Piko Piko (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

This is, honestly, the first time a metroidvania has bewildered me. Not confused. Not a dislike. Just a sort of mild “Wha- What’s going on?” Part of that is that it throws you into the storyline quite quickly. Part of that is that it’s a colourful assault on the senses at times, especially during boss time… And partly… It’s confusing, and doesn’t currently tutorialise well.

The protagonist is only slightly less confused than I am. Although she does seem the Go with the Flow type.

So yes, this is the story of Piko, a Piko Piko hammer (A plastic whack-a-mole mallet with rubber ends) wielding girl and her fox friend, both students at the Blacksmith Academy, where… Oh no, the Great Blacksmith Hammer has been stolen, the school is in ruins, and Teacher has been framed! Piko and her friend must beat the everloving crap out of people, mostly fellow students, until they can get to the bottom of this!

No, really, that’s the premise behind this indie metroidvania type deal. You are a girl with a surprisingly whallopy plastic hammer, who goes around hammering things, and using her special abilities, to go from boss fight to boss fight, solving hammer and ability based puzzles, and gaining powerups along the way, in their quest to… Basically, find out what’s going on. And it’s here where we get into “Shows promise, needs work” territory. Let’s start with the visual.

In boss fights, whalloping enemies directly on the head is the best way to stun them. But it quickly becomes tough as nails.

On the plus side, it has a windowed mode, the UX is pretty clear, it looks pretty, and only a few enemies are hard to distinguish from the backdrop (mostly the leafy enemies.) On the downside, windowed mode is a little glitchy on the highest windowed resolution it has, not actually resizing the display, and, if you want over 1440 width, you might as well go full screen (or 760 and some change, if you want your window not to be 760 and some change with lots of blackspace.) The sound design is nice, some nice chunky noises, and a fair few cute ones too, and, if you expected character design to be cutesy with a side order of “The hell?” in the case of some of the bosses (Like the german third grader transfer student in a tank), then you’re doing well. Similarly, the maps have enough interest, and locations of interest, to be able to lead you around.

Now, here’s where it gets annoying. The keyboard layout is, in and of itself, not bad. But it’s not signposted. So you won’t know without experimenting that jumping, then holding down and jump, will do a very useful move: A slam. You’d think it would be, for example, down and X (attack on the keyboard), but… No. It’s jump, and, in midair, whether you double jumped or not, down and jump. It wasn’t until a second run through that I even noticed Piko had a jumping special attack on C, because C normally results in your partner throwing a drill.

The characters are also quite expressive.

Oh, and down and C is a slide, which I also didn’t know about. Perhaps you can see why this might be a problem. Options? Not really. Is the hammer slam useful? Yes. But this leads into another thing… The hammer slam is, inarguably, one of your best tools for stunning bosses, letting you get free hits in. It’s also a bitch to land. So… It’s somewhat obtuse, requires experimentation with the controls, and some of its more useful skills, while you have them early on, are hard to use.

Does that make it a bad game? No. Once I got into the swing of things, I beat a few bosses, explored quite a bit, had a lot of fun, and, as mentioned, beat the everloving crap out of lots of cutesy things with my hammer. I even explored the world quite a bit, although there doesn’t appear to be much of a reason to visit many areas (maybe I haven’t gotten far enough.) But it does make it exactly what it is: A work in progress, an Early Access game with some “Mileage May Vary” warning in there. If you’re looking for another pixel metroidvania fix, and don’t mind the game being a work in progress, it’s worth a shot. Otherwise, wait.

The Mad Welshman also has a hammer, but it is not a Piko Piko. It’s a rather large Lucerne, for henchfolk who displease him.

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Abyss Manager (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £5.79
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Release

Running a dungeon is, as we’ve seen multiple times in the thematic genre that is Dungeon Management (be it RTS, management sim, or some variety of adventure game), quite tough. There’s always those pesky murderhobos out to kill your monsters, raid your gold hoard, and ruin your plans for world domination, because apparently they’re the kind of jerks who don’t want the world to be under your totes-gentle-honest hand… Adventurers are such assholes.

AAARGH. I was researching workplace improvement, you bastards!

Unfortunately for Abyss Manager, it’s also currently a slow descent into hell to play. It is, on the one hand, turn based, so it gives you, in a sense, plenty of time to decide things. However, you are almost constantly assailed by adventurers, meaning that your two main considerations are “Where can I put my exhausted staff to productively recuperate their stamina?” and “Ohgod, who can I pull from one kind of work to fight this set of beefy bastards of various races?”

Progression in the game is, essentially, over grindy on Normal difficulty, with buildings costing many, many turns worth of work, tournaments between the various dungeon masters that totally aren’t mandatory… If you like having Prestige and Sponsorship for your dungeon, that is, and always, always, the choice between spending what renown you have (for lo, Altars don’t regenerate renown all that well), and whether swapping someone out will be worth the 20 stamina lost for retreating mid battle to be replaced, or if they can soooomehow survive the next turn, to make it slightly less painful to do so.

What do these sponsorships actually do? Couldn’t tell you.

Finally, on the gripes, the game doesn’t tell you a whole lot. Oh, it has tooltips, but tutorialisation is thin on the ground, and tooltips can only take you so far. So, that’s the gripes over with… What’s enjoyable?

Well, the sound effects and pixel aesthetic are alright, and a research tree which costs more the more you research (but can be researched in several different directions) is an alright idea. There’s a fair few races, lots of skills, exploration of the world… The problem being that aforementioned “Oh hey, you can’t do a lot of it a lot of the time, because you’re being assailed a whole hell of a lot, and you’re playing the stamina shuffle constantly (with the added annoyance that exploration and matches take several turns to complete, leaving you relatively open to attacks)

Everyone I can tag in from other work is tired. The adventurers keep coming, and we will not last out. – Last journal entry.

While Abyss Manager does have some interesting ideas, hot damn, it really needs to cut down on that grind, maybe explain things a little better, before I could really recommend it.

The Mad Welshman does, however, appreciate that running a lair is hard. His imps absolutely refuse to help with the dishes, for example.

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Tower Hunter: Erza’s Trial (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £12.39 (79p for OST)
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Release

Early Access can be a funny thing. Hell, gamedev can be a funny thing. Sometimes, you have beautiful games that, mechanically, fight with themselves. Sometimes, you get something like Tower Hunter, which is mechanically reasonably sound… But, aesthetically, lacks that pop, that flair, that makes it interesting. And so, it remains merely… Somewhat solid.

There is a lot to be said, however, for this particular segment of the first level. That’s a good feel, crushing several Spectators beneath your icy heels.

Tower Hunter is, essentially, a procgen Metroidvania: Clear levels, defeat bosses, get better kit, rinse, repeat. You are the titular Erza, looking to clear the Magic Tower for… Actually, I forget why. Look, there’s a tower, it’s filled with monsters, beat the shit out of them and the lords of each biome within the Magic Tower, which has biomes because fuckin’ magic.There’s four main weapon types in the early game (I don’t, at this point, know about the later game), and when you die, you lose portions of your money and stored powerups. Cool. Okay, now let’s talk about the things that make it interesting… And why you might not really notice them.

So, let’s start with the interesting: Quite quickly, you build up a small arsenal of powers, some depending on your weapon, like lightning for dual swords, some your basic magic skills, like icy dive kicks that do hilarious damage. And, scattered through the dungeon are several kinds of power-ups, all of which can be levelled up with your own skills, and are replacable. Nice!

You can basically only spot the boss when he’s in front. He wasn’t for the majority of this fight, so this is a post death screenshot…

Buut… While the character animations are mostly alright, the music is pretty good, and the sound is also alright, the visual flair of everything else? Is somewhat lacking. That’s… Sort of excusable for creatures like the Clockwork Mannequin, but there are bugs, and bone throwing skeletons, and bees, and… Not many of them are memorable. Heck, the first boss… Is barely distinguishable among the small horde of red bugs, green bugs, some purple bugs, some mannequins…And the landscapes feel somewhat bare, even when they try and get interesting.

And this is a shame, because it also rewards those who take on an extra challenge. Beat that first area quicker? Get a better trophy, which ups abilities. Somewhat quick, but got every single magic power-levelling stone in the 2 levels of the area? Get the bestest trophy, and more rewards!

There is also some Engrish in the game, but y’know what? That’s no big right now.

So yeah, mechanically, Tower Hunter works. It even adds some interesting ideas for rewarding speed and exploration, and a little customisation (Although, y’know, I’m not entirely on board with the bunny suit one, just sayin’.) But, right now, that’s balanced out by, essentially, being visually uninteresting, or, more accurately, a little homogeneous. It’s worth a look for some of its ideas, but I really hope that it gets a little more flair and pizzazz.

The Mad Welshman, alas, is a bit tired. He will nap now, on that comfy bed there.

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Deck Hunter (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

The feel, the flow of progression is an awkward line to balance. Give nice things too much, and you devalue them. Punish the player too much, or give nice things not enough, and it feels… Well, not worth the time. This is the line Deck Hunter… Isn’t currently treading very well. And it’s a shame, because there’s a couple of decent ideas in there. It’s just there’s also a rather silly amount of grind, and the requirement for good play… Or no play. Well, no win, anyway.

Disclaimer: Cards must be low level, and this reduces the size of your deck. Terms and conditions may apply.

The general idea is one we’ve seen a fair amount before (heck, even this month): You, an adventurer, use cards as attacks, fighting monsters, defeating bosses, going through areas marked as combats, treasures, spin-to-win, and rest sites. Where it gets a little interesting is that cards upgrade through use, and can also be mixed with Alchemy cards to create new, different cards. Crafting items, two card combos…

It’s such a shame then, that, outside of the combos (a mixed blessing, as we’ll discuss), I haven’t been able to see much of it in hours of play. What I’ve seen… Is the first area, again… And again… And again. And, funnily enough, that palls pretty quickly. So… Let’s talk about the why, as I see it.

Thanks to that Corrosion effect, I am, essentially, just going to take damage. The question was “How much?”

A basic combat is, on its face, pretty simple: You have a five card hand, which, at first, consists of strikes (5 damage, 1 energy), defenses (5 damage blocked, 1 energy), and some other cards like a healing potion (usable once per combat, 1 energy… 3 hp recovered.) You have three energy per turn. Okay. So far, so simple. There are even three combos associated with this. And one of them… Is annoying. Strike, then Defend, as opposed to Defend, then Strike. See, the latter gives you another Defend card (can be useful, if you have energy to spend, and, say, had no other Defend cards.) The former, on the other hand, drains one energy, gives you… 2 defence, and… Well, it’s not worth the hassle.

Okay, now let’s look at our enemies and… Huh. 27 HP and 17 HP, with… 11 attack and 7 attack. And here, friends, is where we start to see problems.You can, if you have 3 Defend cards, defend against this, due to the Defend+Defend combo. 5+5(+3)+5. Cool. If you want to deal no damage. Similarly, if you have three Strikes, you can kill the one with less HP. 5+5(+5)+5. Cool. But you will take damage. The question is: Who’s got the 11 damage attack? And, more to the point, without either of these options, the math is not in your favour. Rarely does any enemy have less than 15 HP (or a Two Strike combo’s worth.) There is no defence against status attacks (such as the shroom’s Corrosion/Piro attacks), some of which do damage regardless of your armour. Sooo… On the Micro level, it’s actually pretty damn hard to avoid taking damage somewhere. Unless you play well, right out of the gate. Even if you do, certain enemy combinations are, essentially, a big middle finger to your desire to keep your HP up. Oh, hey, it’s a mushroom and a thief! A thief who has 34 HP, and the Unloader special skill (reduces your energy to 1 next turn.) Plans? The hell are those, you got none!

My best shot at the boss, in which several cards upgraded during the fight. Not that it helped.

Enemies, in general, seem to scale faster than you do.

Now we add in that, to upgrade a card, it has to be used a certain number of times. And those upgrades… Well, gee, my Defence got upgraded to… A slightly better Defence. As in, 1 point. And it can’t be used in Defence combos anymore, only Improved Defence combos. Thiiiis might not be the best plan unless I have several upgrades in a row real soon. (Narrator: It wasn’t. He did. It didn’t matter.)

And then you get to the first boss. Gee, I sure hope you have a plan which involves 40+ damage and some unblockable damage, 104 HP, and two adds that like to add corrosion, and, more importantly, boodles of defence to the boss!

Overall, right now, Deck Hunter feels more like a losing battle of attrition than a game of skill and tactics. It looks alright, but playing through that first area, with that first area music, and those first area enemies, time and time again, has palled me on it, and I just want to move on.

The Mad Welshman sighs. The Balance has been disturbed…

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Cliff Empire (Early Access Reviews)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £5.99
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Release

Right now, Cliff Empire is a frustrating experience. Not because it doesn’t have a good idea. Not because it doesn’t have a good aesthetic (futurist and clean.) No, it’s simply because its tutorial… Does not actually teach very well. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t keep up very well with how it is currently balanced.

Our latest bunch of hapless colonists.

Example: You are asked to build one matter generator. Then you’re asked to build a whole bunch of stuff that uses matter. Congratulations, your matter economy is now borked. If you, yourself, fix that, well… Did you know the power economy is, in the early game, heavily weighted toward building a lot of power surplus during the day, then disabling buildings and using batteries constructed by power surplus for the night? No? Oh. Well now you do. Some other things are more obvious, such as needing enough food and water to keep your colonist fed. But some needs are… Irritating.

Oh, yes… Premise. Earth has been blasted by radioactive war, leaving a lot of the fallout. Some folks escaped to an orbital station (which is doing just fine, by the by. Bastards), while the ones who remained, out of some weird altruism (that I don’t think those station folk are owed) built giant cliffs to rise above the radioactive fog that now covers the Earth.

Fun fact: They don’t always fill your needs. Perhaps the survivors on Earth had a sense of humour. In any case, there are three modes of play: Sandbox (currently preferred), Default (In which raiders don’t appear to come, but you have to fill those needs), and Tower Defense, which I haven’t even touched because… Come the hell on, I don’t need powering missile stations and shit on top of the hot mess that is currently “Just keeping folks alive.”

Trying to go it alone resulted in a… Marginally better life. Marginally.

Because yes, you will have trouble balancing needs. Colonists come in groups of 15 (needing Uranium to land, something you will have to trade for in the early game because you don’t know how much is in your particular cliff top), but housing comes in… 13, with the options for more if you spend the money. The money you won’t have until you build a trading station.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the UI. Most of the time, the UI is just fine. But currently, the trading UI is clear as mud. It specifically wants you to enter numbers in the more than columns and less than columns as needed (Once you’ve put in a number, entering 0 for less than, or a number higher than you think you can feasibly reach for more than, is needed.) Buuuut guess how the columns, and the rows are differentiated? Answer: Not at all. It’s a big black space that, honestly, confused me for far longer than it should have.

What this doesn’t tell you: Also have enough matter creation to be able to handle that 3d printing and everything else you’re about to do…

Overall, Cliff Empire has an interesting premise (Even if I feel antipathy toward the orbital station survivors, considering their likely background), and it doesn’t need much more work, aesthetically speaking (Music is fine and calming, buildings are clear and futurist, UI… Needs some scaling options, and the aforementioned Trading UI thing.) But the balancing seems to need work, considering that nearly every building past the first few has some sort of roadblock or bottleneck associated with it.

The Mad Welshman will not allow the rich to get to the orbital stations. His knife and fork are at the ready…

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