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Game Review: Guacamelee Gold Edition

image source: punkandlizard.com

image source: punkandlizard.com

Brent Hopkins

Guacamelee is a game that has gotten plenty of acclaim across every platform it has been released on (so, all of them, since it has been released on all of them). The game is a typical “Metroidvania” style game where you explore different levels that can’t be completely finished until you get all of the different abilities. The initial release was in 2013, but the definitive version titled  Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, came out this past July for the new generation of consoles and Steam. This review covers the stopgap Gold edition of the game, which isn’t missing too much.

First, I will have to admit I have never beaten a Metroid or Castlevania game, so I understand the concept, but I don’t actually have a frame of reference for the Metroidvania style.

Guacamelee looks really nice. The characters are bright and colorful and the environments match perfectly. The feeling I got while playing was a movie or Looney Tunes depiction of a Mexican village, which completely sucks the player in. The game follows a luchador named Juan who has to stop the villain, Calaca, from merging the land of the living and the land of the dead by saving his childhood love. This is not a story that will change the way you see games, but it is sufficient.

The whole game looks like this.

The gameplay is simple, but equally solid. The combat is your basic beat-em-up-and-dodge but when the game begins spawning multiple enemies that have special shields that require you to use certain attacks to break, battles can get extremely hectic. There is also a combo system which requires you to chain attacks without getting hit or taking lengthy breaks between attacks. The higher your chain, the more money you make. The money can be used to upgrade your character in basic ways like health and power but also you can unlock costumes. Each costume has its pros and cons and can be switched out at any save point. This is a cool little addition but some costumes make combat a complete joke on Normal difficulty.

The other gameplay aspect is the platforming. This is where the game gets hard. Juan can switch between the land of the living and the dead at the press of a button and the game often requires you to do this and use abilities to clear rooms. This can be tricky — but never unfair — so I commend Drinkbox Studios for doing platforming right.

The game is a solid 15-hour game if you do everything. Rushing through the game, you can easily complete it in four or five hours, which is a bit disappointing for a $14.99 game, but that would be a disservice to yourself to play it that way.

This game lived up to the hype and I highly recommend picking it up, if this is your type of game.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

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Video Games as Literature: Thomas Was Alone and Sentient AI

image source: wiki

image source: wiki

Brent Hopkins

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game developed by Mike Bithell that was originally a simple flash game, but was then expanded upon to become a full release for major platforms. I had the pleasure to play this game through Steam after picking it up on sale for something like 30 cents.

The game itself is a simple platformer that asks you to take basic four-sided shapes and help them reach their portals located somewhere in the stage. This is simple enough, and the learning curve may be the best one I have seen in a puzzle platformer. I never felt the game was too easy and, on the other end of the spectrum, I never had to resort to looking at a guide to solve an unfairly complex puzzle. This all benefits the game overall since this allows a lot of focus on the story of Thomas Was Alone.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is by far its strong suit. Bithell manages to use the 100 levels of the main game to bestow personality onto the most basic shapes you can have. This is done through narration that either occurs at the beginning of a level or at certain trigger points in a level. The narrator is perfect at  giving each shape a special flair when they are talking  and I must admit it doesn’t hurt that it is a pleasant British one to boot (I feel like semi-snarky, British narrators are practically a must have for text and dialogue-heavy games).

Thomas is the first shape that you meet and you quickly learn that he and his other cohorts are artificial intelligences that have become sentient. Their goal is to acquire knowledge and escape the system, which in terms of the real world would mean floating around freely in the internet. This is a pretty interesting story for a rather short game (I beat it in 4.6 hours, according to Steam) but there are some flaws. The most obvious issue with the narrative is that nothing is really fleshed out. You have a team of shapes and they are very clearly unique: one can float in water, one can double-jump, and Thomas is the “Mario” of the team as the all-around shape. The personalities portrayed also help flesh out the characters, as each is a relative extreme. I found myself thinking “Orange Square is a dick but his relationship with Long Rectangle is endearing, so let’s make sure they help each other a lot.” This is a complete success in storytelling and I am happy that I found myself making these little mental decisions in much the same way I did in the game Journey.

The design decision to go level by level with snippets of the story means that the end has to come by chapter 100. This is a platformer though, so it is obvious that you can’t have the player sitting and waiting for the narrator to shut up to finish a level. I think Bithell hit a relatively sweet spot in Thomas Was Alone, but I was definitely left wanting just a bit more story by the end.

Another issue with the story is that at times it completely interrupts the gameplay, or vice versa. I found myself on more than one occasion going through a level too quickly when the narrator was far from done, so it turned into an audio novel as opposed to a game. The same thing happened when I was expecting more narration in a level and it wrapped up really quickly. It could be argued that this wanting of more storyline is a success, but it truly just felt disjointed and too noticeable.

Thomas Was Alone takes the bare minimum in terms of graphics and gameplay and gives some heart and soul to it. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, but together they accomplish something far greater than all of their parts. The growing of the AI characters throughout reminded me of the film Her, where I could imagine this being the prequel of sorts to the story of the AI represented in that film. In both, the AI are never portrayed as malicious, but instead as beings with the ability to absorb and attain knowledge at a rate that far exceeds that of humans. This vast knowledge doesn’t lead to a Terminator type insurrection from appliances but instead shows that AI quickly pass the human emotions phase. Skip the murder everything phase and get right to wanting to be seen as equal “beings.”

I kind of like this new approach to AI that Hollywood and the gaming industry have begun to take, because it really opens up a lot of interesting thoughts about what could happen if computers grew feelings. The 80s and 90s automatically figured that nothing good could possibly come from it, but these days, as computers become as much a part of life as breathing, it is nice to see that there are more options for narratives to take than that of The Matrix and its ilk.

Thomas Was Alone is a good game, not great by any means, but well worth the price and time that it asks you to invest.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Video Games as Literature and The Novelist’s View of Work/Life Balance

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Alex Russell

If you’ve ever had to make a hard choice between work and the rest of your life, well, that’s normal. The Novelist is about what happens when you make the wrong one. Oh, and they’re all wrong.

You play The Novelist as a ghost that’s inhabiting a vacation house by the water. The Kaplans (Dan, Linda, and their son Tommy) are on vacation for the summer, and they each want something different out of the trip. Dan wants to finish his second book. Linda wants to work on her painting. Tommy wants to have a fun summer. You might say to yourself that those don’t sound like they’re at odds with each other, but in the world of The Novelist they are violently opposed to one another.

The game unfolds over a series of chapters all centered around important events in the summer. In one chapter, the Kaplan family has to deal with a funeral. In another, Linda has an art show in town. In another, Tommy has a friend over. They all start out as mundane pieces of a family’s life, but the game’s actual narrative is all in how you respond to them.

It’s an interesting choice that you’re not any of the characters. You influence decisions by wandering around the house during the day and observing each family member. Once you feel like you have a grasp on what everyone wants, you signal the family to go to sleep. Then you whisper your choice to the family while they sleep. Whatever you decide will play out in a cut scene, and the results will influence how everyone feels about everyone else (and themselves) in the days to come.

For example, I decided to focus on Linda’s happiness in my playthrough. On one day, I opted to have Dan spend a night talking with Linda instead of working on his novel or playing with Tommy. The next day, Linda felt better about her marriage, Dan felt worried about his book, and Tommy felt neglected by both parents. Me? I felt really sad for everyone.

novelistdialogue

The choices are tough because each choice is also the lack of two other choices. It’s intended to simulate life — if you go out tonight and drink with your friends you don’t get anything done at home, etc — but it’s brutal nonetheless. You know Dan has to finish his novel over the summer, but every single choice of “write” instead of “play with your son” or “talk to your wife” drives him away from his family emotionally. Any choice to not do exactly what the family’s young son wants makes him miserable. I guess that’s realistic to a degree, but it’s too much sometimes. As another example, if you choose to have Dan not play with Tommy and a toy car outside, Tommy leaves the car in the rain and it gets ruined. What is sadder than a lonely child’s ruined toy?

I didn’t side with Tommy very often. My version of Tommy drew angry crayon drawings of his father neglecting him. My version of Linda, who was happy with her art career but unhappy with her husband, never seemed to get exactly what she wanted. My version of Dan was a wreck. Your milage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any set of choices resulting in true happiness for these people.

It’s certainly true that any choice means you’re eliminating others, but it needn’t be this stark. I don’t want to give away any of the endings, but by only siding with Tommy a handful of times I essentially ruined the kid. It had a really damaging effect on me; I was actually saddened that I had failed this digital child. In that sense I have to say that the narrative (or the narrative in my playthrough) really works. The feelings are real, they’re not “video game feelings.”

The Novelist is a little repetitive – the gameplay isn’t worth mentioning at all, it’s even less of a traditional “game” than Gone Home – and it’s frustrating at times. The challenge of keeping all three people happy is a kind of story-based The Sims; every mood bar is depleting at the same rate, and you’ve gotta keep them all happy to win. I don’t know that I “won” The Novelist, but the mental image of that car in the mud is going to stick with me for a long time.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Video Games as Literature and The Stanley Parable’s Answer to “What is a Game?”

stanleyatdesk

Alex Russell

You are Stanley, and your job is to push buttons when a screen tells you to push buttons. You like your job fine enough normally, but today is different. Today, no one came to work. Today, the office is entirely empty except for you.

That’s where The Stanley Parable starts out, and that’s how it always starts out. The Stanley Parable isn’t a traditional game in a lot of ways, but it has a defined start. Every single playthrough starts with Stanley in his office, alone. Where it goes after that is up to you.

During each “run” of The Stanley Parable, a narrator narrates your actions just before they happen. He may say “Stanley went through the door on the left” just as you confront two doors. It’s up to you to then either follow the narrated story and play out the “true” The Stanley Parable or to “break” the game and make another choice. Most of them are just that simple: the game says you went up the stairs, but maybe you go down the stairs, and so on.

If you do what you’re told every time, you’ll finish the game in about 10 minutes. You’ll discover some secrets about what appears to be a simple office, and you’ll “beat” the game. That’s one way to do it, and it’s not wrong to do so. You’ll experience a complete story. You’ll learn something.

But you’ll learn just as much if you take the door on the right. You’ll learn about who Stanley really is (maybe) and what’s really going on with all these choices (also maybe). You have to decide for yourself what the story of the game is, and it changes a little bit every time.

everyoneisunique

Frighteningly realistic workplace graphics.

The full The Stanley Parable experience involves playing it until you see every ending. You’re in for about three or four hours or so maximum if you do that, and that can make the price tag tough to swallow. You can buy it on Steam for the price of a movie in the theaters (though it’s been much cheaper during the Steam Summer Sale) and you will only feel cheated if you assign dollar amounts to fun in strange ways. I can absolutely assure you that this isn’t what you expect, and that much is worth it alone.

The only other thing to discuss is something that has come up a lot lately in games journalism. It sounds dumb, but it boils down to “is The Stanley Parable a game?” Since there are dozens of endings and you can’t really die, there’s no such thing as a fail state. Some of the endings involve the narrator restarting your game and calling you an asshole, essentially, and even those are “true” endings. The Stanley Parable is more interested in testing the boundaries of what beating a game means than it is with what “a game” is in the first place, but people love to debate this stuff. Gone Home, one of the best games of the last few years, is often labeled a “walking simulator” in Steam. It’s meant to be a dig, because in Gone Home the only gameplay is walking around and uncovering a mystery. The only gameplay in The Stanley Parable is making choices and uncovering different endings.

dangereverywhere

Hostile work environment.

The Stanley Parable is open to interpretation. It’s a sort of “choice simulator” where the entire fun of the experience is that every choice is valid. You experience what it means to do A instead of B, but you also consider the fact that most choices don’t really matter. You get very different endings based on what you do, but you never know what inputs will give you what outputs. There’s no morality assigned to going down a staircase instead of going up one, but making that choice once determines if you stay sane or not. So instead of the choices in a lot of games about the morality of good and evil, the choices in The Stanley Parable exist to remind you that you are shaped by decisions that you don’t understand. Your life doesn’t have a narrator that you can listen to or ignore, but your life is also shaped the same as Stanley’s.

I say it counts as literature even without a “real” ending. It’s the story of choice, which is really what every story boils down to, even though most of them don’t start with door number one or door number two.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

The Need to Achieve: One Finger Death Punch

ofdp_box

Matt Matuszak and Brent Hopkins

In our new feature The Need to Achieve, two friends who don’t always see eye-to-eye evaluate a game they’ve both played just for the achievements. Beating 100% of a game can be both challenging and frustrating… How does One Finger Death Punch stack up?

First up on the list of games we have the dreams of attaining 100% in is One Finger Death Punch, an indie game that came out on Steam this year. The game was developed by Silver Dollar Games, which has a history of making low-budget games that tend to receive equally low-budget reviews. OFDP is the game that breaks the mold and has received rave reviews from media outlets because the concept is simple and pulled off intuitively.

Gameplay

Brent: C-
Matt: D (at best)

Brent: OFDP has you use the left and right mouse buttons to attack stick-men that converge on your character from the left or right side of the screen. One button press yields one punch, and through patterns you complete a variety of levels. This is akin to many rhythm games where memorization and rote muscle movement yield success.

The actual game itself is a bit of a mess. There are three difficulties, around six stage types, and over 100 stages to complete. You unlock special abilities (most of which are horribad) by beating stages. That means you will have to play this game a lot to get everything. This game gets old instantly and the stage variety is misleading, as half of them are filters added to obscure information and the other half are standard levels with either boss enemies or fast-moving weak enemies. This game is a grind and it loses its luster by the time you finish the tutorials.

Matt: OFDP starts off with five tutorial levels to explain that left click hits left and right click hits right. This should take 15 seconds to explain, but the developers must have thought they truly needed to teach everyone the difference between left and right. Once you get through the five tutorial levels, you get to just do the same thing 100+ more times because you’ve already done everything the game has to offer in those first five levels. You spend more time looking at where the enemy is coming from than watching the kung-fu moves your character is performing on the enemies.

Controls 

Brent: A
Matt: A

Brent: Since everything is one-to-one, the controls are as good as the user. You can’t really ask for tighter controls than this.

Matt: I’m going to agree with Brent because left is left and right is right; it doesn’t get any more complex.

Sound/Music

Brent: F
Matt: F

Brent: The commentator in this game is horrible. He uses a fake Asian sensei accent and constantly babbles during the game. Worse yet, even if you turn off the sounds they immediately turn back on when the game starts up. The music was equally grating to me and I found that I instantly turned both off. The in-game sound effects (which you can’t turn off) are OK and help you keep up with the fighting on screen. The whole game is a bit too loud though, and I think Silver Dollar Games tried a bit too hard to make the game feel and sound like a old kung-fu movie and instead just made it sound grating.

Matt: This is the worst part of the game for me; there is no actual sound volume control. You have mute or not mute in the startup, but this data doesn’t save to your local machine so it always turns on when you start the game. The in-game sound effects are OK but the basic breaking or punching sound effects just play over and over again.

Story

Brent: F-
Matt: F

Brent: If there is a story I completely missed it for the last few hours I played this game. You are a stick man and you traverse levels, beat bosses, and learn kung-fu techniques. There is no development beyond that, though I suppose the game doesn’t require it.

Matt: There is no story in this game. You are a stick man that just has to fight the same things over and over again for no apparent reason.

Graphics

Brent: B+
Matt: C-

Brent: The game is very similar in style to the stick man fighting Flash videos made popular by Xiao Xiao in the early 2000s.

We know you all remember this.

This simplicity in design makes the game run smoothly and makes you feel like you’re playing as a stick man bad-ass. There are a variety of animations used, so it isn’t just jab left and jab right. The animations are smooth, though the way the game play works you don’t truly get to take in the action.

Matt: This is a very simple 2D game. There won’t ever be knockout graphics in a 2D game. However, they did a good job with the background imaging — which you will only notice if you can look up for longer than a second before another enemy comes from the left or right. The models for your character and enemies are both differently shaded stick figures.

Achievements

Brent: F
Matt: F

Brent: This is where the money is at. I chose this game without looking at the achievement list and that was a bit of a (huge) mistake. This game has 152 achievements and around half of them are easy to get on the lowest difficulty level. The other achievements are the ridiculous, as they ask you to kill THOUSANDS of enemies in a row on an endless mode with ever-increasing speed. Doing the normal levels with 200 enemies is crap, but trying to do 7000 is tiring to say the least.

Matt: I love out-of-reach achievements, so a game that has one extremely hard-to-get achievement I can appreciate. This game has 25 extremely hard-to-obtain achievements out of 152. 17% of the game’s achievements are near unobtainable unless you play a few hundred hours, and the gameplay isn’t worth a few hundred hours.

Overall

Brent: D
Matt: F

Brent: Too many achievements, repetitive gameplay, and sound that will make you pause and step outside are too much for me to recommend this game for hardcore gamers or achievement hunters. It’s a great casual game for some time-wasting, though.

Matt: Don’t buy this game! There are better games that meet the casual indie genre that have more story in the first five minutes of game than this entire game does. I dreaded having to play this game to write about it and am upset it lowered my average game completion percentage on my Steam profile.

Casual Commitments: 10,000,000, a Game for Casual and Hardcore Gamers Alike

screen_shot_2013-01-14_at_9.22.23_am.0_cinema_1280.0

Brent Hopkins

The past few weeks I have been putting some time into a game called 10,000,000 (which will be shortened to 10M for the remainder of this article) developed by EightyEight Games. This game is available on the iOS, and Android app stores, as well as Mac, Linux, and Windows via Steam.

The game is a puzzle-roleplaying mish-mash that really comes together into a fun little package. The game stars your hero (who is nameless) who is locked in a decrepit keep where he must score the titular 10M points to escape. To score points he must make his way through a dungeon killing monsters and collecting gold, wood, stone, and experience points to get stronger. The stronger he gets the longer he can survive in the dungeon and the higher his score can climb.

The story is not something that will keep you engrossed in the game and as it is a casual game that can be expected. The gameplay is where the strength really lies and it will keep you coming back for one round after another. The game uses the infinite run formula made popular by games like Temple Run to display the dungeon battles. Your adventurer moves from the left side of the screen to the right and if you get pushed too far left you lose and return to your bed to spend your spoils.

To fight the monsters you play a match-three style puzzle game with different matches doing different things. The sword and the staff do damage, the chests give you items, the keys unlock chests and doors, the shields give defense to attacks, and the stone and wood give you resources to fix your prison keep.

The game also throws in up to three quests per run for the so you have something to try and accomplish instead of just blindly trying to get the highest score each time. They are all explained succinctly and rarely take any special play to achieve.

10000000game

Your typical 10M game board.

The difficulty in 10M comes from the general passing of time and enemies whose attacks slowly push your hero further and further left until he dies. Since there are so many different tiles and you are constantly on a time limit, you may find yourself needing to open a chest but instead you have a board full of stones to deal with. This pressure is what keeps the game flowing, but if that were all there was the game would be tragically boring. The RPG elements are the second side of this glorious puzzle game and really make it a complete package.

10000000_pc2

This is what your adventurer’s base tends to look like when you start.

The hub for 10M is where most the RPG elements are found and they come in a few different flavors. They will either make your attacks stronger or make your defense higher so you can take more hits from monsters. These are permanent, and this is where all the gold, materials, and experience will get used. Wood and stone are used for repairing your keep, which unlocks higher upgrades. Experience is used to give you passive benefits every run, which make the game easier. Gold is used for all of the armor and weapon upgrades. These are all pretty standard fare and won’t take anything but time to unlock. The game throws the player for a loop with the last upgrade area’s potions. Each potion you unlock has a plus and a minus so the player must choose what they want each run.

The game is addictive and fun as you see your little adventurer getting stronger each time you lose and have to upgrade back at the hub. As you repair your place you get this sense of fighting from the absolute bottom –where even the rooms don’t want you– to fighting with Excalibur and slaying dragons. The potions are also a great addition to this type of game. Instead of feeling like you are wasting time matching objects if you have fully upgraded your hub area with wood and stone, you can activate a potion to turn those into gold or experience instead.

The game just flows along and because the rounds are really quick you never feel this burden of loading it up and suddenly having to invest 40 minutes like you would with a game like Triple Town or Candy Crush Saga, where you only get so many chances then you must pay or wait to play again. The achievements are also well made for the Steam platform, since they follow the natural progression of the game and test your skill and determination. One achievement requires the player to use every potion in the game and get 10M points. This is interesting because there are many overlapping potions and the player should have upgraded everything to tackle this as well.

I have dumped about nine hours into this game and I am sure to play quite a few more (still need that potion achievement). I highly recommend picking this up on a mobile device or Steam for $4.99 as it fits great for hardcore gamers and casuals alike.

I give 10000000 4/5 stars, because it is the perfect idle game to play.

Casual Commitments: To The Moon

TTM

Brent Hopkins

This week’s review is on a game more akin to the first gaming article written here on Gone Home than the others I have written. This is a review about a game that isn’t quite “a game” but more of an interactive story. This is To The Moon, developed and published by Freebird Games, a $9.99 indie game available on Steam.

To The Moon falls into the recent genre of pseudo-games that was kicked off by much touted and much maligned 2010 AAA title Heavy Rain by Quantic Dream, wherein the player isn’t so much as playing a game but interacting in a kind of “visual novel.” Heavy Rain was an absolutely stunning game that was thrown under the bus because of the linearity and seeming lack of choice in the outcome of events. Gamers felt like they had paid to read a book or watch a TV show and not to actually “play” a game. Thanks to Heavy Rain falling on the sword of being the first one in its class released, indie companies like Freebird Games are now able to produce like-minded games and find commercial success with their niche audiences.

To The Moon is the story of two scientists and an old dying man who has a final wish to go to the moon. The scientists live in a time that could be the future but really feels like a mixture of future tech and modern history. The player takes the role of one of the two scientists named Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts. Rosalene is the straight shooter of the group and she is all business when it comes to their very special job. Watts, on the other hand, is a bit of a goofball and makes a lot of jokes which are humorously incorporated pop references that should put a smile on the face of any gamer.

The graphics are very simple and clean — they almost look like they were made in RPG Maker. They will remind you of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and even with the simplicity you get drawn into the story and the characters completely.

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The graphics are helped along by the musical score, which is impressive, and the main theme still gets stuck in my head from weeks ago. The tunes are simple, yet endearing and I never found myself wanting to mute the background music at all.

The special job I referenced is the hinge point of the game. The doctors are employed by a company called Sigmund Corporation and they meet with dying patients and implant permanent memories into the patient so they can feel as if they have fulfilled this goal in their actual lives. They use a machine to go into the memories of the patient and figure out at what point in life they would be able to best influence this person to fulfill their dream and then they augment the events until it becomes a reality… in the dying patients’ mind, at least. The reasoning for it only being done to dying folks is because if the person were to  wake up and suddenly be back in their real life the conflicting memories would be extremely stressful and damaging, thus the last thing this patient will know is a dream come true.

This aspect of the game is really fascinating and I found myself thinking about what I would fulfill if I had the ability to change my life, even if only in my mind. This is something I think many people have pondered, but adding in the immediate mortality of the situation and a complete reset of everything that you have truly known in exchange for a lie that will be your last memory is weighty to think about.

The story is one of the best that I have ever played through and really going into too much detail would be like explaining Bioshock Infinite‘s story to someone who hasn’t played it but wants to. Therefore I won’t be spoiling the plot at all.

The patient in question, named Johnny, seems like a simple man but the doctors soon find that his memories are far more complex to traverse than the average patient. The player explores the memories by solving exceedingly simple puzzles and clicking on objects like in an adventure game.

to the moon screenshot 8

These puzzles are a bit too easy.

They ask his caretakers for more information about him, but they find that they will have to really dig through his memories to find out why they need to get this man to the Moon. You play through his life moment by moment. There are twists and turns throughout the game and it takes surprisingly in-depth looks at how disorders, tragedy, love, and loss can all compound into a bittersweet tale.

The game lasts a brief four hours and I actually sat and played them all in one sitting because I got really sucked into it. The small puzzles and adventure-like exploring are more used as page turners than actually inserted to challenge the player. There is only one achievement, which is to “beat” the game or, in essence, read the whole story.

There is no replay value and that makes it hard to swallow the $10 price point that is set on Steam. I snagged this game on sale and since it came out a few years ago I worry that it won’t get the play it deserves. There is a sequel planned for this year, so I highly recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of quality stories.

I give to To The Moon 4.5 rockets out of 5 because while the story is amazing, I found the game sections more annoying than entertaining.

Image source: PC Games N, Entertainment Depot

Casual Commitments: Cook, Serve, Delicious!

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Brent A. Hopkins

In Casual Commitments, we explore the ups and downs of casual gaming.

Cooking is an art form and this game is the pepper grinder.

Today I will be reviewing Cook, Serve, Delicious!, another game that is available on mobile devices and then was recently ported to PC and released on Steam. It is a restaurant and time management simulation.

The premise of the game is the player taking the role of a chef who has taken over a former renowned restaurant that has gone from being a five-star pinnacle of culinary delight to a starless greasy spoon restaurant. As the chef in a newly revamped tower that houses your restaurant as well, you have to build your menu to mainly attract the tenants and reclaim the former five-star rating that was once held.

The game setup is split into two sections: one being the restaurant and the other being the management portion. The interfaces are both very clean and simple and there is a nice little tutorial to help the player become acclimated to the game. I will start off with the chef portion of the game as that is the games’ major selling point.

The restaurant that you run is owned and maintained solely by you. It opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. This means that over the course of a day you have to deal with all of the things that a real restaurant would have to handle, alone. The main job that you have is to handle customers’ orders. This works in a quick time event sort of way. The customer will come in and order something on your menu (I will explain the menu more later) this is assigned a number on the keyboard from 1 to however many order slots you have unlocked (I currently have 5). Once you acknowledge the customer you must finish their order. I will use one of the earliest and cheapest foods as an example, The Corn Dog.

The Corn Dog is simple but it can come in three ways: ketchup only, mustard only, or ketchup and mustard. The customer will come in and wait and when you acknowledge him or her they will say I want only mustard, for instance. The game has built in hot keys for each food on the menu so in this case ‘M’ is used for mustard on corndogs and then you press enter to serve the food. When the order has no mistakes you are given a rating from the customer. Rinse and repeat.

The rating system is how you are tracked throughout the day, with perfect orders giving you a chain which increases your restaurants’ “Buzz.” The higher the “buzz” the more people will come day-to-day. There are two other ratings you can get which are average and bad. Average doesn’t do anything but break your perfect streak, but bad orders hurt your “Buzz” and impact customers.

The other part of the restaurant section is the chores that you must do. These are all setup in the same interface as the food where they will show up as customers and you must choose and complete them quickly to keep customers happy. There are four chores to do: dishes, rat traps, toilet cleaning, and trash. These are all hot-keyed like the food menus, so once you memorize how to do them you can hit the keys without looking and complete them really quickly. The types of food you have on your menu affect what chores come up the most. When you have meals that require plates, you do dishes more. If you have fish, you deal with rats more. The chores become more of a slight inconvenience than a real problem.

The stress from the restaurant portion of the game is entirely rolled up in handling customers and chores quickly. When you have many things on your menu and they all take various amounts of preparation time it can become hard to juggle the steak orders with the ice cream orders. There is also rush hour to deal with, which hits at noon and 6 p.m., and this drastically increases the rate at which you have to deal with customers. Your fingers will have to fly to make sure you can keep your perfect scores up through them. The secret here is simply to memorize the keys for the foods on your menu so you can quickly read what the customer wants and bang it out without looking. Once you can do that the game is never really hard, with mistakes mainly stemming from fat fingers (in my case) hitting the wrong customer and effectively serving them too early.

The second part of the game is the management aspect. This takes place on a different menu and has a few parts to deal with. The parts you will use the most are the food menu and equipment menu. These are where you choose what food you serve day to day and also what equipment you will have available to you to enhance your cooking.

The food menu is really simple because all you have to do is save up enough money to buy an item and it is added to a pool of recipes that you know. Each food takes different types of preparation in the kitchen, and this would be hard to deal with without practice so the game allows you to practice before you have to suddenly make lasagna or nachos in an actual working day.

The menu itself is setup where you can only have a certain number of items to prepare each day. There is something called menu rot which forces you to take things off the menu after two days, or else people will refuse to order it because it is boring. To keep you from constantly having to rotate a wide variety of foods there are also staple items which you can keep on the menu every day to have some regularity in preparation.

The foods themselves are varied and tend to fall into culinary categories: American, Italian, Asian, Mexican, snacks, and drinks. These all can be upgraded which usually add more options for the customers to choose from, thus making the game harder. This is something that doesn’t really matter unless you’re going for achievements because there are never Mexican days or Italian days at the restaurant unless you choose to do that. The foods also have pluses and minuses attached to them that can increase the interest in them being ordered, cause them to require more cleaning, or even call for perfection when ordered. These are mildly important because the game still ticks along even if you are not min-maxing your food prices and buzz.

The other part of the post-work menu system is comprised of emails and events that you can partake in. The email system gives you updates about what customers will want on a rainy day, what new items are available to purchase, which foods you can upgrade, and so on. The most interesting thing I found here were the bets, dating, catering deals, and chef challenges. These all can increase your money and give you a reprieve from just going into ‘work’ every day. They aren’t that varied either, as they still take place in the kitchen but the best part about it is they give you mini-challenges to deal with for fun.

So those are the two portions of the game, now it is time for the problems. The game is fun… for a very short amount of time. It is obviously perfect for a casual phone or tablet game, but when it comes to a PC port it takes the will of Buddha and the wrists of Superman to play for lengthy amounts of time. I have been gaming for most of my life and I am no stranger to marathon sessions. This game, though, is the first to make me step away due to arm cramps from just rote typing and clicking.

Secondly, because the game is more about memory and speed than anything else, it doesn’t feel like it is skill-based once you have gotten a few of the high priced recipes down pat. Then you just find yourself grinding out days, rotating things off the menu occasionally, and never having hard recipes on your menu unless the game forces you to.

My final major gripe with this game is really simple: IT TAKES TOO LONG! The game starts you out with a zero-star restaurant and you have to fulfill certain requirements to get upgraded to a one-star restaurant. The requirements can be as easy as buy x amount of food for your menu to the slightly more difficult get x perfects on so many days. These are not a problem and help keep interest in the game, so I like them. My one problem is with the last requirement: serve 20 days in the restaurant at this rating. This is genuinely the one thing that makes me want to change all the keys on my keyboard to sandpaper and play by sliding my knuckles across the keys. There is nothing fun about finishing all of the requirements for your restaurant to be upgraded by day five and realizing that you have 15 more days to play with nothing to gain but money for equipment and upgrades. It is poorly paced and I find myself saying “Play ten days today then turn the game off so you keep your sanity.”

The game is sold as a restaurant simulation and that is not true in the least. You don’t have the full freedom of control that you would really want in a game like this, because you can’t make new recipes. You can’t customize the restaurant into serving a type of food and you can’t even manage your own restaurant look and feel, as the upgrades are all forced. I was really let down by this game because I was hoping to be a seller of fine deep-fried desserts and alcohols as a true Texan/Southern-bred foodie would and instead I found myself selling salads because I happened to memorize all of those ingredients quickly.

I give Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2 salt shakers out of 5 because the game is a great quick fix but falls flat when you realize you have to grind more than teenagers at a house party to get what you want.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is produced by Vertigo Gaming.

Image source: Vertigo Gaming

Casual Commitments: Evoland

Brent A. Hopkins

In Casual Commitments, we explore the ups and downs of casual gaming.

Back again with another quick game review of a Steam-available gem called Evoland developed by Shiro Games.

Evoland is relatively unique in its class because it really is a throwback to three of the biggest RPG franchises out there. The art style is mostly focused around Zelda, the story and map setup is taken from Final Fantasy, and there is even a dungeon that switches to a Diablo-style loot-em-up. The whole experience is relatively short and sweet spanning about six-ten hours depending on how long you take to find all its secrets.

The Evo in Evoland comes from the evolution of the graphics and gameplay elements that you pick up in treasure chests scattered throughout the game. These are all given in small pieces as opposed to massive jumps so you can see how gaming really has evolved over time. You start out in this 8-bit classic Game Boy environment and slowly build up to PS1-flavor environments. As a person who has played the gamut of gaming consoles I will goofily admit that there were times, particularly with Mode7 and smooth scrolling, where I found myself chuckling a bit thinking back on games I played before these technological leaps.

(The pixels, kid, the pixels!)

The game itself is actually not too far from a Game Boy game really, utilizing two buttons one for actions and attacking the other for canceling and accessing a pretty useless pause menu. The obvious point of the game is more like a museum where you look at the relics from past generations while casually solving the simplest puzzles these games had to offer.

This is probably where the game suffers the most. The game is fun but the battle system is so tragically archaic that I may have misled you all when I said it was like a Game Boy game. This game actually has less going on when dealing with battles than some Atari games. You get the concept of Zelda and Final Fantasy battles but because there is zero customization and the evolutions stop at the most basic levels you will find yourself DREADING and I mean sighing in distress when you get a random battle.

I played the game with achievements in mind, like I do with most every game, and they are simple to get and pretty intuitive as well. There are a slew of lil’ jokes here and there and there is nothing like playing as Clink: a green-tunic-wearing-spiky-haired-blond with a rather huge sword. Don’t expect a lot from the battle system but you get a taste of enough different games that it will keep you interested, especially if you don’t have achievements in mind.

I give Evoland 3.5 out of 5 pixels because it is worth the play for those that like Zelda and Final Fantasy VII but there is no reason to play it again once the credits roll.

Evoland is produced by Shiro Games.

Image source: Theology Games and Indie Haven

Casual Commitments: Tiny Thief

Brent A. Hopkins

In Casual Commitments, we explore the ups and downs of casual gaming.

The second time waster on my list is called Tiny Thief, a game that has had a bit of controversy surrounding it thanks to the publisher, Rovio. You all probably know Rovio for its hyper-popular Angry Birds franchise, which has spawned more merchandise than Star Wars over the last few years, and when a company is making that kind of money one of the first things to slide is its morals. The issue is with the insane markup for Tiny Thief on the Steam platform compared to the App Store. The normal retail price on Steam is about 4,000% more expensive than the App Store version which has caused consumers to be, picket the Rovio offices, mad. I bought the game for two dollars, so I don’t have that same grief with the company.

In my opinion, Tiny Thief is to the adventure genre what Final Fantasy VII is to RPGs. This game is probably the best introduction to the genre that you can possibly have and it makes you want to try your hand at more difficult adventures once you have completed its journey.

The whole atmosphere of the game is a bright fairy tale where you play the role of a Robin Hood like thief who must steal a particular item on each level to advance. This would be a bit simple even for a casual game, so there are also bonus items to steal and your pet ferret to find. Completing all of these nets you a star, with a perfect completion getting you three stars for the stage.

Most adventure games give you very few hints to progress the story, which can make them infuriatingly hard if you can’t wrap your mind around the puzzles. Oft times the developers make completely random connections like string-plus-alcohol-plus-birthday-candles makes a flamethrower. This flamethrower will be used with duct tape and a KFC bucket to make a hot air balloon. There is nothing clever about this and I personally hate that feeling of “ARE YOU F’ING SERIOUS!” that comes along with “solving” these riddles.

Tiny Thief gets big points from me because almost all of the interactions open to the player make sense. The interface is also very smooth as it is click to move and click to interact. The interactions come in two varieties: first is the thief that you move around and use to grab objects to solve puzzles and second are background interactions. The background interactions are things the player has to find on the level to solve separate puzzles and help the lil’ thief achieve his dreams of larceny.

That really sums up what you have to do. There is a story in the game but it is just the avenue through which the game is delivered. Tiny Thief falls for Tiny Princess and must steal his way to her. Sweet like aspartame.

New for Steam are Tiny Thief achievements. Most of these are just completion based where you finish a level or you don’t use the hint option for multiple rounds and at the end of the chapter (there are six, one being a tutorial) and you get the achievement. To add some more flair to the game there are hidden achievements which I won’t spoil here, but they tend to deal with humans being weirdoes and accosting the poor pixel people. It is an easy game to perfect if that’s your thing.

I will give Tiny Thief a 5 out of 5 Diamonds on PC (buy it on sale if possible). It is the perfect game to play for five to ten minutes and I look forward to some DLC levels if they ever happen.

Tiny Thief is produced by Rovio Entertainment.

Image source: Google Play