Kaiju Panic

Kaiju Panic by Mechabit is one of those games that mix tower defense with action/strategy, and it does it fairly well. Yet I had troubles liking it fully. Why? Well, Kaiju Panic is a kind of fun, kind of boring type of game. I know, I just confused you, didn’t I? That’s okay, that’s how I felt about it at first too.

The story follows the aftermath of an asteroid crash. Within this asteroid were these little monsters called Kaiju, which are apparently coming to destroy us. Your job is to mine the asteroids for resources while avoiding the Kaiju and also gathering survivors to bring them to safe places. The places are only as safe as you make them, though, and this is where the tower defense kicks in: you will have to build towers to defend it (and the people you just saved) from all those monsters coming to get you.

Simple enough, right? Of course, as you go through you get to improve buildings, research, gain perks, etc. Some survivors won’t want to go with you until you complete a requirement (ie. Find their dog first), which gets a bit annoying.

I rather enjoyed the visual aspect of the game, even if it has a bit of a ‘mobile’ feel to it. The cutesy cartoony graphics are lovely if you’re into that type of art style, the variety of Kaiju is enough to keep you entertained, and the colorful atmosphere will make you forget you’re essentially in one of those aftermath games.

The maps are interesting, though nothing out of this world. After a while they all more or less start to look alike.

That said, the controls were a bit confusing at first, but once you get used to them, they’re only moderately annoying. You use a combination of mouse and keyboard, where the space bar pops up the build menu and the mouse is mostly used to look around and select buildings.

The music is annoying as hell, but the sound effects were decent for the type of game – pretty much what you’d expect from a mobile-looking game.

My biggest pet peeve with the game is that while it’s really entertaining to play when you just start, after a while it just gets repetitive and boring. And I did enjoy the first few levels of the game – but as I progressed, turret placing became a bit of trial-and-error as you have no clue until you’ve played it where monsters will be coming from, and with an already repetitive style of gameplay, having to re-do entire levels can get really frustrating.

Mechabit has recently added a co-op option, which I haven’t had the chance of trying, but I think would really add some to the entertaining factor if you’re not playing it on your own.

Would I recommend it? Eh, I give it a very hesitant yes, particularly if you’re into tower defense, but I would certainly not pay full price for it. Better wait for a sale or a bundle.

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Tricone Lab

Partickhill Games brings us Tricone Lab, a deceivingly simple, quasi-minimalist looking puzzle game that will make you use all your lateral thinking abilities in order to proceed though the increasingly difficult levels.

In Tricone Lab you interact with microscopic organisms in what appears to be a cellular-like environment. Your goal? To create as many “tricones” as the level needs to let you proceed. Tricones are created by joining three colored cones (red, green and blue) into a master template, but several things will get in your way: not only the membranes, but also other organisms that might either aid or hinder you in your quest to complete the levels.

The graphics of the game might be quite simple, but there’s a certain charm to the simplicity of the game, and I greatly appreciate the almost monochrome tonality of most of the game, for these type of puzzle games tend to end up in bright colors to make up for the lack of “proper” graphics. Not here! The graphic style seems to fit perfect with the game.

The music and sounds are pretty good, almost relaxing, I rather enjoyed them even if I kept them at a very low level.

Playing it is simple enough – you mostly will use your mouse to connect things and navigate, but there are also keyboard shortcuts should you not want to go entirely with the mouse.

The levels, as I’ve already stated, appear to be quite simple when you begin, but as you progress they get increasingly difficult, and often times I would get stuck by not thinking things through properly before launching into what looked like a simple puzzle, but ended up being something more… even when the difficulty was marked as low. So the game really makes you pay attention to what you’re doing.

There are neither tips nor guides in-game (there are tutorials though, like with every puzzle game, introducing you what new items do), though I’ve found often the level names are tips on their own.

As you get through the levels you will unlock keys that will allow you to open even more levels for a whooping total of 100. Yes, you read that right. Tricone Lab boasts of 100+ levels, and if that were not enough for you, they also have a level editor. You can upload any maps you create with it, and others will be able to play them. Can you see the possibilities here? I can.

And the game is still in development!

Tricone Labs is an entertaining, challenging game that, although it might not be a graphical masterpiece, is truly worth your time. I’m the kind of person that gets easily frustrated with games, and I have to say, while I did get stuck here and there, Tricone was never stressful nor frustrating to play through.

Do I recommend it? It’s a sound YES! You’re sure not to regret the purchase.

Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode 1 Tides of Fate Review

In Chronicles of a Dark Lord by Kisareth Studios, you take the role of an atypical ‘hero’. Rather than the usual RPG kid-turned-hero, you’re taking on the role of a kid-turned-evil who goes after even more evil than his amount of evil. I know, I could’ve totally phrased that better. You still understood though, right?

The game has… some cool things, and some not cool things. But lets start at the beginning!

First thing you get when you start the game is an option for resolutions. It’s an RPG Maker game, and so the engine make the resolution choices so very, very odd. I have nothing against RPG Maker games, truly, but this one just seemed to bump into all the things I don’t like about RPG Maker as an engine. Not the least of which was trying to take a screenshot, and ending up closing the game without a warning. Hah. That was not an amusing moment, specially because the game starts with a rather long, somewhat boring, friggin’ unskippable intro scene made of text about how dark the whole thing is and will be, and the fight of darkness and light, and the chronicles of the Dark Lord, and etc, etc, etc. Yawn. Can we not learn this while we’re playing? I mean, I appreciate some backstory, but this is the first episode/installment, so shouldn’t the story begin here? And this is a game. If I want to read a book, I’ll go grab one, not a game.

I get it, it’s dark. It’s right on the title. Lets move long!

Already from the get-go I’m torn about the art. Even if I like RPGs like this, pixel art is not my favorite style, but I know you can do really neat stuff with it, and really cute (and really dark) stuff as well, but the pixel art on this looks pretty generic. The tiles that make up the world are, too me, too bold and bright, and I don’t mean it only for the story type and ambiance (which as I understand, is ~dark~). The character sprites are cute and I like them, but again: they’re generic to RPG maker. The character heads when the text pops up are also cute, but all characters are rather similar to one another, by which I mean there is a limited amount of sprite bases that had hair type and color and eye color interchanged. Some had some differences, but for the most, they were all too similar, and all too basic-RPG Maker style. It would’ve been nice if, for a change, they would’ve had some expression in the avatars that went along with the emotions of what was being said, or just… general, notable differences.

I’ll also say it’s consistently inconsistent in its art. During the fights (more on the battle system later) the enemy sprites are turned into larger, grown-up sprites with a lot more detail. This would not be so bad, except that they 1. don’t match the background with the level of detail and 2. don’t match your own sprites, which are still tiny chibified things. Reading on it, I came to find out that was actually a choice by the developer… and a (relatively recent at the time of starting this review) update. Just why you would change one sprite and not the other is beyond me.

You see what I mean? It just doesn’t fit.

Moving onto the sound aspect, the music is fairly good, but quite repetitive, so I ended up lowering the volume for it (which I often do anyway). We get a decent range of options on the menu, by the way… and a save-anytime button there too. Cookie points for that. I do like compulsively saving every five minutes and after cut-scenes.

The gameplay is rather typical of most old styled RPGs – move around the map with your keyboard, interact with enter, esc for cancelling things. If you’ve played RPGs before you will be used to checking absolutely everything, from shelves to barrels to piles of hay… and the good thing about Chronicles is, in this, it does pay off. You can get some items for your trouble and find out amusing things – like the piano not being just decoration but actually getting to make some music out of it (it’s no mini-game mind you, just the interaction sound), or the cat actually meowing at you, or how they went through the trouble of putting your wife’s photo in a frame on your bedroom – it’s a nice detail, but it’s made too obvious with, again, slightly clashing styles in the pixel art.

Some of the maps are rather big and empty, even though you can tell they tried to fill it up aesthetically. It’s a weird contradiction, but there you have it. On the upside, you can run (or ‘dash’), which is cool.

The battle system is simple and concise, and also interesting. I was quite fond of it. It’s a typical turn based, random-encounter styled fight system, however, it’s not really random at all. You have a very nifty bar at the top which fills as you walk around certain areas, and when it’s full, you have an encounter. If you stop, the bar slowly depletes. Thus, you can sort of control if you want to have an encounter or not, and it’s not entirely random. The skills you can get through leveling up make sense, seem balanced enough, and are no bloat. You’ll probably have a use for everything you end up having. The art, however… as I’ve already said, is inconsistent and slightly distracting. The only downside was I couldn’t find a way to see the enemy HP, which was really annoying.

I’ve already touched a bit on the story, but it’s basically this:

It’s been foreordained that some kid would be born that would inherit some dark powers and be evil, but would also be the savior of the world in some war or another with an even eviler evil. Oh well, the better of two evils, right? The game gets cookie points for originality in actually being (one of the) the bad guy(s).

The names of the characters are kind of fanfiction-y, and so seem to be their personality types (and there’s not a lot of personality or types in them); so is the lesbianism, which would be better if it actually made sense in the story, but ends up just seeming gratuitous (again, I have no trouble with this normally, but it either has to make sense or the game be strictly about it). By the way, the ‘fanfitcion-y’ thing was not a compliment. (Disclaimer: I know there’s good fanfiction out there, that’s not the one I was referring to).

It seems like they wanted to give you options, like being really evil or not so evil, and they promise it will affect the outcome of the story, but I couldn’t notice any major impact during gameplay on what your choices are save for the occasional option to kill a random NPC – and a few times it wasn’t even an option at all – and even that didn’t seem to have great consequences. Granted, I got too fed up with the game to see it through the end.

Also, the game is trying too hard at everything. It tries too hard to be dark and gothic, and then they throw out “funny” lines that make it try too hard to be funny in a not-dark-at-all kind of way.

Finally, there’s no steam overlay. That was sad. Very, very sad. But it’s to be expected with RPG Maker games.

The game offers some 20 to 25 hours of average, generic gameplay, so if you’re very into old styled RPGs and don’t care much about the downsides of it, or if it’s on sale, then it might still be worth the money. Otherwise… steer clear.

TL;DR: Generic art, decent music, meh story, undecided style, cookie points for an attempt at originality.

Would I recommend it? Not unless you’re very into RPGs.

DreadOut

This review was originally written for WalaWala Games.
A free copy of the game has been provided in exchange for an honest review.

Title DreadOut
Platform: PC
Developer: Digital Happiness
Genre: Survival Horror / Action / Puzzler

DreadOut is a third-person Puzzle/Survival Horror game by Digital Happiness. In it you take on the role of Indonesian teenager Linda, who was on a school trip when not-so-suddenly her group becomes trapped in an old, creepy, abandoned town.

Sounds familiar? Surely it’s the starting point of many a game, but the kind of horror DreadOut brings out is one of my favorites. You see, here you’re not hiding from invincible monsters, you’re not running away, and you’re not (really) fighting the ghosts (technically speaking). If you’ve ever played Fatal Frame, you’ll be quite familiar with the play style and ambiance of DreadOut, for Linda is armed only with a camera, and that is all she has to fight off the apparitions and, yes, solve puzzles.

DreadOut is comprised of three different acts (0, 1 and 2), each a bit different than the previous one – act 0 serving as a sort of glimpse as to what to expect, Act 1 setting the pacing, and Act 2 completely changing the pacing you’d gotten used to; all acts follow the same storyline; and while in essence the story might not be out of this world in originality (despite the twists and turns taken and the stories within stories), and while the ghost design might not be anything too different (even if they’re unique to Indonesian lore), the game gets plenty of cookie points for being in a different setting and full of ghost (and thus, cultural) lore.

Controls in the game are fairly simple: You run (stamina dictates you need a break every so often), you walk, you interact with doors and objects, pick items up, and use your phone’s camera to snap photos, solve puzzles, and defeat ghosts. And also to illuminate really dark areas, too. Linda has a ‘sense’ which helps her find all these things, when a blue vignette appears you’re near a puzzle, item or secret, while if it’s red, it means there’s an enemy near.

Although the graphics and textures are a tad dated and will not give an AAA game a run for its money, they’re still fairly decent, and the characters are attractive enough to look at that you won’t be put off by their faces every time they turn around. Despite this, the general ambience is quite good, and succeeds in making you forget that it’s a game and giving you that creepy feeling every survival-horror abandoned town and building should have. The voice overs are pretty good too, something I was pleasantly surprised with. The music is really good – it’s not always creepy, but it’s still good, and in the parts where it is creepy, it succeeds at it. The game also makes use of silence and sound bites to make you on edge, like playing soft, creepy laughter or crying when you least expect it, managing to create something that truly has you on the edge of your seat.

This is the kind of horror I like, the type that’s more psychological and situational than just jump scares and loud noises, and while DreadOut does have a few jump scares, they’re not quite as obnoxious as the ones utilized in most horror games.

If you’ve never played Fatal frame before, this is how the “fighting” aspect works: All “fighting” is done through the camera. You point it at the evil spirit and snap a few shots, which damages it, and it eventually disappears (unless it’s invincible… then it’ll just leave you alone for a little while). DreadOut has added to this where you don’t just have to snap, but some of the tougher spirits actually have specific weak spots for you to find. I do love this style of gameplay, but I found the ghosts to be a little less scary than the ambiance of the place, and a bit more annoying. It seemed like it took too many shots just to get rid of one simple ghost, so once the initial scare wore off, defeating them was more of a chore. The slightly cramped spaces also made for tricky fights sometimes, becoming particularly annoying during boss fights, making it hard to find their weak spots. At least in Fatal frame when they rushed at you, you had a last-chance shot that made more damage than the others, and a bit more time to run around and find a comfortable spot to snap from. Not so much in DreadOut, where there’s no last-chance shot and less space to run around before the ghost charges at you again. This might work for a more hardcore gamer, for me it didn’t work quite so well.
I feel like the potential in these type of camera-only games isn’t on the fights themselves, and thus they should be easy enough the get past without infuriating you, which doesn’t mean they can’t require some kind of tactics. This, more than anything, is what made it less enjoyable for me than I had anticipated.

I will say, however, that every fight was different from the last, so the originality put on it was really nice to see. When you die in DreadOut you don’t fail. It’s not game over and start over… when you die you enter “limbo”; a dark area with a light ahead of you. You run towards the light, and start back at the spot you were at. Usually with the ghost right besides you, and barely enough time to get your bearings between the animation and lifting the camera before it charges. This is both a cool concept and kind of annoying, as every time you die the length you have to run to reach the light is longer. You can make the length you have to run fixed in settings, though, which I took advantage of.

The puzzles are rather difficult. Sometimes it takes a lot of random snapping of photos and pondering to figure out what to do… which is actually rather good, except when there’s ghosts around making you nervous. Sometimes they were a little too puzzling though, where I would find the blue vignette and walk around and snap shots at everything in the hopes something would yield a result, and couldn’t find what it wanted me to do at all.

If there was one big thing I didn’t like about this game, I would have to say it was the lack of a save-when-you-want feature. The game auto-saves at several parts and does so as well when you exit, which is wonderful and useful for the average gamer, but -and while I appreciate such things- I would also have liked to save at a point I decide without having to leave my game to do so. I also found the save on exit not working all the time, as twice I had to re-do a (short, but still annoying) section when I went back to my game.

There were a few minor bugs through my play-through; the game would sometimes lag a bit (at random times, not because it was particularly loading anything) and the camera would sometimes “snap” back at a weird angle (I feel it might have been because of the lag, but it seemed like it did it at random times too), but none of them were game-breaking bugs.
And speaking of loading, the loading times could certainly be improved on, as they get a bit too long.

The game has a few items to collect through your play and several documents (besides every ghost encounter filling your ghost lore book with interesting tidbits and stories), as well as some Easter eggs; you can also unlock some outfits to wear during replays. There’s also two endings to this hidden gem, which was quite nice.

All things considered, you can tell that despite the dated graphics, the developers have put a lot of thought and care into the game, and you really have to appreciate that. I think this is a solid horror game that does the horror part very good, but falls just a little bit short at the gameplay aspect – at least for my personal taste.

Overall I’d highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of Fatal Frame or similar styled games, or if you like horror games but are tired of jump scares.

 

Overall Rating: 8 /10

In Verbis Virtus

This review was originally written for WalaWala Games.
A free copy of the game has been provided in exchange for an honest review.

 

Data
Break Up
Game: In Verbis Virtus
Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie, RPG
Developer: Indomitus Games
Publisher: Meridian4
Release Date: Apr 3, 2015
Platform: PC / Windows 7
Overall rating:  6/10
Graphics: 8.5/10
Controls: 8.5/10
Level/Puzzle Design: 7/10
Sound: 6.5/10
Story: 7/10
Replay Value: N/A
Community: N/A

 

Review

Notice: A microphone is required to play this game. Also, nerves of friggin’ steel.

Welcome to a land of magic. You are a wizard in search for a strong, ancient power for reasons I will not spoil; but to get to it, you will have to explore the temple, solve its puzzles, and battle unspeakable evil! That last part is more annoying than exciting, by the way.

In Verbis Virtus is, in essence, a fantasy RPG halfway between puzzle and action. Do not that you are required to own and use a microphone in order to play this game, for that is the whole point of it. As a wizard, you will be doing the spell casting via voice commands. That’s right, that means the game depends on a voice recognition system. That could only bode for fun and frustration, right?

But lets take it one thing at a time! Because in order to play the game, I had to be able to open the game, which in itself was a puzzle. I have no idea why, but the game alternated between crashing and freezing; probably something related to the resolution.
On the upside, In Verbis Virtus has a “safe” mode that opens it in a window on super low res. On the downside, that it has a safe mode because you may need to use it to get into the game is kind of a sad state. Once I was able to start it without crashing, the game ran fairly well only getting a bit choppy when entering a new area for the first time that day.

Visually, the game is quite stunning. even in low settings it didn’t look as bad as other ‘better’ games do, so there’s something to be said for that. The music was really nice too, and what voice acting there was (to show you how to pronounce the spells and in cutscenes) was… I wouldn’t say good, but it wasn’t bad either. The ambient sounds left something to be desired, however, though they weren’t too bad. The fire for some reason sounded fairly similar to the critters, and while I’m guessing the idea of keeping a semi-constant critter-like noise in the background was to keep you on edge, it became annoying as you couldn’t be sure when they were actually coming for you unless you’d been in the area before.

The game mechanics are pretty nice. Controls are basic: you jump with space, move with wasd, use mouse to aim and look around, shift to run – there is no ducking, however. In order to cast the spells, you interact via voice. Just aim your mouse at something, click and call out the spell name, and release your click. The spell will be cast. To stop the spell, right click. There are checkpoints that auto-save when passing a chapter, and save points spread out through the game, not nearly close enough to what I’d normally like, but not too far apart either. I just like to save every time I accomplish something, I’m obsessive like that.

Surprisingly, the voice recognition system works fairly well, and it has plenty of ways to be used. In the game options you can choose to cast the spells in English or the made-up language of the game, Maha’Ki, I went back to try them both (though my original playthrough was in Maha’Ki) and both worked pretty well. There was the occasional moment where a spell wasn’t cast, which included times such as slightly panicky, rushed casts for getting my ass kicked by enemies, the infuriated “I’ve said it three times already, would you please cast it??” rushed casting, and the “I clicked after I started casting” casting. But overall the spells cast 99% of the times, and when it didn’t, it was user fault.
Within the voice recognition options you also have the choice to record your own words for the spells. Now, I didn’t try this, but I can only imagine it can be great fun, and it’s a neat option to have.

As for the puzzles themselves, some are easy, some are hard, some are really not overly intuitive kind of hard, but for the most they were fairly good. Until, that was, you reached a timed puzzle. Really now, why would you do that to me? Is casting and running and casting while running not hard enough that you have to put the time limit so that we barely make it?
There was quite a bit of backtracking to be made from some of the puzzles to other parts of it, which would have been much less annoying without the critters roaming around, but I can overlook that since they had pretty scripted areas in which they appeared and paths they followed, so they were entirely predictable.
All in all, I was pretty content with the puzzles except for the timed ones, and then I was a slightly less happy camper until that was over.

I knew there’d be some fighting when I went into this game, I just didn’t expect them to be that annoying.

Now, your mileage might vary, but I feel like the greatest downfall of this game is precisely that: the fighting. Ahhh… what can I say about it other than I completely hated it, and it got me stuck in each encounter I had to the point where I didn’t get to finish the entirety of the story because of it. I got completely stuck, not even because I didn’t know how to beat the bad guys, but because they were so friggin’ annoying, and casting while trying not to die while trying to time something else was just not my thing. The very first fight you encounter is not just a fight, but a bit of a timing puzzle as well, and I seriously spent way too long trying to pass it, to the point where more than once I considered quitting right there. I didn’t. I quit further ahead, but I still quit.

Could this game have done well with fighting? Yes, if enemies had been defeatable via actual fighting spells, as opposed to trying to make them puzzly-difficult for the sake of making you use the several spells. Now, don’t get me wrong, while it could have been “fun” to fling an enemy across a room with my spell to stun him before putting a fire ball on his face (note: you get a fire spell, and then an explosion spell, not a fireball spell, making it even more annoying), you can’t really base the entire experience on the player’s timing skills with juggling 3 different spells in a moment of heated combat. Particularly if the enemy isn’t even a boss.
I feel like maybe if casting spells hadn’t been dependant of you clicking, calling out, then releasing the button to get it to actually cast, and it would have just recognized voice commands without the need of any clicking (and unclicking) in between, it would have made things much easier and I wouldn’t have been quite so frustrated with it all.  I can see where they wanted to go with the fights in terms of creativity, I just feel like it wasn’t well handled, or just… didn’t belong in this particular game.

As it was, most the fights I came across were just annoying and brought down the entire experience for me.

Bug wise I didn’t come across anything very obvious, except for the problems I had getting it to start and the occasional crash which happened mostly when I started a game, usually before I even loaded a save. But there were some crashes after as well. They really added to the frustration.

There’s little else to be said about In Verbis Virtus, I wish the puzzles would have been more open, giving you a chance of using various of your spells in order to complete it creatively, instead of “here is this rune or button, so this thing requires this particular spell while you stand in this particular spot.” (The fights suffered from this too; certain enemies required certain particular series of spells, except for the occasional one “easily” defeatable with fire, which still took two spells.)
You don’t need mazes and hours of backtracking to make good puzzles, you just need to give the user more creative ways to solve it in a single room.
I also wish there would have been a “no monsters” option, it would have made my experience much more enjoyable. I could’ve probably done with just the critters and a final boss at most.

In all, Indomitus has made of In Verbis Virtus a pretty decent puzzle/adventure game with a really, really excelling voice recognition system and with lots of potential to be had that, for me, was ruined by the forced fights.

TL;DR: Good game, decent puzzles, lots of fun with voice spells! Did not like the fights at all (your mileage might vary – they’re more annoying than difficult and I lost patience fast), got stuck because of them, ragequit for my sanity. XD
Would I pick it up again? Probably, but not anytime soon.

Overall Rating: 6/10

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II

This review was originally written for WalaWala Games.
A free copy of the game has been provided in exchange for an honest review.

Title The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2
Platform: PC
Developer: NeoCore Games
Genre: Action / Adventure / RPG / Hack ‘n SlashNeocore games.

I have a special spot in my heart for Van Helsing I, thus I was very excited about trying out Van Helsing II.

The story picks up where Van Helsing I left off — The little town of Borgovia needs help, and monster hunter extraodinaire Van Helsing is there to aid it. Helping the resistance do what they must to get the city back and fend off the monsters; should you not have played the first installment at all, or if it’s been long since you touched it, the introduction video does a good job of recapping the important bits and summing up what’s been going on.

If there’s one thing to say for Neocore games it’s that they do pretty neat cinematic cut-scenes, very nice and artistic, that give you a distinct feel of watching a movie – unfortunately, even the cut-scenes can sometimes be a little bit too long when they’re put in between the action. The voice actors chosen are excellent at their roles; and the chosen depths, tones and infliction the cast uses throughout the game suit the characters very well; helping immerse you in the world. Along with the lovely visual and voices, the game has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in an ARPG, fitting the mood and slightly dark atmosphere of the game, atmosphere that is slightly uplifted by the many humorous lines and various pop culture references that are to be found throughout Van Helsing II, as it was in the original.

The graphics improve a little on Van Helsing I, but in my opinion they still seem to lack some optimization. Despite my computer being the recommended setup for the game, and despite being in low settings, I had the exact same problem with the game I did during my play-through of Van Helsing I … LAG. From the get go the game is just a little bit slow, and after about an hour or more of playing the game would become really slow and laggy, sometimes even freezing up for a few seconds if I continue playing. And this was in the single player campaign. It was also noticeable during loading screens – loading the game takes just a little too long sometimes, particularly during the initial loading screen.

Despite that, and jumping into the actual gaming aspect, Van Helsing II can be a delight to play. Right off the bat you’re given the option to either import a character from Van Helsing I or play with a new one which you can start from level 1 or from level 30 with a pre-designed one, which is great for trying out the different classes and builds; the difficulty of the levels also accommodates depending on which starting point you choose, so you’ll still get the full experience without finding it “too easy” just because you chose to start at level 30 instead.

I chose to start anew so I could get a fresh look at the game, plus, it’d been a long while since I’d last played the original, so a refresher course wouldn’t hurt. When starting your get you get to choose between three classes: Hunter, Thaumaturge or Arcane Mechanic. The classes are all quite different from each other, and each one has a very ample skill tree (and choice of auras) to pick and choose from, so everyone is likely to find a mix of powers and skills that suit their playing style perfectly. Personally, my favorite character is still the Hunter, though the other two can be fun to play too. My only regret in the system would be that I’d like for a bit more customization options outside the skill tree (maybe more visual variety), yet in the end it doesn’t make much of a difference.

Once you make your character you’ll also have access to the options menu (why you don’t have access to this before that is beyond me), which gives you plenty of chances to remap keys and change audio and video options. Some of these require you to relaunch the game to go into effect, which is a bit annoying as it takes long to load.

Katarina is once more with you during the game. I like the companionship and the role she plays in the overall story and gaming aspects. She can carry stuff, you can send her out shopping, and you can pick how she will behave during fights (ranged, melee, aid only, etc), all of which is pretty neat. They also have great chemistry between them, making you feel less lonely during the map runs.

The monsters are all well designed, with a fair variety to them and interesting looks and powers. The game has various difficulty modes ranging from casual to hardcore, and you can switch them at any time, yet I noticed that it seems a bit unbalanced regardless of what difficulty mode you’ve chosen: either the enemies are far too easy or far too hard, all in the same map and mode.

The story is fairly linear and simple, but it’s also intriguing; the characters are interesting, and the questing follows the same vein of its predecessor. The tower defense mode also returns, improved, and you can now send captains to do some of those quests for you, which is a nice change in pace (as I’m not particularly fond of defending things, I’m more into destroying them). The downside of this is every so often they interrupt your questing with information, “demanding” you get back to take care of a situation or another (you don’t really need to drop everything to do as they ask, and I believe you can turn this off, but the interruption is annoying nonetheless).

The first time you’re thrown into the fry -meaning the tutorial and the very first city-defending section- I found it all a tad confusing and frustrating. During the tutorial there were some pop ups that went by just a little too fast for me to read – it was only a couple, yet it was bothersome enough as I couldn’t really remember what all did and was. During the city section I had problems finding my way until I got used to the map indicators again, and then I had a bit of troubles finding some of the more out-of-the-way stairs and elevators, and choosing which answer would be correct for what I wanted to do; however, once you get past that area, the gameplay goes pretty smoothly, and if there was one thing I did appreciate it was that, while there were many things to learn, at least the main interface didn’t look cluttered.

The game offers witty dialogue and, when questing, allows you yo choose from two or three answers. I like being able to choose when talking to characters (though most of the time is just the two typical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ disguised in a colorful fashion), however it suffered from the same all the ‘choose your answer’ games suffer from: none were clear. An answer did not quite mean what I thought it would mean which made me miss a quest (for instance, on Saving Bryan had two answers that were very similar but different in tone, and I thought the second option would also give me a chance to end the conversation and go look for him, but it didn’t and it sent me elsewhere with that mission failed). I was rather annoyed to have some missions failed or postponed (or even denied completely from trying them later) simply because the option I chose still included some form of “give me more time” or “I can’t right now” but it ended up cancelling the quest instead and the quest indicator disappeared. I had the same with a quest where I could either destroy a totem or find a relic, and when I refused destroying it initially but then changed my mind, I couldn’t go back and destroy it, so I was forced on the second quest path.

After the first chapter you get to have a “pet”; a chimera you can either send to fetch stuff for you, or summon into battle. This is quite handy, and the chimera is quite adorable (in the way giant, angry beasts are adorable, I guess). It even chases around little animals while in the lair.

The areas you get to visit are quite beautiful in their steampunk, dark way; the outside world is beautiful, the attention to detail is obvious in them, and even though the maps are linear there are also plenty of side quests and secrets through them. And indeed, Van Helsing II is full of secrets which you might not find on your first play-through, so the replayability is fairly high.

Aside from the slowness and lag in singleplayer, the only bug I really encountered was when attempting to assign skill points to Katarina. In order to apply points to the skills on the top most left hand, I had to place the pointer at a very specific pixel right under the + sign or it wouldn’t let me press it at all. The rest of her skill buttons worked normally though, and the bug disappeared when I switched from windowed mode to full screen.

My multiplayer experience left a lot to be desired, in that I could not join any games and no one could join mine, so I couldn’t test it. Neocore’s support is very friendly and patient, however, and they’re likely to help if you run into any troubles. Plus they’re very active in the community, which is always good.

In brief, I truly enjoyed playing Van Helsing II, but I would mostly recommend it either to fans of ARPGs, or those who enjoyed the other installments of the series. New players might find the learning curve for it a bit too steep, and those who aren’t familiar with the story might not find it as interesting. To anyone new to the Van Helsing series, I would probably recommend they start with Van Helsing I instead of II just to familiarize themselves with the story, gameplay and mechanics of the game.

 

Overall rating 7.5 / 10

Grim Legends 2: Song of the Dark Swan

This review was originally written for WalaWala Games.
A free copy of the game has been provided in exchange for an honest review.

Title: Grim Legends 2: Song of the Dark Swan
Platform: PC / iOS
Developer: Artifex Mundi
Genre: Action / Casual Adventure / RPG

Part 2 of the Grim Legends series, Song of The Dark Swan is another wonderful Adventure and Hidden Object game from Artifex Mundi. I own and have played several of their games and I have to say, they’re my favorite in the genre. They just know how to mix story, art, and game-play wonderfully. So, needless to say, I was quite excited to be able to review one of their games.

In Song of The Dark Swan you step into the shoes of a healer gone to see a queen about her illness, only to have the queen be accused of dark magic. The healer must then set off to save two Kingdoms by undoing a family curse, finding the missing heir to the throne, saving the queen and finding the true dark sorcerer; and all of this in one day!

For those unfamiliar with the gameplay of these type of games, and particularly the  Artifex Mundi ones, the mechanics are quite simple. In between story parts you will find several different game-play methods: Point and Click areas in which you will have to find small items in the environment for later use in puzzles; Puzzles, such as sliders, arranging puzzles, find-a-piece puzzles, follow-recipe puzzles, and the sort; and finally Hidden Object puzzles, in which you’re presented with a heavily packed screen full of items from which you’re provided a list, and you must find them in the picture. What I love about this developer is precisely this: they don’t just stick to hidden objects or slide puzzles, they mix and match and offer a great variety through the game.

You only need your mouse to play these type of games, and they usually don’t require high grade computers, either. Artifex Mundi is particularly good at this, their games tend to work in even the lowest end computers I’ve owned. The videos might get a bit choppy if you’re not in a decent rig, but I have so far only had that problem with one of their games, and this one wasn’t it.

And, before anyone asks, no, you don’t need to have played Grim Legends 1 to understand or follow part 2. They follow a similar theme, but they aren’t the same.

Let’s move along to the actual game!

Song of The Dark Swan doesn’t disappoint in terms of music and sound effects. The music suits the atmosphere perfectly, it’s beautifully eerie, truly giving you a feeling of being in a fantasy land touched by dark magic. The sound effects are quite pleasing to the ears, too. The voice acting, however, is hit and miss. It’s not bad, the voices are pleasant enough, and the intonation fairly good, but there was something lacking. It’s still improved plenty from the last games, however. Particularly, I was bothered by the sounds the fairies made as well as the children voices. The rest were fairly good.

Artifex Mundi is wonderful at their game art; as far as the world goes, the art is amazing! It’s full of small details and truly brings the world to life. I always enjoy going to new locations and discovering all the effort put into each and every piece – be it nature or indoors. It’s also very colorful and bright, even in the darker themed games such as this.

Characters, however, can be a bit hit and miss. Most are pretty beautifully rendered, but then you’ll have the slightly odd face or odd pose during cut-scenes, and they can get just a bit creepy. Still, their games hold some of the best artists I’ve seen.

Song of The Dark Swan is the same in both aspects. The world is represented in magnificent detail and it really helps bring it to life, especially if you take into account some things in the backgrounds are partially animated; the characters are fairly well done, particularly when static, but some are still better rendered than others. What differentiates characters in this one is that they’re more paint-style art than in their other games, and I found I rather liked the change.

The cinematic scenes have certainly improved plenty from past games, making the cut-scenes pleasant to watch and just short enough that you really don’t see the need to skip them – unless that annoying fairy is talking.

In Song of The Dark Swan, like in their other games, the world is full of little collectibles. In this case small symbols throughout the different areas. Some are easy to spot, some much harder. It makes for an interesting challenge to find them all!

The story itself is quite nice. It’s short and simple. It’s been obviously based off a fairy tale, but still manages to spin a story of its own; it has hints to background lore and legends within the story itself to give it depth, too, which is always a plus in any game, and makes the story engaging. There are darker parts to the story as well, but ultimately you get a relatively happy ending, and I do love my happy endings.

As for the game-play itself, I missed the ability to switch a puzzle for a mini-game from previous games, but it was also an option I used only when an item was particularly hard to find, so in the long run it wasn’t really that much of a drawback.

However, I enjoyed the variety of puzzles offered; in fact it seemed to be a bit more varied than in their previous titles. It’s one of my favorite things on this developer’s games, and Song of The Dark Swan didn’t disappoint. I also quite enjoyed the ability to have companions – the first time this was introduced in one of the developer’s games I fell in love with the idea as it added not only a friendly little creature with you, but a second level of challenge where you had to ponder just where the little animal might be of use. Here I could use not only one, but more, and that was pretty awesome. On the downside, even when replaying the game on expert mode, the companions made little sounds to hint where they could be used, which was slightly annoying.

There were a lot more locations to visit than in previous titles, which made me happy, and the developer has the wonderful habit of offering quick-travel if you’ve visited those locations, something I honestly love them for because the more locations, the more confusing it can get to get where you’re going. There was also less of a need to backtrack through maps, usually whatever you needed for that ‘chapter’ could be found within the map world.

There was also more interaction which characters and more parts where you had to uncover the story of the curse, which was done through finding golden feathers. I really enjoyed those little flashbacks, the art was pretty and the story in it was interesting.

Song of The Dark Swan had a better balance between puzzles and hidden object scenes. I guess depending on what you like this could be good or bad. I found I didn’t mind it.

The achievements are not too hard to get, which was both pleasing for me as a casual gamer, and yet slightly bothersome as someone who likes the challenge. There should be about 30 of them for you to gather though, so you won’t be bored.

As for the difficulty of the game, the puzzles aren’t overly difficult, and if you’re used to the developer’s games they will not be much of a challenge for you, as they’re not the hardest I’ve encountered in their games; but they’re pleasing puzzles nonetheless.

In a whole, the Collector’s Edition with its bonus story takes about 5 and a half hours to beat, perhaps a bit more if you’re a completionist. It’s an enjoyable fairy tale type story with enjoyable puzzles that are sure to please casual gamers, though I doubt even expert mode would challenge seasoned players. It would also make a great introduction to anyone just looking into starting with hidden object type of games.

Song of The Dark Swan is definitely recommended in my book!

 

Overall Rating: 9/10

 

March of Industry

 

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Game: March of Industry
Genre: Indie, Simulation, Strategy
Developer: Archive Entertainment
Publisher: Archive Entertainment
Release Date: Oct 7, 2015
Platform: PC / Windows 7
Overall rating:  7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Controls: 9/10
Level/Puzzle Design: 8/10
Sound: 7/10
Story: N/A
Replay Value: 5/10
Community: N/A

 

Review

March of Industry is a… I’m going with “factory simulator.” Your goal is to use the natural resources given in order to craft different weapons (and items to make weapons) for your glorious country, and make a profit. The game has that simple premise, but it’s actually rather difficult when you’ve just started. You’re not given the recipes, after all, but have to find out yourself via trial and error what to items make what.
The game gives you goals as you advance, be it in amount to earn or sell or what item to make next, and you are left to set up the machines and resources and discover what makes what and clean up the mess after on your own.

The controls are fairly simple as is learning to play it, the difficulty I feel lies in finding all the combinations, and then waiting for the machines to finish however many you need to sell to advance to the next goal. While I didn’t think some of the combinations were overly logical, I still kinda liked it.
The recipes you find are logged, so if you ever forget them, or go back to the game after a long while, you can always re-read what items made what.

The soundbits are repetitive and annoying, and yet they somehow added a sort of charm to the game. Don’t ask me why, after a while of having it open I just got used to them I guess.
The art is decent for pixel art, I rather enjoyed the fresh look that wasn’t cartoony.

At the end of the day, however, this is essentially a waiting game. And a rather short one at that.

Would I recommend it? Yes, but perhaps not for its full price, and definitely only if you enjoy the style of crafting/waiting/micromanaging game.

Expand

 

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Game: Expand
Genre: Adventure, Indie, Puzzle
Developer: Chris Johnson , Chris Larkin
Publisher: Chris Johnson ,   Chris Larkin
Release Date: Sep 30, 2015
Platform: PC / Windows 7
Overall rating:  8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Controls: 8/10
Level/Puzzle Design: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Story: N/A
Replay Value: 9/10
Community: N/A

 

Review

On steam the game is described as “a meditative video game in which you explore a circular labyrinth that constantly twists, stretches and expands around you,” and it is the best description you will ever get of how this puzzle game works.
Even the menu (which has a full range of options, from window to sound to resolution… ) is a little adventure on its own, as it serves as a quasi introduction to how you will be moving around once you start the game.

The labyrinth that is this circle seems to be in constant movement – and so will you be, as you navigate through it with a most delightful, relaxing soundtrack and sounds, solving puzzles and finding your way through the nearly seamless integration of levels.
The game ‘auto saves’ fairly often enough via various checkpoints, so that when you fail at a section the circles will swiftly return to the position of the last checkpoint, and move a bit as if to ‘help’ you get your bearings better (though I can’t say it helped me as much)… because you most definitely will need to get your bearings at first.

The controls are initially confusing because of the circular nature of the game area – what is up in one part of the circle will be down in another part as if you were gravitationally pulled, and so you must adapt as the circular labyrinth breaths. It truly seems to be alive, as it moves, expands and contracts depending on the areas and what you do.
You can play with a gamepad or with your keyboard wasd/arrow keys, giving you enough flexibility to try and find what’s most comfortable to you.

I didn’t find this one quite as relaxing as I found Hook, however, it’s still a beautiful puzzle game with a beautiful soundtrack that is visually very pleasant.
Do be warned, however, that in some of the levels the various moveable pieces will be rotating around and can make overly sensible people a little bit dizzy. They were going slowly enough that it wasn’t that much of a problem to me, but it’s a possibility.

Recommended:

Castaway Paradise

 

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Game: Castaway Paradise
Genre: Adventure, Casual, Indie, RPG, Simulation
Developer: Stolen Couch Games
Publisher: Stolen Couch Games
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Platform: PC / Windows 7
Overall rating:  6/10
Graphics: 5/10
Controls: 6/10
Level/Puzzle Design: N/A
Sound: 6/10
Story: 5/10
Replay Value: 2/10
Community: N/A

 

Review

Castaway Paradise is sold as an RPG, but really, the only RPG element I see in it is the questing. I would compare it more closely with a social game or even a mobile game than any actual RPG. There’s no enemies, and no story beyond “You’ve washed up on the shore of this island and now you can help the people rebuild and make it your own home”.

The menu is lacking in the same way mobile and social games are, there’s no sliders for volume, just mute or unmute things, no windowed mode options, though alt+enter provides you a window the exact same size your resolution.

Starting the game, the music was decent, but repetitive. What sound effects there are are also rather typical of the kind of game. I also wasn’t completely sold on the graphical aspect of the characters, which is an undecidedly blocky 3D version of animals/humans, but I did like the aspect of the island/items/everything that wasn’t characters and clothes. The clothes designs were cute, but I still didn’t like the characters shape, which really ruined the looks of the otherwise cute designs.

On Castaway Paradise you can take quests from the villagers, farm crops, catch fish and bugs, shake trees, plant trees and flowers, cut trees, pick up weeds and trash to clean up the place, dust off cobwebs, upgrade buildings a couple times and decorate the island and your home, and then some I probably forget. There’s also a bank that will allow you to earn some extra money for using it, as well as a mini stocks market that’s not really too difficult to use at all. You can also unlock new spots to visit on the island, which isn’t overly large to begin with.
It’s all rather nice, and I appreciate that it has something more to do than just plant crops or just do quests, but it doesn’t feel terribly fulfilling until you start decorating the island and your house.

The crops and things you plant have a timer on them, as with all social games, which means you can’t play when ‘you’ want but have to wait around until the game decides the crops are ready.
Some of the tools have a ‘stamina’ meter, a certain amount of times you can use it per x time, that refills overtime. This goes away when you reach level 15 and become “VIP”, which was their way of removing the need for micro transactions. This also unlocks more shop items, cheaper items (“discount”) in the shop, etc.

The game does have something kind of addictive to it, and I did enjoy my playthrough, which is why I recommend it, but despite it, it ends up being boring and, at the risk of sounding redundant, repetitive. Why? Well…

Starting by the fact that the quests are all the same: plant x of this, pick y of that, take this to z, talk to w; rinse and repeat as there’s only so many characters. The rewards they give (xp, sometimes items and pieces to unlock new areas of the island, and gems/money) are not really worth the time. The money you make from them sometimes ends up being more than what you need for the quest – for instance: Decorate the island, where you have to place two chairs that are worth three times as much as the reward. Granted, you can pick up and resell if you only want to finish the quest, but you only get part of the money back.
The quests can also not be cancelled, at least not that I’ve seen, thus you’re stuck with either gathering enough money to buy the things they want you to get so you can finish the quest (or waiting however many hours for crops when you want to play NOW), or gathering enough money to pay off to “fast finish” the quest, which is also kind of expensive. Since you can’t really preview and accept or reject the quests, and since you can only have 3 going at a time, it gets really boring.

Planting and selling crops also doesn’t shield much money when you take into account some of the crops take 11+ real time hours to be ready… on stage 1. Some have more than 1 stage, though you can choose to pick them while they’re smaller rather than let them grow to its fullest.

Meanwhile, upgrading the buildings and purchasing things is quite pricey in comparison. It’s not impossible, but it’s kind of annoying. In the long term, it almost seems more worth it to stand by the stocks and wait for them than wait for crops and do quests, and neither turns out being overly fun after the first few rounds. Even catching bugs or fishing, which are the most interesting aspect, get tiresome.

There is a little annoying ‘bug’ that if I try for my character to go somewhere else while it’s running an animation, it will get “stuck” in that direction and when it stops doing the animation it will walk the way he was looking instead of the way I’m telling it to, but it’s hardly game breaking. I do, however, wish you could stack things to do (so do this, then water crops, then come over here kind of thing).

On the upside, the game has some free DLCs that add a bit of (shop) content, and they also run events. They have leaderboards for the collectables/bugs/fish you catch, and it is kind of a cute game, all things considered, but it is the kind of game you go onto for an hour or two and then get tired with.

Recommended: Yes if you like social games and don’t mind it being terribly repetitive after the first few quests (which I guess you don’t, if you like social games ;) ).