Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard – Every frog has its day

No Comments

Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard is the sequel to the greatest video game ever to feature a frog, who is also a detective, in the history of the human race. Until now, that is. As of December 9, 2019, there’s a new champion in the frog-noir genre, and it’s got all of the same arbitrary magnifying glass action that fans know and love.

The scene opens with a familiar setting: four plain walls and a lonely telephone, practically begging to be picked up and answered. Hot off his last case, Frog Detective was ready to tackle any obstacle the world could possibly throw his way. The proffered mystery was a juicy one. Frog Detective took his beautiful, toothless lips and bit on the latest lead as fast as he could.

There was a new wizard in town. This wasn’t just any wizard though. It was an invisible one. Hence the title. The thing is, the townsfolk of Warlock Woods were hoping to surprise their new neighbor with a parade in their honor, but fate had other plans in store. One sabotaged celebration and a few ground pies later, we had ourselves a bona fide mystery, and nobody was going to take that away from Frog Detective. Nobody.

In all seriousness, this newest episode basically has everything great about the original, but somehow better. If you liked that one, you’re going to have a good time. While you don’t necessarily need to play the first game to enjoy Frog Detective 2, there are some delightful callbacks and scenes of intentional deja vu. There are a ton of small touches that really make the experience shine brighter than ever. This feels like a series with legs. Specifically, frog legs.

It’s still the same dopey-yet-endearing dialogue, but the jokes feel stronger, and I laughed a whole bunch. I really enjoyed getting to know the fresh cast of characters, but I’ve been sworn into secrecy, and I was asked not to spoil them. It’s a short game, around an hour in length, and meeting folks is one of the best parts. I will, however, say that there is definitely one inclusion that got me straight up giddy, and I fully expect word to get out fast. You’ve been frogging warned.

The gameplay remains, more or less, exactly the same. You walk with WASD, left click on your mouse to interact, and right click and hold to raise up your trusty magnifying glass. You’ll talk to people who need you to find something for them and they’ll give you a reward that continues your journey. It’s far from challenging, but it works as a narrative device, and the focus here is on the story and dialogue.

The one brand new addition is the notebook. It helps you keep track of clues and progress, and you’ll even get to decorate it with adorable stickers. It’s a small thing, but it’s fun and fits the overall vibe really well.

All in all, The Case of the Invisible Wizard is a fantastic way to spend an evening, and it improves and builds on the strengths of the original in iterative but meaningful ways. Whatever happens next, I’m fully invested in this series. The price is more than fair, and it’s a unique passion project that’s so dang wholesome and smile-inducing. It’ll montage dance its way into your heart and prove that ground pies, picked up and cleaned off, can still be delicious, perfectly sanitary sources of nourishment.

Categories: PC Review

Borderlands 3: Moxxi’s Heist of The Handsome Jackpot – Handsome Boy Heist School

No Comments

Having helped usher in the idea of the season pass and one of the few who ever offered a second pass, Gearbox is no stranger to DLC.

In fact, by the time Borderlands 3’s run is done (in 2030?) it may not even be the same game, seeing as Borderlands 2 got a bridge-DLC nearly seven years after launch. Anything could happen is what I’m saying, and with Moxxi’s Heist of The Handsome Jackpot as the first of the premium lot, wackiness is already on the table.

Given Borderlands 3’s expanded “universe-hopping” feel, the idea of jetting across the galaxy to a fully-enclosed location makes the DLC feel a little more worthy of its premium status. This time you’re raiding Handsome Jack’s casino under the tutelage of Mad Moxxi, who claims that Jack stole the plans for the casino from her. Jack, you son of a bitch! I’m in.

As far as story connections go, Handsome Jackpot is tenuous. Moxxi and Jack are both fan favorites and constantly cosplayed, so I get why Gearbox focused on their feud here. But the myth of Handsome Jack is so far removed from the Borderlands mythos that it’s hard to care about him when there’s so many other characters to focus on, and Moxxi’s motivations and presence are lacking. In other words, it’s a lot like Borderlands 3 as a whole: there’s plenty of reasons to blow stuff up and lots of cool guns to collect, but without a strong reason for being there. Think of Heist as another planet from the core game, with its own fast-travel points and sidequests just like the rest. In case you’re wondering, it’s about as involved as past DLCs: roughly in the three to four-hour mark without extras.

The casino itself is flashy as hell and the holograms of Jack (plus one surprise) are enigmatic enough, despite the overall stink of fanservice. Fortunately for you (in terms of enemy variety), Jack trapped a lot of people inside the casino due to forced overwhelming debt, so you have plenty of humanoid enemies to fight beyond the typical robot Loaders. There’s a sliver of intrigue here that the game never really explores, as factions and gangs slowly arose out of the ashes of an empire built by a dead man.

Blackjack chests (in which you can hit or stay in order to open them) also add a little flavor to the neon-heavy casino world. While I won’t spoil the near-finale, it goes down in a polarizing parody/homage to various heist films. I dug it, and hope that Gearbox experiments further with ideas like this that are vaguely reminiscent of Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. Yet, that experiment is all too brief as things get back on a more traditional track.

That’s pretty much it. It’s another Borderlands locale to explore with a small-time turf war and some quirky quips. Yet, I was entertained throughout thanks to the strong foundation of Borderlands 3, which hasn’t gotten old. I took my main (FL4K) along, tried out a few different builds and guns, and had a merry time gunning through the DLC. While it’s not exceedingly impressive as a standalone add-on, if all of them are like this, the game will be in good shape down the line.

Borderlands 3’s first DLC is quirky and action-packed, but I was decidedly left wanting more. Hopefully the other campaigns will take more risks, but in the meantime Moxxi’s Heist of the Handsome Jackpot is more Borderlands, which is typically a good thing.

Categories: Console PC Review

Tangle Tower’s animations and voice acting make it an engrossing murder mystery game

No Comments

It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

When we talk about production values in video games, it usually means big-budget titles like The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption 2. The kinds of experiences where the studio can put additional time into seemingly minor things like making sure characters walk up stairs in a way that looks normal, or having horses realistically poop. They aren’t things that greatly affect the moment-to-moment gameplay, but instead help to create an illusion of realism, allowing for more immersion.In Tangle Tower, there is so much production value put into the game’s animation and voice acting that I actually forgot I was playing a game for about the first hour.

Tangle Tower is a murder mystery adventure puzzle game set in a mysterious mansion on a strange, secluded island full of unique plant and animal life. You play as Grimoire and Sally, a team of private detectives called on to look into the murder of Freya Fellows. Freya was killed in a locked room at the top of one of the mansion’s two towers while she was painting a portrait of her aunt, Flora Fellows. Unraveling the mystery involves uncovering a lot of the strange goings-on and strained relations between the Fellows family and Pointer family, who cohabitate in the mansion.

The gameplay is a bit like a combination of the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney games. You’ll be interrogating all the interesting characters who inhabit the mansion with different clues you’ll find, while exploring the mansion’s rooms in a way similar to the investigations in Ace Attorney. However, some clues are hidden behind intricate, puzzle-like locks, which, unlike many Professor Layton puzzles, feel more appropriate to the situation and less like an abstract puzzle from a book.

For instance, there’s a model of the solar system in the observatory that has a secret locked drawer in it that only opens when the model is arranged in a specific way, involving how the planets cast shadows. The clue you find in it becomes important not just for what it is, but also for the fact that it was hidden in the first place. Collectively this makes it feel less like a puzzle and more like a secret lock you happened to stumble on and cleverly figured out how to unlock.

The really great thing about Tangle Tower, though, is how engrossing it is. From the screenshots, it is probably hard to understand how that could happen, as the game looks like a pretty standard visual novel / adventure game, but there are lots of things it does that cause you to get swept up; at times it feels less like a game and more like watching an animated murder mystery. A big part of it is the animation and voice acting for each of the characters, which lets you know very quickly what sort of person they are.

There’s also just so much of it. It rarely feels like you are seeing characters repeat animations, even when they are, since the bigger gestures and flourishes are timed perfectly with the voice acting. And each character has voice-over for every bit of dialogue, not just for the few questions you have or during big scenes, but for every piece of evidence you present them and every person you can ask them about. Often, even the way they deliver that information says so much about them as a character, like how Poppy Pointer recites these Emily Dickinson-esque poems whenever you ask her about someone else in the mansion. This not only conveys how she sees everyone else, but also plays into her goth musician aesthetic.

What makes all the animations, performances, and writing fit together is that by default they just play. Normally with this sort of visual novel, even when there is voice acting, the player has to press a button to move to the next line of dialogue. Often in these games, there are options to make it play on its own, but with autoplay as the default in Tangle Tower, the dialogue and animation take center stage. You can just sit back and be absorbed in watching it (in fact, the trailer above has some great examples of this.)

It was so absorbing that I found myself going through the paces of playing the game, searching rooms, and solving puzzles almost reflexively in order to move on to the next bit of dialogue or animation. It wasn’t until I had to stop and think about a puzzle for more than a few moments that I realized how immersed I had been. The closest comparison might be if you’ve ever been sucked into reading a comic or a book.

Even without the excellent voice acting and animation, Tangle Tower is still an interesting murder mystery full of complex characters and relationships, with an assortment of puzzles that are the right amount of challenging, varied, and narratively cohesive. But the production values of the animation and voice acting push it from being a good murder mystery into something memorable.

Categories: Console PC Review

Dungeon & Goddess – A CCG that Makes You Work for Every Victory

No Comments

Dungeon & Goddess, a manga-style card-collecting strategy game from developer Nadiasoft, is made up of familiar parts, and anybody who’s played a CCG on mobile will immediately know their way around its systems.

But even experienced players may find the difficulty curve bracing. Whereas most free-to-play mobile RPGs are content to let you cruise along for a couple of hours, accumulating XP and gear in copious quantities before eventually hitting a wall, Dungeon & Goddess is demanding from the outset.

In principle, that’s a good thing. Dungeon & Goddess is a lot less flabby than most of its rivals, and it forces you to think carefully about your decisions – and cross your fingers for certain summons – right out of the gate.

The setup is as familiar as they come. Set in a fantasy world full of gods and heroes (and dungeons, obviously), it sees you building up a collection of polished, convincingly animated manga heroes and sorting them into decks. 

Full spectrum warriors

These heroes belong to a wide range of traditions. There are numerous young women, of course, most (but not all) of them in refreshingly modest attire. But there’s also a dwarf, an old English knight, and dozens of other engaging and surprising characters. 

In battle, your heroes all have two skills to choose from per move. Fights are turn-based, with your heroes each getting an attack in before absorbing attacks from each of the monsters in front of you. 

Your skills can be offensive, such as magical storms, fire attacks, and that sort of thing. Or they can be defensive, healing your other party members to keep them in the fight. 

And there’s another variable to consider. Each hero has an elemental affinity, from Fire, Water, Earth, Wind, and Lightning. These elements act more powerfully on some elements and less powerfully on others, meaning your skills and heroes can be seriously limited when up against a mismatched opponent. You need to go into every battle with the right deck. 

As you’d expect, everything is upgradeable. You level up passively by gaining XP, but you can also tier up and level up your heroes using Soul Stones and EXP potions respectively. You can upgrade your gear, too, but for that you need Upgrade Stones. 

The trouble is, all of these resources are in short supply, as are the tickets you need to summon new heroes, equipment, accessories, and items. 

Grind for your supper

You get rewards for logging in, Soul Stones for fighting in the Tower of Infinity, and odds and ends for levelling up, completing the daily dungeons, completing boss battles, and so on. But it’s never enough for you to truly take flight. 

That means Dungeon & Goddess is a struggle, right from the start. You’ll find yourself tweaking your deck, going into battle, losing, and tweaking your deck again to chisel out any small advantage you can. At least you level up fairly rapidly.

The effect of all this is to make the little triumphs in Dungeon & Goddess – the level 9 Cerberus summon, the close call against the Lava Golem – all the more satisfying and meaningful. 

Collect them all

The world of Dungeon & Goddess features 150 brave heroes and monsters to collect, all with an array of attacks — and, of course, costumes — at their dfisposal. You have to choose your strongest line-up of characters to take into battle against the archangels and their minions.

Develop your strategy

Battles in Dungeon & Goddess are turn-based, and how effective your heroes are in any given fight is in part based upon the six hero types and four elemental types they belong to. The elemental types are Water, Fire, Wind and Electricity, and function in a rock-paper-scissors system. That means you’ll have to choose your party strategically, exploiting the elemental weaknesses of enemies to maximise your chance of victory. This can take some trial and error, but it’s satisfying when you finally crack the strategy needed to overcome a certain boss.

Take on the tower

As well as clearing stages in the main story mode, you can test your team in the Infinite Tower. This throws you into battle after battle, ranking your progress against the world. There is also a PvP mode if you want more direct competition. For a great way to gather must-have resources, dive into the dungeons daily — there’s a different dungeon for each day of the week, offering different rewards for victory. You can also join forces with your friends in co-op Boss Raids, sharing in the spoils.

Dungeon & Goddess isn’t for the faint-hearted, and if poor localisation is an issue for you then you probably won’t get on with the game. But if you consider yourself a serious CCG fan you’ll get a lot of play out of this good-looking, challenging new addition to the genre.

Categories: Mobile Review

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: Rise of the Phoenix – A lukewarm pot of gumbo, chere

No Comments

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 had some lingering issues at launch, most notably a lack of key cast members (the same fate that fell upon Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite). But Team Ninja had a plan: through both free and paid DLC, that roster would slowly grow into a formidable force.

The only problem? They aren’t giving us anything interesting to do with those characters.

Since the characters are the main focus here I’ll start there. If you need a full roster update I have an updated database here, but the new ones for this DLC are Cable, Gambit, Iceman and Dark Phoenix.

All I can hear when I look at Gambit these days is “kinetic card!” but he’s so much more than that iconic battle cry. Gambit has been a go-to in the realm of gaming for several decades, with an undeniable sense of swagger, a badass bo-staff and flashy looking projectiles. He’s arguably the best bit of DLC yet, as his kit includes card traps (that you can fling and detonate on the ground) as well as an area-of-effect energy field that slows enemies. The “keep tapping to toss junk” mechanic is overplayed, but helps keep Gambit viable for higher-level challenges.

Although a lot of people are probably over Bobby Drake, Iceman is low key one of my favorite X-Men heroes. His ice surfing kicked ass in the lesser-known Marvel Powers United VR, as well as any number of games he’s squeezed into over the years: you just don’t see a lot of frost powers these days and he fulfills that niche. Other than a frost shield (that impacts the whole party, useful!) his abilities aren’t anything to write home about, but I dig that he gets around by blowing ice on the ground. Teaming him up with Storm and Loki, who sport their own freeze abilities, is also a nice bit of synergy.

As for Dark Phoenix I could go either way. On one hand, that power fantasy is really hard to actually nail with balance issues in mind, and I feel like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was the only game to really flirt with it. On the other, we never got Jean Grey at launch, and this is nearly the best of both worlds. It’s kind of anticlimactic to just pay to unlock her (unlike in the past where you had to assemble Iron Man’s suit, or find M’Kraan fragments), and I’d love a Zelda/Sheik situation where you would be able to swap personas. While the DLC so far has basically been above bar (or at it, with Phoenix’s alright kit), I want something really out-there next time (like a Super Skrull that has bits of all the Fantastic Four members, which we probably won’t get).

Cable is another tricky hero to get right. We all remember the classic Marvel vs. Capcom 2 rendition, but that’s probably his most interesting incarnation. Oftentimes he’s fighting off comparisons to Bishop and other gun-toting mutants, trying his best to maintain a sense of style amid his more stoic appearance. Here he stands out from the crowd a bit, with an autonomous gun, a gravity well grenade, a shield that reflects blasts (including your allies) and a risk-reward psychic blast that reduces your defense if you overuse it. He’s another strong character to add to the mix.

But you have to grind a bit to play as them; and there’s a real sense of dread associated with defeating bosses like Juggernaut and Mystique (from the campaign) yet again to unlock the new characters. Like Curse of the Vampire before it (the first DLC pack), there is no interesting story material here to work with whatsoever. “Additional Gauntlet missions” is one of the most boring checkboxes I’ve seen this year, and the new Danger Room mode isn’t anything to write home about either. It’s basically just more Gauntlet (challenge rooms) action with a few hazards thrown in and a “competitive” element involving a score attack conceit. The idea is that you’re racing another team asynchronously in existing areas against existing enemies, which is only enticing if you have eight very competitive power-players involved. When I hear the phrase “Rise of the Phoenix,” that’s not what really comes to mind.

Earlier this year Team Ninja and Nintendo spoke about “story scenario” content. Where is it? The new characters are great for the most part, but we need more zones to actually use them in. Having an extended campaign with some really out-there storylines would have been a fantastic use of paid DLC, but for now you’re stuck just doing the same errands over and over or restarting once again. Hopefully the 2020-bound Fantastic Four pack doesn’t suffer the same fate, but at present you’re basically buying 12 characters for $20.

Categories: Console Review

Arena Allstars : Frantic Auto Chess with a Sense of Humor

No Comments

Arena Allstars doesn’t waste any time on formalities. No sooner have you installed it than you’re on the battlefield, watching a variety of detailed, slickly animated fantasy monsters scrapping it out.

The game is an auto-battler, an example of the burgeoning auto chess genre. Its battles take place on grid-based battlefields, with a team of heroes going up against another team in a series of brief rounds, and your combat input is limited to seeing how they fare.

It’s a slick, streamlined gaming experience, a far cry from the complex strategy games of yore, and perfect for mobile. 

Here’s how it all works. From the menu, you hop into a match by tapping the Play button, which promptly dumps you into the battlefield. 

To send a hero into battle you need to buy it first, using your reserve of gold displayed on the bottom-right. A timer counts down, and you’ve got to get your heroes onto the battlefield before it reaches zero, by simply dragging and dropping them onto any grid square you like.

Money money money

After each round you gain a bit of gold, and you spend this on more heroes. The more money you have, the better the heroes you can buy. Obviously, the more heroes you have in the fight, and the better they are, the greater your chance of victory, and the more gold you’ll earn.

The number of heroes you have in the battle is constrained not only by how many you have, but by your team size. The only way to increase your team size is to buy XP. 

The first couple of rounds in a match are fairly simple, since your options are very limited. But once the gold starts to flow the complexity increases.

Along the bottom of the battlefield you’ll see your Synergies. These are effects that you can take advantage of by getting a certain number of a certain class or race of hero into the fight. For example, if you activate the Homunculi Synergy with two eligible heroes you’ll get +20 regen. If you field three Dragonkin at once every Dragonkin will start with 100 mana. 

You can also get effects by picking up equipment randomly in battle. 

If you buy more than one of a particular hero, meanwhile, you can combine them to level them up.  

Naturally these considerations mean you’re often looking for specific heroes or classes. The game serves up a random assortment to buy, but you can refresh the selection by laying down a couple of gold coins. 

As well as your heroes on the battlefield you can have six more on the bench, giving your team some depth and allowing you to swap heroes in and out between rounds. You can also sell heroes that you don’t need. 

Scramble!

But because the interval between each round is on a strict timer, you need to do all of your team management – spending gold, making team selections, buying and selling heroes – in a shrinking window of time, giving the game a frantic feel. 

In the main solo free for all, you’ll play matches against eight other players online. There’s a team co-op mode, too, which is harder to organize, and a practice mode. 

The gameplay in Arena Allstars is fast, intuitive, and addictive. You’ll bellow with frustration one minutes as you fail to marshal your heroes in time to avoid a rout, but cheer with triumph the next. Naturally it’s tough to beat seven human opponents, but when you pull it off the satisfaction is immense, and your losses never feel unfair. 

While some of the presentation is fairly basic, Arena Allstars gets it right where it matters, in the character models and designs. There’s a strain of imaginative humor running through the game, too, evident in heroes like Regular Guy, a pot-bellied nerd, and Otto, a careworn teddy bear with the stage name “The Unhinged Abomination”.

Arena Allstars isn’t the most elaborate production you’ll find on mobile, and it feels a bit underdeveloped in places, but if you’ve yet to sample the joys of auto chess on mobile, this is a good place to start.

You can find Arena Allstars on Google Play and the App Store. 

Categories: Mobile Review

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries – Mech, mech, goose

No Comments

For some, MechWarrior is a religion.

I was first introduced to the series in the ’90s from a fellow that had what I can only describe as a “battle station.” His chair was rigged with joysticks on the arms. He had a force feedback vest for when his mech was hit. He was even working on a jury-rigged VR apparatus years before it was popular. You could say he was the perfect gateway into the series.

For me, the BattleTech universe really clicked when I formed my own MechAssault team and became the top-ranked player in the world (no one could beat my Catapult) on a rankings system that was pre-MLG, pre-esports. So when MechWarrior 5 was announced, I was ready for it.

If you’ve never played MechWarrior before, it has a more simmy and tactical dance to it. Controlling your mech is half the battle, as you have the ability to individually maneuver bits and pieces of it, like the legs and the torso. It’s a unique kind of thrill.

If you want a full-on no-thinking action game, look elsewhere. You need to manage your heat not just for practical purposes like cooldowns, but to prevent a critical shutdown that leaves your mech completely open to attack. Acceleration is handled independently, so you can move at the exact pace you want, then strafe and rotate your guns (which you need to keep track of) to hit your target on the move. While you can technically use a controller, I wouldn’t recommend it (though specific HOTAS are supported).

You need nuances like the ability to shift your legs to align your body on a moment’s notice, as well as the precision aiming required to hit moving targets with sometimes limited weaponry. Speaking of: you can take out a mech’s legs, arms, or kill the pilot directly. This actually matters both short and long term, as tactical shots deal tons of surgical damage and allow you to safely harvest unharmed mech parts in the game’s story mode. Because of that open-ended approach to limb damage, you can get into some pretty harrowing situations: arms blown off, legs barely working, half your weapons disabled while you violently run for the extraction ship. It’s normal!

While that’s all happening, the particle and environmental effects can sometimes look a little cheap, but get the job done as they don’t interfere on a technical level. You can barrel through buildings with your mechs or jump-jet on top of destructible structures with no issues, which adds a very active feel to combat despite the aforementioned simulation leanings. I also haven’t encountered any major bugs outside of UI issues, compounded by the already rudimentary nature of the UI itself.

One of Mercenaries’ biggest strengths is that it simultaneously focuses on campaign progression as well as procedurally generated micro-missions, all with co-op or AI support for three other pilots. This sort of ubiquitous free-flowing nature of modes is catching on elsewhere, and I’m fully on board with it. Now, the story tends to meander (especially at first) and the dialogue is often poor, but on a macro level, it’s ambitious.

The campaign has a lot of depth to it, spanning multiple decades (it takes place in the early to mid 3000s in-universe). I like how events like repairing your mech take actual in-game time, but zero player time (you can skip ahead days to get it over and done with). Pilot portions break things up and help dig deeper into the lore that makes the mechs tick. Light “negotiation” moments happen before each mission, allowing you to potentially salvage more items, garner higher C-Bill (the main in-game currency) rewards, or opt for a high insurance payout for damages.

How much risk/reward is involved is almost entirely dependent on your skill level, which is an interesting way to incorporate more simulation elements. Missions mostly have the right amount of pacing: short and punchy. You might need to take down a structure, defend an objective, or duke it out with another mech, with optional parameters popping up every now and then. When a locale starts to get benign (the core ones are ice, forest, canyon, and volcanic) you jet across to another planet.

You can also create and play custom scenarios or premade ones with MechWarrior 5’s instant action mode. I’m happy to report that you can go HAM in free play, with most of the mechs or parameters you could want. I’m probably going to be dipping into this mode for a while, and while I definitely want it to be expanded over time, it’s a MechWarrior All-Star championship event.

Even with an AI squad, instant action is fun as hell, and a veritable playground for trying out everything the game has to offer before you commit to the campaign. You can immediately see the potential here, like having a heavy Atlas mech running up the gut to distract an enemy force while a more fleet-of-foot mech pincers a group from above. Skirmishes can also get pretty hectic with tons of aerial and ground threats all in play at once.

It takes time to really get into MechWarrior 5, which is to be expected. At first, things go by at a plodding pace and your customization options are slim. But once you assemble your crew, jump into mechs you want to play as, and the story picks up, it starts to feel like old MechWarrior again. Mercenaries still might not satisfy everyone, but I enjoyed my reintroduction to the action-oriented BattleTech world.

Categories: PC Review

Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror – Your Wish is My Command

No Comments

Classic western RPGs have made a triumphant comeback this decade. Beamdog helped kickstart it with its remasters of Infinity Engine classics like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment, while the ever-reliable Obsidian Entertainment went back to its roots with Pillars of Eternity. We also got new entries in classic franchises like Larian Studios with Divinity: Original Sin (Larian is also working on Baldur’s Gate 3) and inXile Entertainment with Wasteland 2.

Given the wealth of new classics on offer, it’s been all-too easy to neglect Spiderweb Software, a prolific developer of CRPGs since before the genre earned the C. Since 1995, the indie developer has almost released a CRPG every year, including the Exile, Avernum, Geneforge, Avadon, and Nethergate franchises. Most of these were released on PC, but mobile has been graced with the Avernum trilogy, the Avadon saga, and, as of this week, Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror.

Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror is the first in a planned new series of releases for Spiderweb Software. It doesn’t stray far from the Spiderweb template in many different areas, including the visual style, grid and turn-based combat, and an almost intense amount of reading required, which does a terrific job of activating your imagination, filling in the blanks in the rich tapestry of the unique game world and its characters.

However, the entire gameplay structure is a complete departure for Spiderweb. You play as the child of the eponymous queen, who’s lived a life of sheltered luxury due to being the thirdborn. The queen decides it’s time for you to earn your place though, so sends you off to the colony of Sacramentum, which has fallen to neglect and rebellion. Your role as ambassador is to reclaim the colony through diplomacy or force for Haven and the queen, or for your own gains.

Queens Wish: The Conqueror is a Departure for Spiderweb

Sacramentum is made up of three different kingdoms, which you’ll bring back into Haven rule (or not) one at a time. There’s a central hub, which serves as your home fortress. Here you can build a blacksmith, alchemist, weaver, and other useful buildings that can provide you with the equipment you’ll need on your adventure. You’ll have to explore the surrounding world and reclaim mines, farms, and more to earn the resources to build everything you need though.

You can also recruit party members while at your home base and spend any skill points you’ve earned from levelling up. We particularly appreciate that you can re-spend any earned skill points at any point, allowing you to change your build on the fly. You don’t even have to commit to a particular class, as that’s only determined by where you place your points. You can create a hybrid or commit to a certain archetype.

You can further customise your party with equipment you gather as you explore the world. There’s armour, weapons, and accessories and you can augment all of them further by placing runes on them. Just like with skill points, you can change your runes at any moment. It’s a highly customisable system that allows you to change up everything on the fly, and we really appreciate it coming from RPGs that arbitrarily force you to commit to a certain path even though you’re still learning.

If we have any complaints regarding the party system, it’s that your supporting cast don’t have any personalities of their own. You can’t communicate with them or learn their backstory. They’re just there to help you fight. It’s a shame but it’s easy to see why Spiderweb has ignored that side of the experience in favour of producing an insane amount of content elsewhere.

Our Only Complaint is Your Party’s Lack of Personality

Your adventure will take you across the entire continent of Sacramentum, which is made up of four separate kingdoms. There’s Haven, which is where your base camp is located, the Ukat, who dwell in the swamp, Ahriel, which is made up of forests and grasslands, and The Vol, which is all scorching deserts. Each kingdom is made up of fortresses, mines, farms, and cities to claim for your own, as well as its own group of citizens to please or force to submit to the cause.

There’s a real sense of adventure in Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror. The actual in-game map isn’t huge but it’s so densely populated that you won’t notice. There are loads of quests to complete, people to meet, and resources to gather. You’ll also get a real sense of accomplishment from conquering the various different locations, and you’ll witness it whenever you glance at the map and see loads of locations to fast travel to. You unlock fast travel whenever you visit a location for the first time.

Then there are the number of different options in terms of how you conquer. You can be diplomatic and talk to your people, learning their problems and dealing with them to gain trust. Or, you can simply force them to submit using force. You won’t be popular using this method, and you will need to ensure you have the resources necessary to win, but having the options is welcome.

What you do with your power is also your choice. You can win it back for the queen or rebel and claim the power for your own. It’s your choice, though you’ll have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

Overall, we’re thoroughly impressed with Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror. Spiderweb has clearly poured a lot of love into the project and it’s heartening to see such a genuine effort to innovate 25 years into the developer’s career. If there are any shortcomings, it’s more due to a lack of budget than ambition. We’d love to recruit party members with more personality next time but that’s our sole complaint. If you’re a fan of CRPGs, pick this up right away.

Categories: Mobile Review

Wattam – ‘So I just did me some talking to the sun’

No Comments

Wattam, the new “goof-around” game from Katamari Damacy’s Keita Takahashi, is like burrowing yourself in a fuzzy blanket that’s still radiating heat from the dryer. It’s silly, jovial, and above all, cozy.

I came in expecting a toy-box world with an eclectic band of characters, and that’s pretty much what I got. There are no wild game mechanics to master or brain-busting puzzles to decipher – but there is a proper story, one that kept me surprisingly engaged and motivated the whole way through.

If you’re in the mood for a cute game about cute people doing cute stuff, you’ll feel at home.

Starting as the lonely Mayor, a green box-shaped fellow with a playful bomb tucked under his hat, you’ll continuously expand not only your list of playable pals (to over 100), but also the scope of the world, which is split up across several floating islands. Each step of the way, you’ll make new friends – the game has two separate buttons dedicated to hand-holding! – and try to solve their problems.

A sushi father might need help rounding up his roe children. A towering tree might want to suck up people, Whispy Woods-style, and turn them into fruit. A toilet might want to flush some junk. A huge part of the joy of this game comes from the fun and funny ways in which characters interact.

By the end, it devolves into beautiful chaos, sometimes to the detriment of the frame rate (but not in a game-breaking sort of way). Initially, you’ll use the right analog stick to swap between characters with a hovering cursor. Further in, you’ll come to rely on a collection list that lets you instantly switch over.

Wattam has a few tough puzzles to crack, but for the most part, you’ll be able to immediately glean what you need to do next and how to go about doing it. In some ways, I wish the game was a bit more gradual with this information – that it gave you more breathing room before dishing out clues.

That said, I also understand who Wattam is for: a whole range of people with different backgrounds.

The controls, objectives, and visual concepts are simplified and universal enough that casual players should have a smooth time working things out. There’s also enough creativity to hold seasoned players’ attention. While the game doesn’t make a big fuss about this, drop-in local co-op is the way to go.

Wattam is definitely something I’ll want to revisit when I have kids. It’s a toy-box come to life.

How long is the game? I spent five hours on the story, then a few extra hours messing around and trying to work out some of the more obscure character interactions, which felt like plenty. (Do yourself a favor and don’t stop playing until you’ve filled in the final spots on the roster. They’re such a pleasant surprise.) If you want to eke out even more time in this lovable world, there are quite a few trophies.

I’m not sure if Takahashi will ever be able to top Katamari Damacy – for my money, it’s one of the greatest video games ever made – but Wattam captures that sense of whimsy and magic in its own way. The care-free music and gosh-darn-huggable character designs make this a must-play for fans.

The puzzles are uniformly strange, but they’re also playful, letting you experiment with ideas until you find the solution. Things start out relatively simple, but as you uncover more characters and open up new areas, the interactions become more complex — and fun. Pretty much every element of Wattam is designed with whimsy in mind, like how each character has its own unique musical theme or the way the camera mode involves finding a literal camera. Watching a group of disparate objects form a circle, and then spin around until they can’t stop laughing, never really gets old. And since the game rarely spells out what you can do, figuring these interactions out is an act of discovery.

This kind of good-natured play is par for the course for Takahashi, whose previous work includes Katamari, a game about rolling objects into a giant ball, and Noby Noby Boy, a game about stretching out a giant worm. What’s unexpected about Wattam is how emotional the story gets. You might not believe that after playing for an hour or two, given the simple dialogue and copious poop jokes. But that starts to change as you start to learn more about the world and how it came to be, thanks in large part to melancholic storybook sequences. Wattam becomes something much more profound. It even ends by forcing you to make a tough, nuanced moral decision. If you’re going to play Wattam, you most definitely need to see it through to the conclusion.

It’s been well over a decade since Katamari debuted, and since then, there have been few games that capture the same lighthearted-yet-touching vibe. Even Takahashi’s subsequent work has largely failed to reach the same standard set by his iconic debut. It’s a tricky thing to balance, making a game that feels free and open but doesn’t frustrate players with a lack of direction. Wattam not only nails it much like Katamari did, but it also evokes a very similar set of feelings. It’s the rare game full of both laughter and sadness — and probably the only one that also features talking eyeballs and toilets.

I kind of hope Funomena never makes figurines, because I’ll spend way too much money on them.

Categories: Console PC Review

Black Desert Mobile : Barren Wasteland

No Comments

When we first learned that Black Desert was coming to mobile, we were pretty excited. It didn’t really matter that it wasn’t a direct port, as Pearl Abyss made it clear that it would be Black Desert as we know and love it, just redesigned for the tiny touchscreen.

And for all extents and purposes, that’s pretty much what we’ve got. While I haven’t put that many hours into the PC and console version of Black Desert, I’ve played enough to recognise that the major features are here: action-packed combat, wide variety of classes, combat progression revolving around world boss fights, PvP, and loads of non-combat skills like gathering resources, taming horses, farming crops, and fishing.

However, it isn’t long before you start to notice the mobile version’s shortcomings. All of the classes are gender-locked, questing borrows from Lineage 2: Revolution in that it’s almost entirely automated, and the touchscreen controls are a lot more fiddly than its PC and console counterpart. Playing with a controller does mitigate this somewhat but everything outside of combat still requires a tap or two, so it’s not really a genuine solution.

So what do we like about Black Desert Mobile? Well, the combat is the initial highlight. It’s basically identical to the main version of Black Desert, with a wide variety of skills to unlock and chain together to create massive, action-packed combos. We played as a Warrior, and were surprised to see many returning skills and animations – it genuinely felt like a miniature version of Black Desert.

Black Desert Mobile Promised to be a Familiar Experience to the Original, but it Isn’t Long Until You Experience its Shortcomings

Also, despite the sheer amount of automation we do like the progression system. As you complete quests, battle monsters, and greet new NPCs you’ll fill up a region completion percentage bar. At any moment you can pop into the ‘Knowledge’ section of the menu and see how far you’ve come, or find a few new things to tick off and bring you closer to 100%. It really pleases our inner completionist, which gets a kick out of ticking things off a list.

Building your base camp also gives us similar kicks. You can build a variety of buildings out of the resources you gather while wandering the world, which, in turn, produce even more resources for you. You can also send your workers, which you’ll hire as you quest, to gather resources for you, you can plant crops in your farm, or fish on your pier – there’s loads to do in your base camp that doesn’t involve fighting, and it’s a nice change of pace.

Unfortunately though, the amount we dislike about Black Desert Mobile far outweighs the good. Our biggest red flag is just how ugly it is, which is unforgivable when you consider how poorly it performs on a technical level. For reference, we’re playing on a third generation iPad Pro 12.9inch, which is one of the more powerful mobile devices currently out there, so if it’s struggling this much on this, we’d hate to experience it on lower end devices.

But why is it so ugly? Well, for one, the resolution is very low – even when set to maximum in the settings. The result is a very blurry experience, which, when combined with the weird shiny effect on everything, gives off the impression that you’ve smeared Vasoline over your phone or tablet. Couple that with texture pop-in, that poor frame rate, and jagged edges literally everywhere and the result is a hideously ugly mobile game that plays worse.

It’s a Hideously Ugly Experience Too, With a Low Resolution, Low Frame Rate, and Nasty Texture Pop-in

When we say play, we mean it in the loosest sense of the term too. While the combat is terrific, the rest of the experience generally involves watching your character automatically move between quest markers, chatting to NPCs that bombard you with painfully written dialogue and even worse voice acting. When you do get into a fight, it’s often over as soon as it began too, with very little challenge ever truly on offer.

However, when the challenge is there – when you fight bosses, for example – the screen is usually such a mess of blurry colours that you can barely make out what’s going on. Good luck dodging powerful enemy attacks that can eat half of your health pool – it’s basically impossible to spot them.

Then there’s the pay to win, which is sprinkled liberally on top of the experience. The cash shop is full of cosmetics, granted, but there are loads of ways to buy power, including skill and gear enhancements. On top of that, there are two different bi-weekly subscriptions that drastically speed up your progress. To grab both, you’ll be spending on average about $20 per month, and that’s without buying any of the other potentially necessary upgrade items.

Overall, we’re thoroughly disappointed in Black Desert Mobile. It’s a hideously ugly experience that runs even worse than it looks, is full of pay to win and autoplay, and features a bunch of frustrating decisions like gender-locked classes. It’s 2019 – that should not be happening in this day and age.

Old School RuneScape Need Not Worry

Old School RuneScape is under no threat whatsoever from losing its crown as best mobile MMORPG, and those that actually don’t mind autoplay experiences are far better off playing Lineage 2: Revolution, which is simply a better version of this garbage in every single way.

Categories: Mobile Review