PC Review: Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders

February 5, 2016 Leave a comment
Dead body, yeah, but check out those tobacco prices!

Dead body, yeah, but check out those tobacco prices!

By: Brian Gunn

In the video game space, Hercule Poirot is perhaps a bit less known than Sherlock Holmes, but stepping into his shoes will feel quickly familiar. However the title from developers Microids and Artefacts Studios often struggles to stand out in Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders.

CONTROLS (2.5/5)

Point-and-click adventure titles are known for simplistic controls, and it’s not a wheel reinvented by The ABC Murders. Point Poirot to something of interest, and he’ll look at it or interact. Occasionally some inventory items will need to be used via drag-and-drop methods, but there aren’t many and there are no particularly complicated inventory combinations like in the genre’s past.

There are a few puzzles, often with esoteric locking mechanisms, however, that can be a bit frustrating; not in the logical sense, but in that it can be tough to tell how they control. I ended up using the hint system in game for one that required putting liquid on a rag and then rubbing it on some documents. I knew that was what the puzzle wanted of me, but I couldn’t get it to actually progress.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (2.5/5)

The ABC Murders has a generally pleasant look about it, albeit a bit bland. Environments are the general standout, offering an atmosphere of British upper class. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the character models. They are often stiff and oddly animated, with some scenes barely having lips move to match dialogue. Several characters even look alike.

There is also an inspection mechanic where Poirot looks at people to guess their character, and often highlights body parts of clothes. The text will suggest things about their eyes or perhaps their clothing being crumpled, but in the actual image they rarely appear much different than the rest of the cast.

Given the title’s setting in the early 1900s, and the public domain nature of the title, it is no surprise that the game features a decent amount of classical music. It is used fairly well, and I especially liked the track used during the brief crime recreation scenes.

Voice acting is fairly stilted across the board, but nothing too awful. The lead character is an over the top Belgian detective as a matter of character, and the performance reflects that. After decades of TV and film versions of the character it feels harsh to compare, but I could see this performance getting on people’s nerves.

GAMEPLAY (2.5/5)

By the time the game takes places, our hero, Hercule Poirot, is already a bit of an established and famous detective. As pop culture tells us, this means a genius serial killer was bound to focus on him and challenge him to a game of wits. In this particular case, it is the ABC killer, a murderer with a fondness for the alphabet and trains. Poirot is told the name of an area and a date, and he must race to stop any further murders from occurring.

Frogwares’ recent Sherlock Holmes series, especially the latest installment, Crimes and Punishments, seems like a clear inspiration for The ABC Murders. This is to be expected, given the lead characters are constantly compared to one another, but it uses some of the same elements from that title, like inspecting people’s tiny details for deductions and linking of thoughts interface.

For the most part the first half of the game involved investigating crime scenes and establishing that random acts of violence or theft are not the solution to the police. It’s obvious early on it’s an elaborate plot to the player and lead characters, so the task of simply proving to the police what the crimes are is quite a bit less fun than actually progressing on the mystery. Thankfully, this lets up in the second half of the game.

The game is a bit on the easy side, often requiring little deduction on the player’s part. There are, for instance, sections where you put Poirot’s “little gray cells” to work and need to combine thoughts gleaned from clues and conversations. The majority of these moments are incredibly obvious, often including the few relevant pieces of information and a few red herrings that are so totally unrelated that I can’t imagine anyone would choose them.

The ABC Murders also struggles with its low budget constraining the world. One victim appears to have lived, worked and died within a 10-foot radius because they needed to put all the locations on a single street.

My favorite element of the game is the Ego Points system. This basically amounts to rewarding role-playing, as you are graded on how much like the character your choices are. If you act like a boorish oaf, you’ll get fewer points. This is the only real element of replay value as well, in case you screwed up the first time through, though I don’t see it adding too much for any but the most diehard or those looking to stretch out the fairly short game experience.

OVERALL (2.5 /5)

Poirot’s adventures to catch the ABC killer are not an awful experience, but Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders lacks in polish and presentation. For those looking for a quick, breezy romp, however, it may prove a fruitful pursuit.

PS4 Review: Tharsis

February 4, 2016 Leave a comment
Dice, strategy AND cannibalism? Sold.

Dice, strategy AND cannibalism? Sold.

By: Jeff Cater

Imagine looking for alien life as if it’s your job (or at least a good chunk of your job). Now just fail at that for years upon years. Reflect a little bit on it. Was it time wasted? Did we consume vast amounts of resources in vain? Are we really all alone in the… wait a second… wait just a second… a distress call from Mars!?! But we’ve never been to… have we?

Choice Provisions, the folks behind the Bit.Trip series, have given us Tharsis, a likely doomed excursion to the Red Planet. And in Tharsis, things go wrong quite early on, and it promises to push your personnel management and decision making skills to the limit.

CONTROLS (4.5/5)

Tharsis is a very easy game to get a grasp on in terms of button function and the like. It plays much like a board game — you will be rolling dice pretty much the entire time. Highlighting a segment of the ship to move a crew member is done with the left stick, and selection is, of course, done with the X button. You pull a trigger to reroll (if available), and that is pretty much it. Very easy going here, which is about the only place the game is easygoing.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (4/5)

You’ll spend countless hours (if the game clicks with you) examining various rooms of your wounded ship, which is constantly engaging because of the damage effects in each room and the animations of the crew working on repairs.

Crew members also have animated portraits that reflect their health and mental state (more on that later). The designs of the rooms themselves are very well thought out and feel right at home in the hull of a space craft, with the greenhouse being one of the more attractive set pieces.

The soundtrack follows a strict, manic tempo without being too overbearing and exciting; it fits perfectly. The voiceover of narration, played by a male or female depending on your randomly generated Captain, is very well done on both fronts.

GAMEPLAY (4.5/5)

As you can probably guess, the things that can go wrong in space are pretty much infinite. Tharsis makes this painfully obvious the entire time you spend with it. Did a crew member get some bad dice rolls while attempting repairs? Odds are you can kiss them goodbye. See, when you first start the game, your ship gets pelted by a wave of micro meteors. Repairs must be made priority one while the safety of the crew often comes second.

For example, your engine room has a current damage total of 27 and you send in your Doctor (like an idiot would). Well, your Doctor only has three dice to roll (more often than not), and reaching a total of 27 with three dice is just not possible.

Therefore you’ll have to make a hard decision between applying those resulting dice rolls to repairing a certain module or putting them toward research. These projects vary by module, so you’ll have options like producing extra food or constructing a repair arm to increase the ship’s health pool.

Ideally, you’ll be making these decisions for 10 in-game weeks. I’ll say it right now, though: it’s very unlikely that you will make it to the end on your first try. Or second. Or 19th. But once you start to figure out which crew member to send where and learn to cater to their unique features (a mechanic cannot travel more than one module’s distance without taking damage, for example) things will start falling into place (or space, depending on the dice roll).

Plus, on top of everything else, you must keep your crew as sane as you can. To do this, you must best utilize their special techniques and expertise, and then also not eat your crew. Yes, try not to eat your fellow crew. Or do! We won’t judge.

Sometimes (most times) the game will screw you with terrible dice rolls, and you’ll inevitably lose crew members. You can still beat the game after you’ve lost crew, but not without peripheral damage to the others’ psyche.

OVERALL (4/5)

Tharsis is an addictive and completely brutal game. For those looking for a splendid roguelike (in this relative drought for the genre), or simply looking for a departure from the norm need look no further because Choice Provisions has sewn up the wound perfectly with Tharsis.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

Throwback Thursday: Win The Talos Principle: Deluxe Edition on PS4!

February 4, 2016 91 comments

TalosEvery time I think we’re ready to get our giveaways rolling again, stuff comes up. Well, I’m determined to find a happy home for these PlayStation 4 codes for The Talos Principle: Deluxe Edition from Croteam and Nighthawk Interactive, so I’m soldiering on and creating a new contest anyway!

Read on to learn how you can abscond with one of these bad boys (kitten not included).

HOW TO ENTER

To enter, simply let us know what your most anticipated game of 2016 is in the comments section below. If you’re on Twitter, please include your @handle as well. If not, just make sure the email address you use when entering is valid so I can contact you.

Sample Comment
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
@AdamJensenIsMySpiritAnimal

THE FINE PRINT

Winners will be selected on Thursday, February 11th. All entries must be submitted by 4 PM EST/1 PM PST on Thursday. Please note that although anyone can enter you must either be following me on Twitter to win.

 

Wii U Review: Runbow

February 3, 2016 Leave a comment
So many colors...

So many colors…

By: Matthew Striplen

Imagine if you will, some great power combined Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart and Super Mario. After adding a few tweaks, what we get is Runbow, a gorgeous, frantic game with nonstop action. Seriously, if you stop to breathe, you’ll get left behind, but that’s part of what makes this game so fun. So, grab your buddies and get ready to sprint through the ever changing world of Runbow.

CONTROLS (4/5)

The control scheme is pretty simple, as players are only capable of running, jumping and attacking. Just about everything is very responsive and precise, though the attacking can sometimes feel a little sluggish. Also, I wish that the characters had multiple running speeds, like in Mario games. The controls, simplistic as they are, get the job done.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (5/5)

Anyone who sees Runbow is bound to fall in love with its art style. The sheer vibrancy of color makes them all pop, no matter what the hue may be. The cartoonish and outlandish looking characters add plenty of spice to an already exciting roster. Plus, the environments just look spectacular. The color of the levels themselves makes sure they never look repetitive or boring. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a visual standpoint.

The sound design impresses just as much as the graphics. The pumping Latin beats really get your blood going and reflect the game’s frenetic pace. Every track is just a blast to hear.

GAMEPLAY (4.5/5)

Runbow features a handful of different game modes, most of which center around running to a finish line. Players must traverse all sorts of hazards, like lava or bottomless pits, but the most unique feature comes in the form of color.

Each stage has an overall color scheme that changes every few seconds. Many of the platforms needed to complete the levels also come in different colors, so when the background matches the platforms, they disappear. This makes what would otherwise be a fairly average platforming title something totally original.

Color shifts happen slowly at first but come much more quickly in the harder levels. Many levels feature color waves instead of shifts, which makes several different colors wipe across the screen at the same time.

Each game mode functions a little differently. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Run Mode faces the players against a set number of randomly selected courses. Players have only one life to reach the end, so be careful. If you’re playing multiplayer, which supports up to nine players, only the person who finishes first gets a point. Losers and those who died get nothing. There are plenty of power-ups scattered along the way, too. Whoever has the most points at the end wins!

Arena functions as a mixture between a battle royale and survival. Players are put into a very hazardous environment and must fight to survive. The last one standing gets points. Since Runbow doesn’t offer A.I. players, this mode is not available to single players.

King of the Hill works pretty much as expected. Players must battle for control of the “Hill” and hold it for a certain amount of time. If you die, you’ll just be respawned after a few moments. Again, this mode only works in multiplayer.

Color Master is similar to Run, but with one important twist: the player using the Wii U Gamepad is the Color Master and must prevent other players from reaching their goal. Color Masters have a wide variety of weapons at their disposal, like paint splotches to make platforms disappear, or bombs to kill the runners on sight. No single-player mode.

Adventure mode puts the players on a map where individual levels can be selected. Each one is color coded to indicate its difficulty and prizes are given depending on the clear time. Eventually, you’ll fight your way to a final boss. Luckily, this mode does offer single-player functionality.

Lastly, is Bowhemouth. This is a lot like Adventure, but without the ability to choose the next level. Also, the stages are very challenging. Like Adventure, Bowhemouth also supports single player.

If you don’t have any buddies around to play with, never fear! Online functionality enables lonely gamers to use any of the modes open only to multiplayer. Sadly, the community seems small at the moment, so getting enough people to play a match may take a while. Also, lag often takes its toll on the experience.

One of the most fun extras in Runbow is the player’s character choices. The roster has a few generic characters, but it also features famous indie protagonists like Shovel Knight and Juan from Guacamelee! All the characters can do taunts, which usually reference their home game.

OVERALL (4.5/5)

Runbow is a fantastic and innovative party game. Although 2D platforming is almost as old as video gaming itself, Runbow manages to give us something fresh and innovative. Each game mode packs plenty of variety to keep players engaged. Although the single player and online modes are fun, local multiplayer outshines everything else by far. If you’re looking for some fast-paced action and have a bunch of gamer buddies, Runbow will not disappoint.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

XB1/PS4 Review: The Banner Saga

February 2, 2016 Leave a comment
Ranging beyond The Wall is dangerous.

Ranging beyond The Wall is dangerous.

I love tactical role-playing games. Always have. I’ve played through Final Fantasy Tactics multiple times on multiple systems. X-COM and I get along famously. It was preordained then that when The Banner Saga made its way to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 I’d put it through its paces. What I found was immensely promising, but the longer I played the more cracks appeared.

CONTROLS (3.5/5)

It’s odd to be in a position to criticize a turn-based game’s controls since, ya know, there’s no pressure to act/react in real time. And yet, The Banner Saga is lacking too many fundamental (and crucial) options that should be included in any game of this ilk.

Perhaps the most egregious is the inability to rotate the battlefield, instead allowing you to simply zoom in and out. With much of the game centered on hand-to-hand combat featuring two oversized races that frequently obscure grid squares it’s a real problem — one that manifests itself when you accidentally move your character to a point where there’s unseen space between them and the enemy, forcing you to impotently end your turn.

This could’ve been assuaged by letting you undo your movement, but the game doesn’t allow that, either. The Banner Saga even doubles down on this issue by not even having you confirm your move — something you’ll be asked to do with pretty much every other action in the game (attack, level up, select war tactics, etc.). It’s a frustrating combination.

Assuming you can place your fighters where you want them, combat has a few options. You can do a basic attack against an enemy’s health or their armor (damaging the latter makes your attacks on the former deadlier) or use a special ability (defensive buff, set a trap, area strike, etc.). Special moves cost willpower, and you’ll also be able to augment general strikes with it to make them more effective. You can also “rest” to recover some willpower.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (3.75/5)

Easily the most endearing aspect of The Banner Saga is its visual styling. Whether marching with your caravan or engaging in actual combat, the game has a very rich and colorful look with the long flowing banner and collection of spears and shields. The cut scenes, such as they are, tend to be pretty repetitive and don’t really feature any animation of note.

Voice acting is limited, and what’s present is unremarkable. Sound effects don’t move the needle, either. Thankfully, though, the game’s musical score stands as one of its highlights; that’s important since it’s the auditory element that’ll accompany you most of the time it.

GAMEPLAY (3.5/5)

At its core, The Banner Saga‘s story boils down to this: humans and Varl (Viking-esque giants) have a tenuous peace and are sworn enemies of the Dredge, a stoke-skinned race that would like to wipe both of them off the map. The realm’s history is told in small snippets, and the story’s real selling point is the frequent decisions you’ll be asked to make as leader of your caravan.

Some are seemingly mundane (loot some corpses or leave them undisturbed, throw out X number of supplies to ensure no one gets sick or just toss clearly tainted ones and hope it ends there), while others have far more significant ramifications (important characters can and will die during these text-based segments). Think through your decisions before making them.

Gameplay is primarily broken up into two areas: skirmishes and battles. The former encompasses the turn-based combat where you’ll select a team of six from a healthy sized roster of heroes to take on a group of enemies. The latter occurs when encountering large groups, where you’ll get to test the might of your caravan in full-scale combat. Skirmishes are often contained with the battles, depending on what tactics you employ, but they’re part of a larger whole.

While these encounters start off interestingly enough, they start to lose their luster as you progress and fights blend together. There just isn’t a ton of variety from one to the next, and genre staples — such as advantageous positioning or what direction a unit is facing — seem to have no bearing on how much damage you give or receive.

Most damning, however, is The Banner Saga‘s bizarre decision to reward the losing side by utilizing a strict “one side goes, then the other” approach throughout. Most battles start out relatively even in terms of numbers, but even if you whittle the enemy down to a 6-on-2 disadvantage, the game still gives your opponent every-other turn.

In other words, if you cut down lesser foes early on, the more powerful ones will be getting multiple turns before any of yours get a second. It almost always leads to cheap deaths for your troops because, unless your entire team is bunched up, odds are you won’t be to stop the enemy from teaming up on guys. The game abandons it when the enemy is down to one fighter, but it’s too little, too late.

It’s a shame, too, because The Banner Saga works in some interesting ideas, such as the morale of your caravan, managing supplies to keep them fed and so on. Defeated units don’t die but instead are wounded and must be rested or deployed in limited effectiveness. Renown, earned by winning battles, is the game’s all-in-one currency, used to purchase supplies, booster items and level up fighters.

OVERALL (3.5/5)

There are some significant negatives about The Banner Saga, though some may have an easier time overlooking them than I did. You can feel the potential pulsing in this game, and I wanted it to live up to it, but it doesn’t. It’s still a worthwhile tactical RPG, but I’m hoping the sequel tightens things up in a few key areas to make Banner Saga the powerhouse it could be.

PC Review: The Deadly Tower of Monsters

February 1, 2016 Leave a comment
Eat lasers, Dino-sore-ass! HA! Nailed it.

Eat lasers, Dino-sore-ass! HA! Nailed it.

By: Brian Gunn

ACE Team, the minds behind eclectic cult hits like Zeno Clash and Rock of Ages, have always had a bit of a following, but they haven’t seen much mainstream success. With the The Deadly Tower of Monsters, an action RPG immersed in old Hollywood B-movies, they may have found their most approachable game to date.

CONTROLS (3.5/5)

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is an isometric action RPG that’s a bit on the lighter side as far as the genre goes, playing more like Gauntlet than Diablo. You’ve got melee and ranged attacks, a dodge roll, jump and a few special abilities; that’s about it, for the most part.

On a gamepad targeting enemies is sort of finicky, as the game has a lock-on system that guides your attacks innately and can be kind of annoying in larger encounters. If playing on PC I’d recommend using keyboard and mouse as it lets you have greater freedom of control.

GRAPHICS/AUDIO (4.5/5)

Rooted in the style of sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon from several decades ago, your appreciation for the visuals of the title may depend on your exposure to films from the time period. Enemies are garbed in obvious costumes or animated stop-motion creatures. Strings hold up cheap props and weapons sometimes look like electric razors. There’s a ton of visual effects and tricks as well as Easter eggs that show great attention to detail.

Like the visuals, a great amount of care goes into replicating movie audio. There’s a bombastic title theme and the usual style of eerie ’50s sci-fi songs that feel instantly familiar.  It is filled with some wonderfully stilted acting, particularly from the lead character Dick Starspeed doing his best William Shatner impression. The standout, however, is Bastion-style narrator Dan Smith, a cheesy cornball of a director that thinks far too much of himself.

GAMEPLAY (4/5)

The setup for the game is that of a DVD audio commentary being recorded for the titular film. Most of the story is really in what the director is saying, rather than the fairly bare-bones plot of the game world. He’ll comment on a huge variety of things, like why enemies look a certain way or explain contrivances that arise from the product being an actual game rather than film. There’s loads of personality and polish based around this concept. The director even comments when you are in the options menu.

While you big the adventure as Dick Starspeed, you’ll eventually accrue a ragtag group to choose between as you ascend the tower. For the most part they control the same, though each has an ability that sets them apart and is useful in both combat and environment traversal.

For instance, Robot has the ability to slow time, allowing navigation past fast-moving obstacles. While you can generally play as whoever your favorite is, you’ll still want to switch things up to find most of the game’s many secrets. There are loads of items that are blocked off or hidden from view that you’ll only be able to reach with a change of perspective from much higher.

Most of the gameplay is fairly simple hack n’ slash material, and the game could use a bit more polish here as objects and enemy bosses are sometimes easy to accidentally catch on while jumping. However, there’s a nice variety of enemies even early on.

There are the traditional melee mooks but quickly exploding eyeballs and enemies that can redirect laser blasts get into the mix, and the game becomes a lot harder than it looks at first glance. Sometimes this ends up being frustrating as you can find yourself in a long chain of getting knocked down. This is balanced somewhat by generous health pools, and the ability to deflect practically anything with a perfectly timed parry.

One of the most unique aspects of The Deadly Tower of Monsters is how vertical it is. Dick and company will find themselves leaping off the structure frequently for midair free-fall battles. Pretty much any segment of the tower you can look down from in a vertical camera shift if you stand at an edge, which allows for a lot of secrets and ambushes from enemies.

There are generous checkpoints in place and you can warp between them at any time, encouraging exploration without having to trudge back up every time you spot an upgrade.

Speaking of upgrades, there are a few systems in place. Gear can be upgraded with found gears, while the characters themselves have “missions.” Sadly, these missions aren’t too compelling, mainly just some extra challenges — like parry 20 times or general story progress markers. This can make leveling up a bit tedious when it comes to the more esoteric ones.

OVERALL (4/5)

While there are some rough edges to the combat, the presentation in The Deadly Tower of Monsters is the true star. It’s a funny and engaging title with delightful surprises around every corner, and it seems destined to gain a cult following.

PC Review: Punch Club

January 29, 2016 Leave a comment
Excuse me, which aisle has the HGH?

Excuse me, which aisle has the HGH?

By: Justin Hobley

Punch Club is a story-driven character management and development simulator developed by Lazy Bear Games and published by tinyBuild. In an unusual twist, it was released on Steam after viewers on Twitch.tv collaborated together and completed the game in early January (with an Android release following hot on its heels). Time to do some road work.

CONTROLS (4.75/5)

The controls for Punch Club are very simple and completely mouse oriented. As a character management simulator, the need for interaction and input is minimal. The game’s entire interface is point and click, barring the optional use of the escape key to get into the options menu for saving and exiting.

This control scheme makes for a game that one can run in a window alongside something that requires more presence of mind, but it leaves players who like to use their keyboard a bit put out.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (4.5/5)

The graphics in Punch Club are fairly simple, and for those of us who grew up with the style, reminiscent of afternoons spent in front of a TV, controllers in hand as we marveled at what the popular game consoles could do. The Retro effect in the menu adds a scanline effect to most items on screen. That effect does not carry over to the menu icons on the left or right side, or to any menu item that is opened, however, which is somewhat disappointing.

The music style is also a hat tip to the ’90s, with what feels like a nod to the Super Nintendo and its SPC-700 chip, with a distinct chiptune vibe and refreshingly crunchy sound effects. Entering and exiting menus, along with interacting with people and objects are accompanied by a distinctive tick, reminding you that your action is triggering something. This tick is absent when you’re simply moving around in a room.

GAMEPLAY (4/5)

The story starts off on an encouraging foot, with your character’s father giving an inspirational speech while practicing Wing Chun, and a transition into a rainy night. You watch your father get shot in the chest by a mysterious cloaked man with a red eye in the pouring rain, huddling behind a dumpster to avoid being seen.

As your father bleeds out, his last breaths ask you to train hard, improve yourself and be ready when the time comes. His cryptic message is something that sticks with you as you grow up under the watchful eye of a police detective that is also a family friend.

Skipping forward a number of years, you wake up to the sound of your phone ringing. The wake-up call brashly tells you that you need to get a job, and prompts your first decision.

From here, Punch Club takes you through a few mandatory steps to get used to the gameplay, including exercising, eating and looking for employment to keep yourself paid well enough to at least eat. That search for a job is very important, as it’s the last stop on the rails that guide you through the beginning paces of the game: fighting! You’re jumped on your way to work by someone bigger and tougher than you are, demanding all of your money.

A cameo from the 1990s appears at this point: It looks like you’re trying to win a fight. Would you like me to help you? A paperclip, reminiscent of the Office Assistant from decades past pops up, explaining how combat works, guiding you into your first altercation, and setting the wheels of fate into motion.

From this point on, you’ll wander around the city map, going to work, training hard, eating anything that’s not nailed down and training some more. You’ll need to train a lot to progress through Punch Club, but much like real life, repetition is necessary for improvement.

OVERALL (4.25/5)

The story presented by Lazy Bear Games is slightly cheesy by today’s expectations, but for those of us who grew up in the 16-bit era, Punch Club is a teasing whisper to our inner child. The simple gameplay ensures that one can sit down, spend a few minutes improving themselves and then hop back up, continuing on with their day.

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