Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the World of Darkness. A world of gothic woe, and equally gothic reaching for hope that is, in the long run, doomed to failure. Where supernatural creatures, indubitably powerful, nonetheless hide in the modern world, because yes, people would kill the hell out of them once they learned how if they were public. Well, actually, considering kink culture, probably not if they played their cards right. But anyway!

This woman is honestly pretty sympathetic. She’s gone through a lot.

This is a visual novel that, like another World of Darkness product I’d reviewed before (Preludes) is meant to be a sort of introduction to the world with the story of a newly embraced vampire, from one of three clans: Ventrue, the Blueblood powermongers. Brujah, the philosopher warriors turned anti-authoritarian. And Toreador, those who value art, even as their own artistic talent is crushed by the Embrace. And this is where people might start disliking the game, because the overarching story will remain the same in each playthrough, the main differences being how they lived and were embraced, and the person they’d known before their embrace. Add in that you can’t recruit more than two characters on a single playthrough, and definitely can’t do all the sidequests in the time you have, adds a little replay value, but if it being a shortish game is a big turnoff to you, or the general narrative arc remaining the same, then… This is not for you.

A fine example of the luscious painting style. Goshdarn, this is good stuff.

I don’t personally think of that as a bad thing. Nor do I think of the fact that it’s only really possible to fail at the very beginning as bad. Because I ask myself “What is the goal here?” And the answer comes up the same: It’s to tell a story, to immerse you into a world. Yes, that world is, in the World of Darkness, a world where even supernatural life, especially in the beginning, can be nasty, brutish, and short. But a game with that aspect would prove, as it has for me when sitting at the more adversarial tabletop sessions, unenjoyable. There is an interesting world, and the developers want to show it.

It helps that, aesthetically, the game is gorgeous. The characters and places are lushly painted, the writing is good, providing insight into this setting, and the UX is not bad at all. The soundscape, similarly, is pleasant, fitting with the scenes in question. Accessibility wise, resizable text is good. My only gripe, settings wise, is that there is no windowed mode.

I will note, however, that this guy has some serious Plan 9 vibes. Those eyes! <3

So, as such? My opinion is that it does precisely what it sets out to do: To tell a short story, from three potential perspectives, with potential choices for exploring other clans in the game, and aspects of a vampire’s life. It is, basically, a way to get you into the setting, to explore it a little and entice you to explore it further. And, again, I don’t really see that as a bad thing.

So yes, I don’t see the turnoffs as turnoffs myself, although I can perfectly understand if they are for you, the person thinking “Should I buy this?” My answer is that it’s a solid, short, story led visual novel with great art, good writing, and tight design.

The Mad Welshman values three things: Is it aesthetically consistent? Is it tightly designed? Is it interesting? This ticks those boxes.

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Der Geisterturm (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.39 (£16.58 for game+soundtrack, £4.67 soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Der Geisterturm (The Ghost Tower) is a sequel, or maybe parallel game, to Das Geisterschiff, which I’d reviewed previously. As a member of Eberbach Corporation’s combat corps, you… Are told that you’re dead. And if you want a second chance at life, congrats, you have to get up a tower full of droids ordered to murder you a second time.

Cacklingly evil corporations. Go figure. Now, Das Geisterschiff was tough. Der Geisterturm? Is murderously tough. As in: I have yet to get to the second level tough. And there comes a time when you have to resolve to see if you can beat a thing later, and say that you currently cannot.

“By the way, we’ve put you in a death tower for unspecified reasons. It was in the small print of your contract.”

Now, it should be noted that individual enemies are generally not that tough. And that you have a shield, albeit one with limited energy (and another option we’ll get to later, for its extremely situational usefulness.) And indeed, you have a lot of options, that you need to switch between if you want to do the best job you can. And even combat stances and ram responses, that can set how you react to ramming (a valid tactic, when something or someone is lighter than you.) Changing your stance and ram responses, turning, and turning your shield on or off appear to be instantaneous. Switching weapons, moving, and waiting, however, is not. And we’ll get into why that makes the difficulty curve sharp in a moment.

But first, improvements! They are, for the most part, small, but they exist! Everything is blue now, rather than a somewhat disconcerting red. Items have visible representation (although sometimes tiny visible representation, like keycards), cutting down on “Where the hell is the thing?” … Somewhat! It’s still got that low poly aesthetic, with unidentified bots as wireframe cubes, but… We’ll also get into that.

This time, I have the upper hand. This time.

So… Der Geisterturm inherits some of the problems of its predecessor, and manages to make some new ones, alas, making the buy-in that much more difficult. For example, once an enemy has been identified, it should stay identified… But it does not. And, considering there are two basic enemies in both the tutorial and the first level, with only the latter allowing visual confirmation without analysis, this is kind of important. And now… Hiding and switching weapons. Yes, we definitely need to talk about those.

Hiding is, for the most part, useless. Enemies have an audio range, but generally speaking, this is big enough that your one for one movement doesn’t actually allow for getting far enough out of audio range (or sight range) to wait out their searching. As to switching weapons, well… Some enemies have vulnerability to bullets, others to lasers, others to explosives… You have limited ammo for each… And the first level’s encounters? Appear to almost exclusively consist of one drone that is weak to lasers. And another that’s weak to bullets and ramming. They appear in pairs, one of each type. And, as mentioned, switching weapons takes a turn, and they always appear in patterns that, if you concentrate on one, or run to lure the bigger one into range, you will likely take at least some damage from the other.

Every time you analyze an enemy to remind yourself of its weaknesses, three or four pages of this will turn up. Not the biggest fan of this.

Still no larger map, so get out those mapping tools, folks, no in-game options and key rebinding, which is doubly annoying because the game forgets it’s meant to be in windowed mode the moment you start a game…

Basically, I’d like to recommend Der Geisterturm, because it has an interesting aesthetic, a dark world, and a fair bit of atmosphere, but… While I could recommend Das Geisterschiff with the qualification that it’s hard, Der Geisterturm feels… Well, it feels much less fair. And maybe that’s intended. But it’s a turn off for me. I don’t particularly miss the days of the hard as balls wireframe first person RPGs like Wizardry 2, you see.

The Mad Welshman is an Old, it’s true. But he does not look kindly upon the past of computer games overall, except what we can learn from it.

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Das Geisterschiff (Going Back)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £7.19 (£13.79 for all DLC, OST £2.29, unreleased tracks £1.25, remixes free)
Where To Get It: Steam

Content Warning: Although this review is not age gated, be aware that the game has mentions of forced drug use and kidnapping early on.

Ah, the corporate dystopia. The corporate dystopia where people have fucked the planet, the rich have gone to space, and the rest… Are left underground, fearing the sun they once loved. Yup, that totally isn’t too real right now, nosirree… Although, to be fair, the rich would be using rich people spaceships, so at least we get the black comedy of watching their autopilot ignore an asteroid.

See those sunbeams on the right? The sun is so hostile now, it’ll start melting the armour of an exosuit. And, as this note outright states later, it cooks a human in moments.

In any case, Das Geisterschiff is, as you might have guessed, one of those corporate dystopia games. You, the nameless protagonist, have joined a corporate Combat Unit, in order to hopefully make enough money to get off Earth.

Well, we all know how that’s meant to turn out. And, indeed, this game is hard. A fitting kind of hard, but yes, a fair amount of the time, avoiding a fight is the absolute best thing you can do once an enemy hits your radar. And if you do get in a fight, there’s still a fair amount to consider: Do you use some of your limited ammo? Or do you get up close and shoulder-barge the robotic sonuvabitch, because they’re lighter than you, and they can’t take i- Argh, this one was a suicide bomber, great.

Also on the good side, the game is atmospheric as hell, and the atmosphere is dark. The music is heavy saws and bass beats, threatening in tone, the world is dark as hell (As denoted by the content warnings above. Whee, lot of age gating this month!) And your shadowy boss is, as you quickly discover by the second mission, is shady as hell. Well, he is a corporate dystopia boss, of course he is.

It’s a low poly feel, but a good one. Y’know, red aside. And yes, I had trouble telling these screenshots apart when picking them to upload.

Still, content warnings aside, it’s not all roses. Accessibility wise, everything is shades of red, and quite dark, and while the text is sans serif, and the menu text is readable, the notes and talking type text are somewhat small, even on full screen with a big monitor and downtuning the resolution. And part of the game’s difficulty is somewhat of a lack of clarity as to what things are. For example, the screenshot lower down the review is a horrifying scene, if you know what those cuboids are (They’re dead bodies.)

But, unless you’re using things that sort of look like they’re usable, you’re not going to work things out. And you’re definitely going to have trouble finding upgrades, as the only clue I’ve seen is “They’re near those black boxes. Mostly.” Finally, you seem to only have a minimap. So I hope you brought your mapping software! (I didn’t, my first time, mainly because I’ve gotten so used to, y’know, actual maps.)

Six corpses. laid out. And if you hadn’t found another body in this level that explicitly tells you it is, you might not have guessed.

Finally, while I’m not entirely sure if it’s a bad thing or not, there are only a limited amount of saves. 100, to be exact. And it should be remembered that if you come into an area with low health from another, you might as well restart the whole chapter, with what you’ve learned. Because you’ll restart with that low health.

Would I recommend it? Sort of. As always, if the content warnings and accessibility problems turn you off, then no, and I also wouldn’t recommend this to first time players of first person RPGs. But for the more experienced player, it’s definitely an interesting one, just… Use a mapping tool.

The Mad Welshman loves him a dystopia. In fiction. Can you rich old assholes stop trying to fanfic yours in real life? Ta.

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Tangle Tower (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Families can be… Difficult. The unspoken. The misspoken. The very much spoken. As much as they can be a joy, people to hold onto in difficult times… They can equally be a burden, a curse. And the latter is… Sort of true in Tangle Tower, a mystery adventure game where the murder of one of its scions not only causes grief for the family, but exposes the cracks, the pain that’s already there. The failed dreams, the self delusions.

I can’t help but like Poppy. In a way, she’s the most honest of the lot.

Families can be difficult, and never moreso than when there’s a death in the family. A death, in this case, that was premeditated by a family member. But who?

Well, that’s your job, as Detective Grimoire and Sally. To solve the murder of Freya Fellow, an artist and lover of insects. And while the game is most definitely pleasant, the story of the murder itself? Well, murder can be for some not very rational decisions.

Anyway, the game. The game has three or four base elements to it: Investigating the various locales of Tangle Tower, solving the various puzzles and puzzle locks around the house, interrogating the family members (plus a brusque fellow detective named Hawkshaw), and putting together those suspicions in one of two ways: By making sentences with two pieces of evidence and two sentence fragments, or by picking the relevant clue item.

This one caught me out for the longest time…

The most complex elements are the puzzles, and it warmed my heart to see that not only was there a clue button that would let you know where to go next if you were stuck (or who to talk to, if you had all the pieces to reveal someone’s secret), the puzzles would have hints. Not big ones, just a general hint on how to solve the puzzle if you took multiple tries, but that was nice. Add in that pretty much everything is done by clicking the left mouse button, or dragging it, and it’s pretty accessible to play too.

Aesthetically, it works quite well. Clear UX, so you know what is what and what does what, the soundscapes were nice, from the music that fit each character (For example, melancholy piano for Poppy) and situation (The eerie, final areas have an equally eerie tune), to the little things, like ambient sound. The art style is solid, painted backgrounds working well with the heavily inked, flat shaded characters, and the voice work? The voice work is good. You get the feel for each character, and, when their suspicious aspect is revealed, you can hear the defeat, the brittleness in most of their voices. I say most, because some are already brittle.

Fifi is one hell of a character. Autistic readers, if you play the game, lemme know if they’re good autistic rep, and I’ll edit this caption to reflect that.

As to the writing? Well, I can’t spoil it, but it follows the rules of a good mystery: Red herrings, misdirections, every clue having a reason to be there, and moderately good foreshadowing of various elements. Why is there a bloodstain on the floor when Freya was standing close to the painting when she got stabbed, in the chest? There’s fantastical elements, it’s true, from the more outlandish characters to the general idea of the island, a place where the lake waters mutate creatures and plants much more rapidly than the surroundings, to the eccentricities of the family.

And, of course, a little humour. Sometimes it’s the kind of humour that stays light, like the sarcastic banter between Grimoire and Sally. Sometimes, it’s the kind that, later on, makes you feel a little bad for laughing.

In any case, I finished Tangle Tower in a single setting, and, while it’s not the longest game, clocking in at around 4 hours for a playthrough, I’ve had a whale of a time with it. Not, specifically, fun, because fun isn’t, strictly speaking, the goal. But I wanted to know, know about the family, about the island, about the mechanics of this strange murder, and the reason for it. Well, I got all those things. And I recommend it.

The Mad Welshman honestly wishes the folks who still live in Tangle Tower well. Life’s tough, people need a break.

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The 13th Doll: A 7th Guest Fangame (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £23.79
Where To Get It: Steam

Well, I came into The 13th Doll expecting cheese, evil puzzles, and Stauf being sarcastic, and, beyond some odd design choices, that’s… Exactly what I got. Good job, everybody, let’s pack it up and…

Ah, the puns. I actually missed these.

…Oh, wait, I need to talk about it, don’t I? Well, The 13th Doll, like the 7th Guest, is a first person puzzle adventure with 3d areas and, occasionally, live action on top. It looks relatively natural for such a thing, which is a somewhat difficult thing to pull off. Now, though, they’re using Unity, and so they’re not limited to awkward, individually raytraced movement frames between locations. You just… Move around, your cursor changes when you can change rooms (A skeletal finger beckons), when you can’t just yet (it wags), when you can do a puzzle (A skull with a pulsating brain), and when you can pick up or otherwise interact with something (Chattering teeth or a comedy mask, depending on what it is.)

The other thing here is that there are, in fact, two protagonists: Tad, the boy from the original game, who escaped the mansion after being stuck there as a time looping ghost. And, since this game is set in the 20s or 30s, starts the game placed in a “hospital for the mentally insane” (If anyone knows what physical insanity is, let me know too, I’m curious.) The other is the new psychiatric doctor, Dr. Richmond, who, as exposure therapy, takes Tad back… To the mansion! Legitimately a nice way to have 26 puzzles (13 apiece) in the game, and their stories both intersect at points… And diverge the rest of the time.

Tad has grown, and… Well, I suppose he’s got good reason to be so sulky as an adult.

Tad, quite literally haunted by the spectres of his past, seeks to destroy Stauf once and for all by… Well, he’s told the 13th doll is the key, but, considering it tried to grab his ankles in the intro, I’m not entirely sure this is true. Meanwhile, Dr Richmond’s story… Ohh, it burns my ass to see Stauf engaging in historical revisionism. He’s a brilliant man! A genius! His wife was the serial killer, and she was the one who caused the children to die in the first game through a virus she had! BLECH.

In any case, aesthetically, it works alright, overall… The music is pretty good, sometimes covers of the first game’s soundtrack, others new tracks, and they’re all pretty fitting. The acting, on the other hand… That’s more variable. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting shakespearean ham from anyone but Robert Hirschboeck (who both reprises his role as Henry Stauf, and brings his style, panache, and ham to the role once more) but the protagonists are sometimes a little flat in their speech. Visually, well… It’s not a bad looking rendition of the Stauf Mansion, and I like the new touches on some of the old spookings. It also has a relatively clear UX, although there is the oddity that, to save, you have to go to the main menu. Don’t quite know why that decision was made, but I’ve let you know now.

ARGH. AAAAAARGH.

Still, a game like this wouldn’t be complete without the puzzles, and… Ohhh boy. There is colourblind assistance, but it’s a text overlay, which, in the case of some puzzles early on, makes it a sod to see the puzzle itself. And the puzzles are, for the most part, bastard hard. Case in point, on Doctor Richmond’s path, there is… The clock puzzle. Can you split a clock into four parts, so that each endpoint of your segments adds up to the same number? I’ve been racking my brain over this one for a while, suffice to say. Some are new takes on old puzzles, such as the artery puzzle (Now a sliding block puzzle with a twist: The blocks can fall off the edges, never to be regained.) Oh, and the return of the fucking first person maze. Oh yes, that was indeed a memorable moment in 7th Guest. That was the part most of us said “Nope, fuck this!” and missed out on the endings. Get your graph paper out for that one, friends!

Overall, though, it’s by no means a bad game. The story is ham and cheese, but I went in expecting that, and if you do too, you’ll be alright. The puzzles, the mansion… These are the meat of the game, and, while not all the accessibility options work well (if you have problems, let them know.), it’s worth hitting options before you begin to check them. In any case, the puzzles, while fiendish, are mostly well explained (Although the hints mostly seem to be restatements of the puzzle mechanics, sadly), the callbacks are mostly fun, and, overall… Yep, definitely recommended for 7th Guest fans, moderately recommended for puzzle adventure fans who like hard puzzles. Good Stauf!

Robert Hirschboeck. Playing the Man in the Moon at a theater near you.

The Mad Welshman finds himself… Chilling with this game. That was a graaave mistake… (Ohohoho)

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