Category Archives: Software

A Plague Tale: Innocence

Someone, who I am married to, likes to scavenge the lists of what is leaving Game Pass when, and then freaking out taking special notice of what is about to leave that she’d like to play. Which is how I ended up doing a shared speed run[1] of the first volume of the Plague Tale series[2], Innocence.

Of course, this also means that unless it comes back to Game Pass, this review does nobody any good, since while it was more than good enough to play, it was less than good enough to spend forty dollars on. (Unless you are suddenly really concerned about the sequel I suppose, which I then hope for your sake is worth more than sixty dollars. …or it will be on Game Pass as a day one release, so.)

The game is a probably faithful (in tone if not in detail) romp across Middle Ages western France, wherein a fifteen year-old daughter of nobility along with her five year-old brother become refugees fleeing the Inquisition, and the English invaders, and the omnipresent plague-ridden rats, most of whom are more than they seem. It starts as a sneaking and hiding game, but as the siblings continue to survive (thanks, checkpoints!), they gradually learn the skills needed to survive at a better than “on the run” level.

Too bad, then, about Hugo’s unresolved chronic disease.

[1] When I say “speed run”, I don’t mean a seventeen minute glitch fest, I mean like 20 hours because we both want to find all the things in an otherwise 12-15 hour game and are only so skilled on top of that, but also we can only play violent games at night, in our limited sleep time, so that was a lot to deal with in like a week. I’m still exhausted.
[2] Was there a planned Plague Tale series? I have absolutely no idea. But there’s the name scheme for it, and also there’s a sequel coming out in October, so, signs point to yes.

Beasts of Maravilla Island

I find that a combination of “this looks like I could play it when Malcolm is in the room” and “this came free with XBox Live Gold this month[1]” makes for compelling game downloads. I mean… sort of?

Beasts of Maravilla Island is maybe a step past a walking sim, in that there are puzzles[2] to solve. But basically, armed only with your camera and your grandfather’s journal, you arrive on Maravilla Island to see what he was talking about when he mentioned all those magic hybrid animals and plants and insects. And then you take pictures of them, and of the things they do.

Later, you do the same thing, only now you’re on a different part of the island, with a different ecosystem. Later still, you… well, I think you get the idea. If I had paid ten dollars for it, I think I’d be pretty meh here, but as a cost-free way to spend a couple of hours while the boy was absolutely enchanted by the banana-shaped birds and gem-shaped beetles and crocodile-shaped otters, that’s a thing I can get behind.

[1] And as of this writing, still does. No promises about tomorrow.
[2] Well. “Puzzles”.

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion

The first thing that happens in Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is… well, it’s rather predictable, is what it is. You wake up one morning and have a letter from the mayor that you owe property taxes, and you[1] rip up the letter, and boom: you, sir, are a tax evader.

And now, you are on an epic quest to… well, honestly, even saying what the quest is for feels a little bit like a spoiler, but what you are for sure on is an epic quest to do whatever Mayor Onion tells you, since he owns your greenhouse through the powers of lien-holding or whatever. Along the way, you will fight vegetarians, learn your backstory[2], and live out what is, ultimately, a love letter to anarchy.

It’s silly, short, and if not exactly easy, also not exactly hard. My only regret is that the XBox version apparently has bugs preventing me from get the last 100 gamerscores. Lame.

[1] I should pause here to note that you are one Turnip Boy, esquire
[2] Why don’t you already know your own backstory? Listen, don’t think about it too much.

Prey (2017)

For all that it’s five years old, Prey is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and certainly the best one I’ve finished in recent memory[1]. (I need to get back to Pillars of Eternity. And also Horizon Zero Dawn.)

It is approximately like, what if Half-Life, but extremely modern and therefore with the ability to have and track quests and side quests, and the survivors you meet are actually able to, on occasion, take care of themselves a little bit instead of solely serving to keep you in a somber mood. You can play guns blazing, or extreme stealth, or anything in between, while being as kind or cruel or unconcerned as you prefer. In a different world where I didn’t have an infinite number of massive games I wanted to play, nevermind the smaller ones, I might be inclined to play this again with a different focus. I happen to know there are things I never saw because I played differently than what would have allowed me to see them.

As far as the plot: go in as blind as you can. All I knew was a) praise and b)… actually, I can no longer swear what I knew about b), so it would be unfair to say anything, wouldn’t it? But the game starts off on your first day joining your big brother in the family business. Wake up, get ready, fly across town in a helicopter while the credits roll, then take the evaluation tests you need to pass to go up to the space station where the real magic (by which I mean science) happens. Only, the tests don’t really make even a lick of sense? And why is that table running around, and why are the alarms going off? And then things get weird.

In conclusion, I liked it really a lot. The plot twists never really stopped, no matter how far into the game you think you’ve gotten. I am uncertain about the expansion? But I would play the hell out of a sequel.

[1] “Okay, but what about Hollow Knight?” It’s like this. They are both exemplars of their respective types of game, but Prey has the better plot. HK has the better mood, if that makes you feel okay about things.

The Gunk

For the first time in probably literally ever, I have played a new game, to completion, within a fortnight of its release[3]. Even accounting for its being a relatively short game, my counterpoint is that I didn’t play it for about a week in the middle, what with Christmas and having a child and all that this entails. My points are a) wow and b) look for this to never happen again, like, ever.

The Gunk is the story of a pair of… long haul truckers? junk traders? if I’m being real, what they actually do is not perfectly laid out, except that they for sure do it in space and in the future. But then they pick up an energy reading from an otherwise dead planet, and the idealistic exploratory character (as opposed to the hard-bitten cynical character or the helpful, low-vocabulary character) insists on checking things out. What follows is an exploration platformer game where you quickly discover that there are these piles of purple, bulbous, well, gunk all over the place, and that if you hoover it up using your power glove[1], all of the plant life recovers from a dormant state, and weird pools of energy that are for sure some portion of what the readings were and which have additional uses in the moment are also revealed.

And then you explore around, trying to figure out why and what everything is, and not incidentally make some money along the way, due to your semi-apparent day job overlapping with this kind of discovery. Later still, there are conflicts.[2]

As this kind of game goes, it is clearly not as good as your Marios and your Banjos-Kazooie for the fact of the game play and collectiony bits. But it has probably a better, more engrossing plot than those have, and also only plays for like six to eight hours rather than sixty to eighty. Those facts may be related, come to think of it. But also, they don’t handhold you. I thought I explored everywhere, and I certainly tried to, but even though I got the scan everything achievement, I could not manage the build everything achievement.

I’d play a sequel game with these characters, though, so.

[1] Where it ends up is not particularly a topic of interest to the game writers, who, to make two points in one footnote, were clearly enamored of but never owned a certain late ’80s NES accessory.
[2] What??? I know, right.
[3] And then forgot to post for nearly another week. *sigh*

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition

I still don’t understand why games that are roguelike are named after the original game of that style, Rogue, while games that are Metroid-like (ie, exploration-platformers with boss fights and power-ups) are named after more than a decade later when Castlevania did the same thing, and someone decided they were equivalent and everyone else agreed. It’s just not right.

All of that to say, Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania in which you play a silent[1] protagonist come to the dying city of Dirtmouth above the dead-but-treasured-filled kingdom of Hallownest, and also everyone is bugs. And that’s it, that’s the whole plot as presented. Everything else you learn on the way. Questions like “why do I have such a shitty weapon? why are some of the bugs cool and chill and want to sell me things or discuss philosophy, but some of the bugs just run at me to kill me, but some bugs do both? why is this referred to as a platformer when I can barely jump at all?”

There are three important things to know about this game. The first is that, if you are okay with the genre, with having to go back and forth and remember where you left things to do later and explore until you find places you can’t go but trust that you’ll be able to later and until you find fights that you cannot win but trust the same thing about that, if you’re okay with these things: this is a spectacular game. Arguably the best one of its kind ever made.

The second is that it’s incredibly long. I played for 83 hours to get the credits, and there are still a number of things that I know are left undone, not counting that there are probably things I don’t know also.

The third is a corollary to the second. It is 97% melancholy, with only the briefest of divergences from this theme, and those countered by moments of much stronger sadness to still balance out at 100% adjusted melancholies. And there’s nothing wrong with a melancholy game! Most walking sims are, and I play lots of those. But here’s the thing: 83 hours of melancholy is a lot to get through, even for a truly amazing game.

Oh, and also Voidheart Edition is because there were eventually several small expansions, and all of them are included in the Game Pass version. According to the meter, I got 106% completion out of an implied possible 112%. Almost all of what’s left are harder versions of things I’ve already done, which makes it hard to feel like I should practice my ass off to accomplish them. Plus the melancholy.

In the unlikely event that I do more, and that the more I’ve done changes my impressions significantly, I’ll report back.

[1] I mean, yes, most video game protagonists outside of dialogue-tree RPGs and shooter cutscenes are silent. But the other characters in this game make a point of noticing your silence.

A Way Out

I found it difficult to classify A Way Out. It’s nearly a walking simulator, but too interactive for that. (It does frequently occupy the same story-telling space, though.) It’s on occasion a shooter. It’s definitely a light puzzle solver, going back almost to the middle days of your Kings’ Quests. I guess the best way to describe it is as a two player split screen[1] interactive movie, about breaking out of prison.

It’s also about more than that, in much the way that the TV series Prison Break was. I think it is fair to say that between watching all five(?) seasons of that, consuming two versions of Shawshank, and playing this game to completion, I will have no problems if I ever find myself in, er, diminished circumstances.

Downsides: antihero types. You are, after all, playing one of two people who wants to escape from prison, seeking revenge. But it’s rarely a dark take; mostly, in fact, it is kind and humanizing of everyone involved. It’s like, some people in prison are a danger to society and need to never come back. But some people in prison just, y’know, do crimes sometimes, and that doesn’t automatically make them bad people, even though probably you don’t want to have a crime done to you.

I bet that doesn’t make sense.

[1] Even if you play it online[2]! I found this at first pretty annoying but ultimately it grew on me. Thanks to illness in the house, we weren’t going to play couch co-op anyway. But at least it affirmatively worked, so now we can play Borderlands not on the couch, which means I won’t hate everything while trying to play it.
[2] Which is why even though I finally got a Series X, I played this on the XBox One. Mary, on the other hand, got the fancy treatment.

Final Fantasy II

Sixteen years ago, somehow, I played Final Fantasy for the first time, with my only previous JRPG experiences having been an abiding love for Dragon Warrior, deep amusement at Secret of Mana, and unremitting loathing for Final Fantasy VII. You’ll note, if you clicked through, that I had evinced an intention to continue playing the remainder of the Final Fantasy oeuvre. Believe it or not, that was actually true, and I really have been playing Final Fantasy II on and off for all of those many years since[1].

The main difference between the first and second game is that where the first game used “save the world!” as an excuse to string together a lot of random encounters in the world and in various dungeons wherein you could level up and get better equipment and better spells, allowing you to fight harder random encounters and dungeons… In the second game, all of those actions are strung together by an actual plot, with actual characters. I mean, plot and characters as imagined through the lens of the 1980s, but it’s actually there.

I’ll go a step farther, and say that the plot, although largely on rails, feels as if it is reacting to the actions of the characters. Which is impressive! There are three main characters, teenaged friends who get caught up in events, and a floating fourth character, who you are supposed to become attached to but who I largely viewed as a tool who occasionally stole my equipment by leaving the party without warning in any number of various ways.

That said, the game still punishes you for playing a game that old by having bizarrely restrictive spell and items capacities and random bugs that make the nominally most powerful spell in the game be functionally useless. Nevertheless, it was a good game. I mean, if you’re okay with mindlessly wandering the world having random encounters between various dungeons that advance the plot, but that’s just what a JRPG is, you know? (But Dragon Warrior was still better. For one thing, no goddamned chocobos.)

In case you’re wondering if I will play Final Fantasy III: I’ve started it already. (This proves nothing, of course.)

[1] Although I restarted at one point post-2014, switching platforms from DS back to Playstation[2]. (Well, PS2, since manufacturers once upon a time understood backward compatibility.)
[2] Because it’s harder to play a game together on a tiny-ass DS screen[s].

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (2019)

Two milestones! Surprisingly to me, I’ve never finished a Switch game before. Like, I kind of finished the Mario game from one perspective, but from another I was barely halfway through it. Regardless, no review! So, oops. (Or not. It’s hard to know.) But also, I’ve never played a game that required specifying a year for version control. Link’s Awakening has had three versions, two on various GamesBoy in the ’90s, plus this one on the Switch.

As for what it is, it’s a mostly 2D game[1] set at a 3D angle, a la Link to the Past[2], where you[3] have shipwrecked onto a small island where nobody has heard of the concept of an outside world, where there’s a giant egg housing a Wind Fish (whatever that is), and where (surprise!) the monsters have started getting restless just lately. Also, the art is an adorably almost claymation thing, and every time I paused to actually look at it, it just… made me happy. You know?

There’s item / powerup collection, there’s dungeons, there’s secrets (not all of which I found)… it’s a Zelda game, is what I’m saying, and those are good on their own merits in the vast majority of instances. On top of that, there’s a surprisingly emotional core to the thing, where the act of playing the game as intended leaves you wondering whether you should do so. I dug it.

Also, weirdly, I played the whole game handheld. Bad for my neck, good for my ability to actually finish. This is a problematic realization, to be clear. Especially if you happen to be my neck.

[1] You can jump and dive, so it’s 2D with an extra two layers beyond the one you mostly exist in? Approximately.
[2] Arguably the best Zelda game ever made, Breath of the Wild notwithstanding. Inarguably the best 2D Zelda game ever made.
[3] by which I mean Link, the boy in the green tunic who acquired his first sword under, at best, suspicious circumstances

Gears 5

Back at the dawn of time, I played Gears of War. Later, I started to play Gears of War 2 and got maybe two chapters in, and then… never touched the series again, except in multiplayer. Even though I liked it! They were good games! But I did a thing I maybe do with frequency (in games especially), and let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Because these are two player games, and they are explicitly different in two player at times, so you feel like more is going on if you get the full experience, and since I was not at that time getting said full experience… well, here we are.

Fast forward fourteen[1] years, and I have now played Gears 5, which for one thing is no longer “of War” apparently, and for another thing is the second(!!) entry in a new trilogy, the original Gearsing having apparently been completed with volume 3 until they decided they could make more money, and for a third thing is now a three player game.

I know you’re asking. “Well how do you have three players to play a game with when you haven’t had two for over a decade?”, and that’s a fair question. But this new Game Pass dealie has drawn people out of the woodwork, is what. The important part is, I did have three players, and the game seriously uses them to good effect! Because one character is something something that’s a spoiler for this game and probably way more of a spoiler for volume 4 which I have not played, and one player is a hoverbot with a lot of cool non-gun-based powers, and one player drives sail skiffs, and together you wander around doing the kinds of things people expect out of War Gears, which is mostly fighting indigenous underground aliens. But now with occasional open world exercises instead of non-stop rails.

Long story short, it’s pretty cool still, and except for being allergic to third-person shooters or characters who have necks the size of an average American’s waist, there’s basically nothing not to like here.

[1] god help us