Category Archives: Software

Donut County

The thing about Donut County is, it’s barely a game at all[1].

But if you can get past that, it’s pretty fun and funny. It’s approximately a knockoff of Katamari Damacy, but instead of rolling things up, you are a hole in the ground, and you are swallowing said things. Donut County is a county somewhere near alternate Los Angeles I guess?, inhabited by all manner of sentient animals and also for some reason this one girl. The only problem is that everyone and everything keeps disappearing into holes in the ground.

Who could be causing this? And why? And will you ever get to fly the sweet quadcopter that you can unlock if you reach level 10?

Anyway: as two hour games go, I definitely got my money and time investment’s worth.

[1] This is not entirely true. The last third adds more game elements, such that by the end, there’s some game there.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

It’s not uncanny valley levels of weird, but it is nevertheless weird to see digital animation versions of real actors that you are already very familiar with. To wit, Cal Kestis, who is played by the Joker from Gotham and one of the Gallagher kids on Shameless. And he’s, like, just extremely recognizable, both character and voice. And in Jedi: Fallen Order[1], I’m controlling his jumps and pushes and lightsaber swings, and it’s weird, is what, in a way that a random character would not have been at all.

The game itself is… fine? As has been said by others elsewhere, it’s basically a modern Tomb Raider ripoff, but without that part of the gameplay being as polished. Tradeoffs are that the Force skills parts are in fact pretty cool, and that the plot eventually slides from generic to compelling, somewhere between the halfway and two-thirds point.

If you feel like those tradeoffs (especially the second one) aren’t good enough to make up for the initial complaint, well, I will not try to convince you otherwise. Even for me, as happy as I was to be doing a new Star Wars game for the first time in forever, I occasionally wondered if it would really kill the high and mighty Jedi to pick up a blaster sometimes, instead of fighting through another four or six hand to hand storm troopers.

But the Force skills are pretty cool, except when your Force meter runs out and you can’t use them anymore. And except for wishing you had access to them for the whole game, instead of only starting to get to the good stuff right at the end. (But that’s a problem with all games of this type. See also Ezio re-learning how to be an assassin in two sequels.)

[1] which EA would like to helpfully remind you is a Star Wars property, no matter how awkward it makes the title of the game

The Turing Test

Because I am extremely timely, have another review of a game that’s leaving Game Pass today! The Turing Test is a sci-fi puzzle game[1] in which Ava Turing wakes up from cryosleep above Europa and is tasked by her AI companion, TOM, to go to the surface and find out why communication from the crew has ceased. Not as in “why aren’t they answering anymore” (although that too), as in “why is the communication link down?”

Upon arrival, however, the mystery deepens when the rooms of the base have been repurposed into puzzles that require creative solutions to proceed deeper, apparently to keep someone (or something?) out. Whereupon follows 77 rooms’ worth of puzzles combined with an ongoing discussion between Ava and TOM on the nature of consciousness plus occasional clues as to what happened down there.

The puzzles are very occasionally ridiculous, but mostly the right amount of difficult[2]. The plot is deeper and ultimately stronger than I gave it credit for. On the whole? Pretty impressive game; recommended, even.

[1] If you’re thinking “poor man’s Portal“, well, that’s a fair comparison. Happily, there’s a lot of room to go downhill from Portal and still have an enjoyable and plot-dense experience.
[2] Well, for me at least, and not counting the rooms that were extra simple, just to teach you new rules.

Untitled Goose Game

I’ve been vaguely aware of Untitled Goose Game for some time, in the sense of, oh, hey, someone made another game like Goat Simulator, but for geese. Which sounded, you know, fine. At the same time, even though GS is on Game Pass, I have not really been itching to give it another try and finish this time, for whatever reason. Maybe I’m wrong? UGG is what was going to convince me I was wrong, if anything would.

So you’re this goose, right? Or, these geese, if you play multiplayer, as I did[1]. And you have a to-do list, some of which are things that might be fun for you and mostly harmless, but which really seem to annoy the humans around you, while others are, uh, pretty clearly designed to annoy the humans around you with no other particular benefit, except that it’s funny. Eventually your to-do list has an event that causes a new area (with a new to-do list!) to be unlocked. And so on, until you finish the game. Some of the bits are complicated to figure out, while others are complicated to execute, but it’s mostly a light puzzle game that you can breeze through in a few hours.

Which Mary and I did on Friday night, including the list of bonus to-do’s you can accomplish[2], some of which don’t even make sense to try until you’ve won once. And almost all of which are just purely mean, meaner than most of the previous mean things you’ve already done. …I did mention this is a game about geese, right?

Near the end of the night came the cruelest goose trick of all: even though we were both logged in on our accounts, Mary was not getting any of the achievements credited to her gamer score. This was especially painful because she was the one who wanted to cross off all the extra items in the first place; I had already been satisfied.

But I mean, it also ended up being fun, which is much better than if it had been grinding for points.

[1] Multiplayer is mildly annoying in that the screen only gets so big, so the geese have to stay together and can maybe get each other stuck. We played on a shared screen, but I assume that the same limitations apply to a remote multiplayer game. I also assume that remote multiplayer even exists.
[2] And not including the speed runs, which are all we left undone. I understand intellectually that some people are really into speed runs, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

What Remains of Edith Finch

I played another entire game over the past few days. This is so so weird. (Which I say every time I finish a game, I know. But it is! Especially relative to how long it’s been since I finished a book[1].)

This time, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is another plot-heavy / game-light exploration game in which … you know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game like this, except, minimally, Gone Home. Edith Finch has, um, returned to her ancestral dwelling after the death of her mother and the receipt of a mysterious key, which grants her access to the majority of the house, which has been sealed up and inaccessible since before her earliest memories.

What follows is an exploration of generations of Finch family history and the simultaneous exploration of a truly ridiculous plus awesome house, with mysteries galore. There are elements fantastical, elements tragic, and elements personally very uncomfortable. If you want trigger warnings, you should expect that most things people get triggered by (besides inflicted violence) will be in play.

It’s barely a game in the way that all the things which fall into this genre are, in the sense that there are minimal choices to be made; you only move forward through the sparse and lonely plot. But it was a plot full of people and events I cared about, which is what I was looking for.

[1] Outside of a specific reading schedule

Tacoma

So far, my favorite thing about Xbox’s Game Pass service is that it gives me the freedom to try things out that I cannot otherwise convince myself to pay for. To wit, Tacoma, which is apparently the only other game from the people who made Gone Home.

The upshot being, a) I really liked this story, about an abandoned orbital station where I was tasked with downloading the station AI and acquiring the associated hardware, which perhaps (or perhaps not?) inevitably involves learning some details about why exactly the station is abandoned; but b) I felt somewhat misled into believing that I would have some kind of influence over the outcome, rather than only walking through a story. I am not per se opposed to this form of visual novel, I just want to have a clearer idea of what to expect? I don’t think I ever felt this way about Gone Home, and by contrast I think I actually did have some minor influence over the outcomes of Firewatch, which was also a much larger game.

But that is an issue of expectations contrary to reality; the game taken as is was pretty excellent, and I would have no trouble recommending it. Which would be easier to do if it hadn’t fallen off the Game Pass thing at the end of the month, some very few brief hours after I finished it. Which is good news for me, but… oops.

The Outer Worlds

I played a game!

In even more shocking news, I played a game within about half a year of its release![1] I’m, uh, I’m actually having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. So, The Outer Worlds is a sci-fi RPG in which you wake up to a colonial civilization in decay and have to work out what to do about it. See, everyone came to the system from Earth about 70 years ago in two colony ships, except the second ship never showed up. Not to get too on the nose politically (primarily the first couple of groups), but the system is divided into approximately four groups.

  1. The Halcyon Holdings Corporation, who sponsored the outbound flight and even now works to develop new products for the many inhabitants of the Halcyon System
  2. The employees of the ten companies that pooled resources to form the HHC, mostly indentured to pay for their passage, and mostly unable to see a path to buying their full freedom from the situation, and that’s not counting the ones who haven’t really thought about wanting to
  3. Dangerous marauders who have broken free and now prey on society
  4. A handful of independents who through either corporate success or unlawful escape now live free of corporate restrictions, but at the mercy of the aforementioned marauders, not to mention the deadly beasts who roam the worlds and, sometimes, corporate troopers looking to enforce the original code

And now there’s you, a recently awakened colonist from the second ship, which is not lost after all, it just arrived extremely late, and by then enough water had passed under the bridge that the Board of the HHC decided… but I suppose now I’m getting into details past the first hour of play, so I’ll leave it here.

The story of this world is a delight. I can see lots of options I could have taken differently that would have had major impacts on the outcome, and some of them I would even want to see, only, who has time for playing for another 40-50 hours? The path I took, I have very few regrets about, so that’s nice. Plus the one sidebar about 90% of the way through the game that had me laughing in delight about one sublime moment of full character immersion for easily 30 minutes, before I restored and played like an adult instead.

The gameplay is… well, it’s fine, right? This is largely a shooter RPG, as I think they all are now, and it has companions, which means that your companions will always screw up your ambush and use up half or two thirds of its effectiveness. Which is a bummer. And the inventory system is nightmarishly bad. But on the bright side, once you acknowledge that there’s no way around that fact, it mostly melts away into irrelevance and just becomes the thing that makes you play a couple few extra hours than you would have in total. But if I had cared less about the plot and characters, I would have stopped playing quickly in frustration over just how bad it is, and never gotten past that threshold.

The story and backstory of the world definitely end up with more questions than answers, even as the story of the game concluded very satisfyingly. I very much want a sequel, and… I think I want that sequel to not include character importing, because my character’s story is over. But I’d hang out in the universe again from a different POV, no question.

[1] There is no question, in retrospect, that this is quarantine[2]-related. But I started in January, so it’s not solely due to quarantine.
[2] Note to future generations: It’s the Covid-19 coronavirus quarantine of 2020, not some weird personal thing or one of the other quarantines you will have learned about in your history classes.

Firewatch

The biggest problem with Firewatch is that I don’t really know what the genre is. Walking simulator is a really bland descriptor, indie is not a type of game, it’s a type of studio, and it felt a lot less interactive fictiony than other games I’ve used that tag on before. So, what kind of game was this?

One kind of game it was is “pretty great”. After a series of unfortunate life events, this guy Henry takes a job with the 1980s Wyoming forestry service on firewatch. Which, if not self-explanatory, is when you sit in a tower all summer looking for fires before they become uncontrollable. And over the course of the summer, a story unfolds!

The story is fine, too, but mostly what I loved was the haunting atmosphere. You’re wandering around the woods, no company, virtually no human contact, just the voice on the other end of the radio that is your supervisor between you and utter isolation. Which is I think what Henry was going for, but it gets really hard to take after a while. I am an introvert, in that I want to spend only a small amount of time interacting with people; but I guess I’m a soft introvert in that it comforts me to know that if I needed a person, it would be really easy to find one. I’m pretty sure a summer spent not seeing another person’s face and only hearing another person’s voice at their whim would leave me pretty dang bonkers.

Or maybe it was only haunting to me, because, see above? Either way, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy, even down to the  emotional discomfort. The one bummer was trying to figure out the controls. There was Steam controller support, but not in the sense that the game’s instructions matched them; purely keyboard driven, alas. Having a gated ecosystem is the better way to console in terms of support, but significantly limiting in terms of what games are available. So, definitely worth the trade-off! But still.

Life Is Strange: Chrysalis

I’m in a weird position here, in that I’ve never played an episodic game before. The chapters are not terribly long, but they’re long enough that the full game seems like it will turn out to be incredibly long, plus also I’m so bad at reviewing partial games anyway. Not to say I expect to stop playing Life Is Strange! But things happen sometimes, and the part where I opted to take a break between chapters is, if not telling, at least cautionary.

So, anyway, this is one of the new wave of exploratory, talky, thoughtful games that are mostly devoid of shooting wave after wave of nameless enemies who are (if not alien invaders or zombies) nevertheless human, thereby raising questions of morality. You may recall that I played Gone Home, about an older sister arriving unexpectedly from college to find that her entire family had been upturned in the meantime, via exploration of the empty house. Life Is Strange’s first chapter, Chrysalis, is certainly more “interactive character” / less “detached observer” than that was, which is a good thing. It was a lot easier to get immersed in Max’s problems, because she actually had a personality and a physical form, instead of being a set of silent eyeballs floating through a silent house. (Irony: I did like Gone Home, but its flaws are apparent now that I’ve played literally any other game in the same new genre of play.)

Here’s the deal as gleaned in the first five minutes of play. Max Caulfield is a new transfer student to a prestigious high school academy on the Oregon coast, returning to her hometown from Seattle after 3 years away because it is the best place to pursue her love of photography. She’s an out of place loner who has not reached out to her former best friend because of a fear of rejection, she’s learning to navigate the many cliques (especially the Vortex Club, for hyper-popular people) in her new environment, she’s barely aware of the geek who is desperately hitting on her at every turn, she keeps avoiding a submission to a photography contest that the teacher she idolizes is pressuring her to enter (also fear of rejection), her earbuds are full of the latest alternative music you’ve never heard of, she finds herself thinking a lot about the preponderance of flyers about a girl who went missing last spring… it’s a high school story. Cool. Been here, done this.

Then, by way of a massive spoiler in the 5-10 minute range, it takes a sharp turn into inexplicable sci-fi territory, and the game is off to the races. I’ll probably talk more about how in future chapters when it would be less of a spoiler than it is in this one, but I am both impressed and a little dismayed by what is a paradigm-shift to RPG elements of games (if not to strategy elements; I’d link what game I’m thinking of, but the same spoiler problem applies) combined with a healthy middle finger raised straight at me. But[1] in a good way!

Long story short: The Steam Machine was a good purchase, if the new genre are all as good as the two I’ve played so far.

[1] Apparently, since I loved it and want to play more.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

First completed video game in ages! Moving and getting married are hard, distracting work. Anyway, knowledge of this game’s release was exciting, because I’ve played the rest of the series in part as a bonding experience with my father. Then it took long enough post-release for me to get him to my house[1] that I probably should not have pre-ordered after all? Whatever, the price is only like $20 less even now.

Last Nathan Drake game, I said the series needed some kind of plot shake-up to avoid the trap of “these are all the same game”. Because, I mean, they are. You climb around on walls, you shoot people who are guaranteed to shoot at you if you don’t (and probably even if you do), and you seek a really big treasure of some kind. It is known.

My point is this: A Thief’s End provided the shake-up I wanted. Good job, game designers of the previous future / current past! See, it starts with a flashback to an unguessed at childhood, then proceeds through some things that I would definitely consider spoilers, resulting in yet another treasure hurt, of course, but in a way that pre-empts at least some amount of the currently in vogue backlash against how Nathan Drake and so many other video game avatars are “murder hobos”, willing to slaughter dozens or hundreds of foes standing in the way of said treasure. And then the epilogue provides a whole new kind of shake-up, to boot!

The title indicates that this is the last game in the series. If it is, I think it went out on a really good note. If it isn’t, I’ll get the next one, because how could I not? I definitely liked it, which is not a shock considering my previous reviews on the series. But most of all, I appreciated the new depth to, well, every part of the game.

Huh. No. That’s not true. The depth of the fighting and climbing is basically identical. But there were some new and improved aspects of how to move around the map and solve the puzzles, and mostly I meant the plot. Which you probably already knew. Jerk.

[1] I have a PS4, he does not. His possession of a PS3 is why the other series entries were played at the Ranch, you see.