Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Risk of Rain

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Hopoo Games

Publisher: Chucklefish

Release Date: November 8, 2013

Risk of Rain represents a bit of an anomaly amongst my backlogged games. I knew next to nothing about it when I purchased and subsequently put it on the schedule for Rogue’s Adventures. Two factors inspired my quick decision: a trustworthy friend played it and loved it, and it was published by Starbound developer Chucklefish. Say what you will about Starbound’s rocky development but I really love that company’s visual style, and they seem particularly attuned to 2D games that revel in retro-pixel art.

Risk of Rain is about as indie as you can get. It was developed by two college students and would go on to win the Best Student Game Award at the Independent Games Festival in 2014. A successful Kickstarter campaign in mid 2013 allowed them to expand gameplay features and most impressively, add an incredible soundtrack by Chris Christodoulou that absolutely blew me away with every track. Seriously I’m going to need to own this soundtrack.

When I started Risk of Rain I was completely lost. The intro clip shows a spaceship being taken over by a mysterious figure, and your character is unceremoniously dropped onto a hostile alien planet, armed only with the keyboard controls and your starting characters abilities. Note: I quickly switched to an Xbox 360 controller as the keyboard controls are inadequate are best.

I’ve played a ton of roguelikes before. In fact, a roguelike has made my Top Ten Games of the Year lists in each of the last three years: Dungeon of the Endless in 2014, Rogue Legacy in 2013 and FTL and Spelunky in 2012. Risk of Rain would have been in close contention with that company thanks to a perfect balance of time and difficulty, multiple playable characters with different abilities and an addictive learning curve and reward system.

Although you start over every time you die, like many modern roguelikes you unlock new things with every playthrough, helping take the sting out of dying and allowing each run to give you some progress. Numerous challenges can be completed like killing foes or reaching a certain milestone that unlock additional random items and characters. Items can be purchased in random treasure chests or dropped from boss monsters, most giving an insanely wide range of passive effects, such as freezing foes that touch you, healing you if you stand still and the very crucial shield that adds an additional health bar.

Gameplay is as intuitive as any 2D platformer, with a few important features. You spawn into a world as a tiny pixelated commando. A timer in the upper right begins counting up and updates your difficulty every five minutes, beginning with ‘Very Easy,’ and enemies begin spawning in. In the beginning you’ll face simple lizard-people and crabs that can be swiftly dealt with, but soon hardier and trickier enemies appear, like the imps that teleport to you or the spitters that fire a cannon shot out of their mouths. Each stage has its own enemy types, though future stages do rely too much on simple color palette switches and bigger stats on the same enemies.

Instead of giving you loot to equip, every character class has four unique abilities based on cooldowns. The commando is fairly boring with three abilities that fire his gun in a slightly different way and a fourth move that lets him dodge and roll forward. I found the first hour or so of the game a bit of a slog as the commando just isn’t very interesting to play as you rely on the same four abilities the entire time (plus the occasional activated item you can loot, but you can only carry one of).

Each stage (which are sadly not randomly generated, unlike every single other roguelike I’ve played) contains a portal that must be activated. Turning it on summons a gigantic boss as well as 90 seconds of constantly spawning enemies, creating a fun and chaotic climax at the end of each stage. After four stages (usually taking at least 30 minutes total) you can choose to go to the final stage or go through each stage again at the harder difficulty in the hopes to gain more experience and items. The final level aboard the ship offers a welcome new aesthetic, and opening each door amounts to several climactic battles throughout the stage leading up to the final, multi-stage boss fight.

Once I began unlocking additional characters the game really started to mesh with me. The Enforcer is instantly much more fun with a combination shotgun and shield. Using his abilities you have to become very aware of your positioning with the enemy and effectively time your shots. I also had a lot of fun playing the rapid-fire Bandit and the sentry turret/mine-laying Engineer.

It’s with the Engineer that I was able to actually beat the game, though with the major caveat that I was playing cooperatively with a friend at the time. Like Dungeon of the Endless, Risk of Rain seamlessly incorporates cooperative multiplayer into the action. We weren’t quite sure if the difficulty scaled to the number of players, and the on-screen action gets so chaotic in the later stages that it can be tricky to decipher just what the hell is going on – even dropping my 60fps in half during some particularly insane moments, and impressive feat for a pixelated game made in Game Maker.

While every roguelike has a fairly steep learning curve (many of which, I suspect, keep some folks away from the genre altogether), Risk of Rain utilizes it to dole out awards at a steady pace. Unlocking items allows them to spawn into the world and there’s no limit to how many you can hold (the passive ones; you can still only hold one active item). By the end of my winning run I had over two dozen various effects, and it’s fun to go through that classic RPG evolution of weak as a paper sack to god-like superhero in the space of an hour.

That perfectly balanced difficulty is what kept me coming back. The beginning when that first boss spawns from the portal you’re in awe, and probably going to die. Stick with it, unlock some items and purchase them from random chests and you’ll soon persevere, only to die in the next world, and then the next. Getting a little farther each time is addictive; unlocking challenges, items and additional characters with vastly different abilities and skillsets helps make Risk of Rain one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played, and all that works perfectly well cooperatively (if you have the patience to set up port forwarding on your router that is).

If you can get on board with the tiny pixels on screen and scale the initial learning curve (and get beyond the lame starting character) Risk of Rain is a fantastic experience, and highly recommended for fans of roguelikes and hardcore platformers. Do and try and bring a friend or two as well.

Pros

  • Perfectly balanced roguelike
  • Constantly unlocking items and characters is a rewarding treadmill
  • Multiple classes offer vastly different gameplay experiences
  • Cooperative multiplayer works beautifully
  • Amazing soundtrack

Cons

  • Art style makes it difficult to tell what’s going on during chaotic battles
  • Keyboard controls are atrocious – use a controller!
  • Starter character isn’t very fun

 

Final Say: A hardcore roguelike platformer that rewards persistence and skill as much as random luck. Play cooperatively for maximum fun.

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Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 21, 2013

I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns. One of my all time favorite films remains one of my childhood favorites – 1993’s Tombstone. The gunfights, the one-liners, the larger than life characters all created an indelible interest in a genre that had long since waned from mainstream appeal. Indeed to be a big fan of Westerns necessitates being a fan of classic cinema, and as a film student in college I was afforded lots of opportunities to dive into the worlds of Sergio Leone and John Wayne.

Despite a brief resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s, Westerns have become a rare breed, and rarer still among gaming. You can probably count the number of Western-setting games made in the last ten years on one or two hands, making magnum opus’ like Red Dead Redemption all the more special (Side Note: Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite game of the last 15 years).

Part of the problem with those few Western games is that they are almost all exclusively shooters, and the guns of the era don’t lend themselves to a whole lot of variety. I’m personally not crazy about first person shooters in general; I enjoy the BioShock series much more for the story-telling than the gameplay, and I stopped trying to keep up with most competitive shooters years ago (I do enjoy the occasional cooperative romp, like Evolve).

Thus I’d never given the Call of Juarez series a chance, and even less so when the previous entry abandoned its Western setting for a modern one (yawn). Gunslinger was released in 2013 as a shorter spin-off and was lauded for its polished gameplay and humorously unreliable narrator. I was intrigued at the low cost of entry, both the literal cost and the relatively short length, and wanted to give it a try.

Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter that regales his tales of adventure (and mass murder) to a table of bar patrons. Silas reveals that he and his brothers were left for dead by a gang of outlaws, and as the sole survivor he went down a dark path of vengeance and blood – which pretty much sounds like the story hook of most Westerns and video games in general.

Silas’ adventures take him to just about every classic Western location you could think of – from Apache-filled canyons to trains, steamboats, mountain passes, dynamite-filled caves and of course, classic small town shoot-outs. Each level offers a fun new location and while the graphics engine isn’t necessarily the prettiest, developer Techland gets a lot of mileage out of the vast expanses and gorgeous vistas that dominate most backdrops.

Missions are short and sweet, mostly clocking in at maybe 30 minutes. Exploration is minimal and most of the time is spent simply following the obvious paths laid about before you, dispatching waves of gun-toting outlaws and bandits. Gameplay is very similar to those on-rails light gun arcade games as enemies pop up out of cover. A concentration bar can be used to slow down the action in a classic ‘bullet time’ effect, painting targets red and making many of the more chaotic sections much more bearable.

Silas is limited to carrying his revolvers and either a shotgun or rifle. Variety in guns is not a strong suit for most Western games (though Red Dead Redemption performed admirably). Revolvers come in three varieties, letting you choose whether you prefer range, accuracy or rate of fire, while I found the rifle vastly superior to the 2-barrel shotgun in nearly every situation.

Since every game has to have some sort of RPG-like progression system, Gunslinger lets you level up and put skill points into three separate trees (with two paths each), focusing on either revolvers, rifles or shotguns. New custom guns can be unlocked and many skills help rack up the combo points as well as enable perks like carrying more ammo and reloading faster. I went with the rifle skills first as long range combat seemed like the best way to go most of the time (other than occasionally spelunking in caves).

Even on Normal mode Silas can’t take a whole lot of hits, and goes down pretty quick. I had to replay quite a few sections, and some multiple times just to survive. Many climactic moments have you surrounded by a dozen or more enemies and missing a shot or two can be fatal. A few gatling gun boss sections also leave little room for error. Thankfully checkpoints are frequent and easy; I never had any complaints after dying and starting almost right where I died.

One of my favorite features were in the collectibles. Silas can find Nuggets of Truth hidden around the world, and since each level is fairly linear finding them is pretty easy. These Secrets reveal little three or four page stories on various famous historical figures, gangs and places that Silas runs into during his storied adventures. I stopped and read every single one of them. Hats off to the developer, as they were fun and informative addition.

Of course our anti-hero ends up running into just about every famous Western hero and outlaw you’ve ever heard of. His career as a bounty hunter tasks him with taking on the Cowboys and Johnny Ringo, the Jesse James gang, the Dalton Brothers and even a climatic Mexican standoff with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Gunslinger could’ve easily painted a contrived story inserting all these famous characters and narratives willy-nilly, but I found it maintained a nice balance of homage and loving respect for the genre, and built upon the real world stories to insert Silas into them in clever and not entirely reality-breaking ways. Kind of how Forrest Gump ended up at a lot of famous events – Silas Greaves is the Forrest Gump of Western heroes.

The concept of an unreliable narrator isn’t new, but it’s used in some fun ways, including the classic “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention” moment. Silas’ stories get a little too outlandish for our bar patrons, and when they call him out he sometimes recants, and things magically change before your eyes. It’s also used to occasionally hinder or provide progress (“Suddenly, I spotted a ladder”). It’s a lot of fun thanks to some great voice acting, and Silas is a surprisingly deep character.

Call of Juarez Gunslinger is only about six hours long, and even then you could easily finish faster if you are good at first person shooters and didn’t care about collecting the Nuggets of Truth. With gameplay that’s little more involved than a light gun arcade game the real strengths lie in the Western theme, which permeates every facet of the game, from the famous characters to the tired tropes to the wonderfully varied but still thematically appropriate level design. Gunslinger could be a tougher game to recommend if you don’t know your spaghetti Westerns from your John Wayne flicks, but for Western fans and those that enjoy a more narrative-focused shooter it’s a surprisingly rewarding treat.

Pros

  • Western themes are used to their utmost potential
  • Silas’ narration is fun, funny and a neat way to anchor the story
  • Collectibles offer rewarding and fun historical lessons and stories
  • Short length and frequent location changes helps keep the limited gameplay fresh

Cons

  • Basic gameplay doesn’t evolve that much over the course of the game
  • Shotguns seem woefully inept next to rifles

 

Final Say: A short and sweet shooter that takes full advantage of its fantastic Western theming.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Cthulhu Saves the World

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

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Developer: Zeboyd Games

Publisher: Zeboyd Games

Release Date: July 13, 2011 (PC), December 30, 2010 (XBLA)

My Cthulhu knowledge is rather limited. I’ve never read a Lovecraft novel nor played any of the other games. I do play and enjoy the Elder Sign board game, which is a streamlined, dice-based version of Arkham Horror, and contains all the elder gods as well as thematically dark, poetic writing and artwork.

No prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy Cthulhu Saves the World, a lovingly styled retro-RPG created to emulate the style of old console RPGs. Zeboyd Games has carved out a fun niche combining humorous, self-aware writing with 16-bit styles. I’ve previously played their later games, Penny Arcade’s On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 and 4 and based on the fun I had with them, backed Cosmic Star Heroine on Kickstarter. CSH is now one of my Most Anticipated Games of the Year, and I wanted to dive a bit into their back catalog with Cthulhu Saves the World.

This is definitely a developer that has iterated and built upon each of their releases; each game has gotten progressively better with more features, options, content and animations. Unfortunately this makes the older Cthulhu slightly worse than the Penny Arcade games in just about every way.

Cthulhu uses a pixelated overland map to walk around. You start off controlling the former elder god as he washes ashore on a beach, having all his cosmic powers drained. The disembodied narrator gently informs our hero that he must save the world and prove himself a true hero in order to be admitted back to Mount Olympus (Err sorry, that’s Disney’s Hercules).

The story and plot are mostly unimportant as Cthulhu follows a familiar path of dungeon – town, dungeon – town, picking up a colorful cast of allies along the way. Towns offer some funny dialogue and a place to rest and buy better equipment, but otherwise they’re devoid of any personality, quests or content.

The real meat of the game comes in the dungeons and the combat. Combat resembles the old NES Final Fantasy games as your party of up to four takes on brightly pixelated foes. There’s very little animation during combat and you don’t even get to see your own party on the screen, so it mostly relies on the dialogue box to move things along.

Like all their titles, Zeboyd wasn’t content to simply recreate the old JRPG systems of combat and really innovated and streamlined many aspects, such as enemies getting stronger with each subsequent round, fully healing at the end of each fight and full details on exact damage numbers for the power of your abilities and the health of your enemies. Combat’s designed to be extremely quick and extremely deadly, which plays well into the limitations of the engine – though on Normal mode in the latter stages of the game I could blaze through most fights in two to three turns, making them more of a minor annoyance than a challenge.

I found the very first dungeon to be the most challenging as I was still learning the new and interesting concepts behind the combat. HP fully heals between battles but MP does not, so you still need to regulate your powers and balance defeating your foes as efficiently as possible while still holding back if you can. A little MP regenerates depending on how quickly you win the encounter, and thankfully there are save points sprinkled at the end of dungeons (and sometimes in the middle) that fully restore your MP. Oh and you can also save anywhere (YAY!) and teleport to any previous towns at any time (woo!). Options like these prove that Zeboyd is both lovingly nostalgic about retro JRPGs while still willing to add modern conveniences that makes a return to this style much more fun than frustrating.

The majority of the game is spent crawling in dungeons. Dungeons have a nicely diverse range from haunted forests to volcanoes and even a spaceship. The level designs are mostly just giant mazes, but thankfully you rarely reach a dead end as most paths lead to either treasure chests or the exit.

Still, some of the later dungeons are just way too big – an issue they freely admit on the nifty developer commentaries sprinkled throughout. I also enjoyed the fact that each area has a limited number of random battles – once you hit it (anywhere from 20 to 50) you can explore at your leisure without running into monsters. You can still select Fight on the menu, but I never once felt the need to grind.

Enemy types are varied but for the most part didn’t seem all that different when it came to actual attacks. Your party on the other hand is nicely diverse, including a meaty talking sword, a gothy necromancer, a crazy old man healer and even a fire dragon at the end that lets you fly around the world map like an airship. Picking the right combination to maximize your abilities is a fun tool to play with throughout the adventure.

Cutscenes help flesh out the action and the writing stays fun and funny throughout, but all the action takes place in stock pictures overlayed on a black screen. Cthulhu Saves the World wears its indie budget proudly on its sleeve and while charming, I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget and several more years worth of gameplay design under their belts.

Pros

  • Funny writing that made me laugh out loud several times
  • Tons of skills and options in combat, including Tech, Magic and Unite attacks
  • Lots of varied areas and dungeon types
  • Perfect length

Cons

  • Combat is mostly crunching numbers
  • Reverse difficulty curve; difficult in the beginning, fairly easy at the end
  • Side content is limited to a few optional dungeons

Final Say: A cleverly written, lovingly retro-styled JRPG starring everyone’s favorite elder god.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Portal 2

I’ve finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

It’s tough to make sequels to beloved games, especially clever puzzle games with an intriguing, mysterious world that’s peeled back over the course of several hours. I loved Portal when I first played it last year to kick off Season Four of Rogue’s Adventures, and now I began Season Five with the even more beloved Portal 2.

Portal 2 shoves you, the mute protagonist that might as well be Gordon Freeman (side note: I find it funny when Chell is propped up as a great heroine, she has zero lines or personality, and same thing with Gordon Freeman as a hero – both are simply camera lenses for the player), back into the massively underground Aperture Laboratory. You’re given a rude awakening by new character Wheatley, who’s eventually revealed to be the personality core you forcibly removed from GLaDOS in the first game in a funny bit of retconning.

Wheatley, fantastically voiced by the very British Stephen Merchant, serves as your initial guide in trying to escape the lab. The illusion of the lab as anything other than a creepy science prison was shattered in the first game, so the story delves further into the history of Aperture and lets us see even more of the cool behind-the-scenes machinations that were teased so effectively in Portal.

Read the full Final Thoughts on my Game Informer blog >>

New Article – 12 Upcoming Family-Friendly Games in 2015

Kirby-Rainbow-1End-of-the-year lists are always a fun grab bag of arguments and criticisms over our favorite games, but nothing reflects our passion quite like looking ahead at new games on the horizon. Specifically when it comes to family-friendly games, we’re looking for upcoming titles that emphasize teamwork and cooperation, have minimal objectionable content, and most of all should be fun to play. Here are 12 such family games we’re looking forward to in 2015.

Real the full article at Pixelkin >>

2014: My Year In Gaming

Two Thousand Fourteen! I spent most of the year editing and writing for gaming site Leviathyn, got through another two seasons of Rogue’s Adventures, did a ton of live streaming and video content, began freelance writing for multiple game sites and finally bought a Wii U – all while still blogging here on Game Informer (I also started my own personal blog at roguewatson.wordpress.com).

2014 was a weird year for games. I predicted a huge year with exciting new franchises a la 2007, but instead we got mostly middling disappointment and sequels. However the indie game scene is stronger than ever, and thanks to platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, more and more developers are finding success making some really wonderful games. And I played a ton of ’em.

I’m also a big organizational nerd, which is to say I love making charts and lists, and this end of year recap is the grand daddy of them all. Or rather, it’s the love child of a year’s worth of note-taking of games I acquired, played, beat and/or 100% completed. Sites like Raptr.com and Backloggery.com help immensely, and you can see my year-end breakdown from Backloggery below:

That’s 68 New Games versus 50 Beaten and/or Completed ones – Not great! Interestingly I beat almost the same number of games as last year, but I acquired many, many more. I’m presuming it’s a combination of steam sales and review copies. Either way, despite playing through my backlog dutifully via Rogue’s Adventures, I ended up adding even more onto the pile. What a terribly glorious problem to have.

Anyway, let’s get to the month by month breakdown! As always I’ll give a brief rundown of the games I played, as well as the backlogged games I finished for Rogue’s Adventures (as well as links to my written Final Thoughts).

Read the full month-by-month breakdown over on Game Informer >>

My Top Ten Most Anticipated Games of 2015

Read the full list over on my blog on Game Informer >>

Now that my Top Ten Games of the Year list is out of the way we can focus on what’s really important – being excited for future games! Many of the biggest 2014 games were pushed into the next year, and many new Kickstarter and Early Access games will be debuting. I’m feeling fairly confident that all of these will actually release this year, but time makes fools of us all….

Read the full list over on my blog on Game Informer >>