bit, because of course there is.

It looks spectacular and sounds fantastic - the hard rock soundtrack is chunky and loud without screaming in your ear like an unpleasant schoolboy's first inexplicably furious orgasm. There's no sense of menace to it, so despite its difficulty it doesn't feel hostile or cruel.

I did, however, struggle with it, and sure, a fair whack of that is my own lack of practice, but I disliked the controls. You can fire in 8 directions and jump and duck and roll quickly and freely, but to stand still and aim, you have to hold down a shoulder pad and the fire button. Given that you'll often be jumping and dodging at the same time, I found myself tripping over this extra button repeatedly - twin stick shooters are even older than the 90s, and I found myself wishing I could bind the function to the unused second stick instead (a controller, incidentally, isn't vital but does work and feel noticeably better).

Pick of the Week: It's a rare victory for the tiniest of tinies. Combo Postage wins.

Very few RPS staff are lasered to death by purple death boxes. But I'll get them eventually.

It's small but mighty, and pretty much perfectly formed. Score chasers are generally not my thing but the lure of simply surviving as long as you can is strong enough. The high scores are a by-product of clearing away those towers in a most satisfying way, and when a run comes to an end I always go "awwww!" aloud, sympathetic for myself, rather than frustrated or disappointed with the game. It's a superb little challenge.

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