The Reviews I Wrote in 2015

So in the Year of Our Lord 2015, I got to write about video games in exchange for actual money. It’s kind of a strange thing to be doing, and it’s highlighted every time someone asks me what I’m “up to” these days (that always means, “do you have a real job yet”).

Anyway, here are six of the reviews I wrote this year, collected for your reading (or possibly, your ignoring) enjoyment.

Might & Magic Heroes VII

“[W]arts considered, Might & Magic Heroes VII isn’t enough of a refinement over VI to justify purchase if you already own that game. It’s unfriendly to newcomers to the series, with nothing that qualifies as a tutorial included out of the box. And fans of the old games may find themselves put off by all the unnecessary visual flash.”

Having loved the early titles in the Heroes of Might & Magic series, I really wanted to love this game. VI was hard to get into, though, and I held out very little hope going into this outing. Turns out, I was right. They made baffling decisions about how to present the game, and while it’s still recognizable as an heir to the series, I think it’s gotten so far off track at this point that I’d be very surprised if it’s ever revisited.

Assault Android Cactus

“[A] very unpretentious game that’s mostly about having fun. There’s the bobbleheaded, space marines-via-Funco Pop design of each character, the bumping soundtrack, and the androids’ distinct voices and senses of humor. Its charm and sense of fluidity and flow make it perfect for short, intense sessions – say 15 to 30 minutes during a quick break.”

Despite having heard murmurs about this game after its appearances at several gaming conventions over the last couple years, I was still surprised at how much fun I had with this game. There are a couple boss fights that seem pretty bogus, but ultimately it’s a very pure bullet-hell score attack game that has tons of Dreamcast-era charm.

Grand Ages: Medieval

“[W]here Crusader Kings II kept players close to the reality of history, Grand Ages seems to use it primarily as window-dressing for its essentially context-free lesson in basic supply and demand economics.”

Other than the fact that they ported this to PlayStation, I have no idea who this game is for. It’s shallow, its systems are oblique without offering depth, and the combat is about as complex as a game of Pogs. To top that all off, the game is ugly as sin.

Armello

“Armello is a remarkable achievement. Instead of simply transferring a board game experience to the TV or computer screen, developer League of Geeks has managed to escape the boundaries of the board game format using modern innovation. Arthur C. Clarke suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and in that light, Armello is quite definitely magical.”

 What Armello lacks in depth and consistency, it more than makes up for in utter charm. My main problem is that as formulated, the game doesn’t lend itself to couch-co-op, meaning that the best part of Settlers of Catan — the bantering back and cross around the table — is utterly absent. Even with this out of the picture, it’s still a great experience, and sessions last around 45 minutes to an hour.

Armikrog

From start to finish I spent about four hours playing it, and although there are evidently secrets to find in the game, I can’t imagine I’ll be going back to it now that I’m done. The music and visuals are completely charming, but the game mechanics are broken and the puzzle designs are lackluster.

 Having loved the ClayMation features I grew up with in the ’80s, I was fully prepared to love this game, despite its point-and-click adventure format. There’s something to be said for a sense of artistic style and the raw craftsmanship that goes into realizing it, especially in an interactive format like a video game. But all of Armikrog’s charm wears thin within the first hour of play, as you realize there’s really nothing about it that is actually fun, other than to look at the plasticine figures and wish it was a Gumby short.

 Dropsy

“Dropsy is a real innocent, a modern “ugly duckling,” and as the game progressed I found myself less and less put off by his appearance and more and more sympathetic toward him.” 

I played quite a few point-and-click adventure games in the ’90s, but not because I liked them — it’s because Sierra titles like Kings Quest was for a while all we really had available. It’s a terrible format that I’m glad has mostly died off (despite TellTale’s efforts to bring it back).

Which makes it doubly strange that I loved Dropsy so much, being that it’s just this kind of game, and stars an amoebic clown with a rictus grin, looking to give sweaty hugs to everyone around. But love it I did — Dropsy has an amazing amount of heart, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and features a terrific soundtrack. Play it.

Dusting this old thing off again

No sense in denying it, I pretty much abandoned this blog. But I’d like to revive it again, since I’m going to be doing more games writing in the future, and it’ll be handy to have a place to work thoughts out on a day to day (well, so to speak) basis.

Some housekeeping is in order!

First, I’m signed on to do games reviews for Bitter Lawyer, which will have its official launch in the near future. It’s already up and running, though, and you can check out my first couple contributions:

Make A Little Birdhouse In Your School And Play This Pigeon Dating Game

Shadow of Mordor: Orc Murder Simulator 2014

I’ve submitted a review of Alien: Isolation as well, so keep an eye on the site for when (assuming my editors like it) that goes live.

Some other relevant bits of news – After a bit of timely contract work, I was able to plunk down some cash and build a pretty fantastic gaming PC. For specs, I’ll create a separate page or entry on this blog so I can link back to it. (Edit: Here’s the page.) For now, though, it has a nice Intel i7 quad-core sitting on a very pretty MSI motherboard that houses lots of RAM and a graphics card that looks capable of vertical takeoff and landing. It’s far more powerful than the new-gen consoles, so it should be more than enough for the next few years’ worth of triple-A releases.

Moving on…

When I started this blog up, I picked “culturegamer” because I wasn’t feeling very original and I wanted to talk about the intersection of culture and video games. Now that the internet shitstorm known as “gamergate” is still in full, noxious swing, I’m going to have to take a stab at talking about that. In the meantime, though, several sites have written “explainers” about the phenomenon that can at least help contextualize the insanity that at the time of this writing shows no signs of slowing down:

The Washington Post’s The Intersect: The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read

Deadspin: The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate

Gawker: What Is Gamergate, and why? An explainer for non-geeks

Anyway, stay tuned. More to follow.

My Trip Through Borderlands: Opening Pandora’s Boxes

mulan laser

I will shoot lasers at you, asshole!

I finished Borderlands with mixed emotions. Not because of the less-than-stellar ending, but because it was a first-person shooter, a genre which I had previously eschewed, and I LOVED it. I can hear yourself saying, “So you like FPS, asiangrrlMN. What’s the problem?” The problem is, when I first started my journey into gaming, I was adamant against FPS. I was a bit of a dilettante when it coming to trying games from different genres, but I stayed very clear of FPS because, BLOPS, ugh – no way I wanted any part of that. Yes, I thought all FPS were like Black Ops: linear, on the rails, and just senseless killing. In addition, the few I’ve tried in the past made me nauseous, which is the very opposite of fun. It didn’t help that the first time I tried Portal*, I had my now-ex yelling at me to SHOOT HERE, JUMP THROUGH THIS HOLE, MOVE THERE. It was stressful, to say the least, and I didn’t even make it out of the first room before I quit.

Fast-forward a few years and to my recent foray into video games. If you read my first post, you’ll know that I’ve dabbled in different genres, but I steered clear of FPS. Then, Steam had one of its many crazy sales, and I ended up buying Portal and Portal 2 for something like seven bucks total. At Ian’s urging and because I’d heard how great Portal was, I reluctantly gave it another try. To my surprise, I was quickly hooked and powered my way through it. I got stuck a time or two, but I finished the game with gusto. (click for more Borderlands craziness)

What I’ve been playing lately…

Screenshot2013-03-17 01_39_22

… is StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. That’s been the primary time-suck for me, games wise lately. I finished the Heart of the Swarm campaign a couple weeks ago, and honestly was only disappointed by how easy it seemed to be on Normal difficulty. While reviewers have complained about the typically weird and nonsensical Blizzard storyline, which is full of sci-fi tropes and sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue, it’s a fun romp and gives you a chance to take control of vast hordes of the Zerg swarm.

But since then, I’ve actually made the dreaded leap into the multiplayer ladders. Initially, as I suspected would happen, I got chewed up and spit out by just about every player I took on, but as time has passed, I’ve found myself getting better and winning games. In fact, while I was admittedly dropped into the bottom (Bronze) league, I’ve worked my way up to first place in my division since starting my foray into multiplayer.

StarCraft 2 has a huge learning curve, and I think its reputation for that puts many potential players off the idea of venturing outside the single-player campaign. There’s plenty of fun to be had there, and even when you’ve finished one or both campaigns on normal difficulty, there’s still achievement hunting to be done (some of the achievements, by the way, are rather clever and/or funny).

Continue reading

Confessions of a Non-Gamer Who Games

Editor’s note: A hearty welcome to asiangrrlMN, a dear friend who can usually be found at Angry Black Lady Chronicles. She’s also a prolific fiction writer, and you can find some of her excellent zombie-oriented work at Dead Shuffle.

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One of asiangrrlMN’s dark elves celebrates a Blood Bowl touchdown.

Hi, I’m asiangrrlMN, culturegamer’s partner in crime for his Let’s Play Magicka! series.  I am not a gamer, nor do I play one on TV.  I didn’t game much in my youth, save for the occasional game of Pitfall or Ms. Pac-Man, and who among us of a certain age can say differently?

In the past five years or so, I played casual games, but I shied away from hardcore games.  Let me be brutally honest – I saw the racism, sexism, and homophobia that runs through the online gaming community, and I wanted no part of it.  I’m not a joiner by nature, and I definitely didn’t want to be part of a community that was hostile to me.  Plus, I had an outmoded idea of what hardcore games were – mostly first-person shooters in the vein of Call of Duty—and I had little-to-no interest in that kind of thing.  It is with this blithe ignorance that I dismissed hardcore video games – until I met Ian, a.k.a. “culturegamer.”

Ian is passionate about games, and through our many discussions about them, he’s helped me see that they are more than ‘just games’ – they have cultural value and can be more engrossing than movies or television.  I was intrigued and requested that he find me a game.  After much consideration, he suggested Torchlight to me, and I was hooked.  I played the hell out of that game, and I loved being involved in a miniature world of dungeon-crawling, monster-smiting, and fishing!  I had a pet cat, Enigma, and if I fed her fish, she’d transmogrify into other creatures with varying powers .  I played as the Vanquisher in a large part because she’s female and looks vaguely Asian, and I quickly learned to love Mulan and her trusty Toxic Ribauldequin.  I also realized that I vastly preferred ranged characters to melee characters, and I’ve stuck with the former mostly in my subsequent forays into RPGs.

(click for more confessions)

Heart of the Swarm is out…

… and I am happy.

I’m only four missions into the campaign, so I couldn’t spoil very much if I wanted to. I’ll say this, though — Kerrigan is back, she’s angry, and she’s a (kinetic) blast. Here’s one reason why.

Screenshot2013-03-12 11_27_40

Watching zerglings swarm around Kerrigan as she leads them on an assault on a Dominion base is… well. It’s something else.

There have been numerous enhancements to the base StarCraft II game that everyone, not just Heart of the Swarm players, will be able to enjoy now. A much-enhanced tutorial system will make taking the plunge into full-on ranked multiplayer a lot less daunting. Features like “take command” will let players jump into any replay (their own or others’) and assume control of any side, in order to try different tactics in a battle that went poorly.

But right now I’m excited about the campaign. Sure, Blizzard’s plots aren’t always particularly inspired, but over the course of the many years I’ve dabbled in StarCraft, I’ve grown to love some of these characters. And Kerrigan — betrayed, infested, full of vengeful rage and yet still human — is one of the best ever.

Culturegamer reviews — Sword of the Stars: The Pit

Long before there was the “Free to Play” model of Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2, there were free games available on the frontiers of the Internet. “Roguelikes,” they were called, named for the formidable Rogue. Initially released in the early 1980s for UNIX systems, Rogue was a procedurally-generated dungeon full of monsters and traps that wanted to brutally end the life of the ASCII character that represented you.

The appeal of roguelikes has persisted perhaps longer than any other video game format. Sure, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll find in a banner title like the recently-released Tomb Raider reboot, but it’s been around for a long time and has quite the pedigree. In the ‘90s, games like Nethack and Angband rekindled the roguelike flame. My own first experience with them was on an obscure game I found on a 5.25” floppy disk called Evets: The Adventure, probably around 1987.

Sword of the Stars: The Pit

Giant green slime monsters will grab and poison you. It’s fun.

So it’s heartwarming to see a little game like Sword of the Stars: The Pit (Kerberos Productions, distributed on Steam) come along and challenge players to the same unforgiving random dungeon environment again.

Sword of the Stars, I’m given to understand, is the name of a universe in which a couple existing 4X-type games have already been set. There is a story, too, about some plague that has beset a planet. None of this really matters, because Sword of the Stars: The Pit uses the exact same formula that made games like Angband (and its many, many variants) so popular. To wit: You pick a character class and descend through increasingly difficult levels of a dungeon, finding equipment and horrible monsters along the way. The action is turn-based; your “speed” stat determines how often you may move and what actions you may take before enemies take their turns. Different weapons have different effects, and different enemies have different abilities (like “grabbing”) that can hinder your progress or, quite likely, kill you. And – in true roguelike fashion – once you’re killed, there’s no checkpoint to return to or savegame to load. You’re dead and have to start over on a whole new dungeon.

All of this is delivered rather delightfully via a retro-esque graphics presentation. Replacing Rogue and Angband’s ASCII characters is a very engaging, colorful tileset reminiscent of games like Albion and the older Phantasy Star titles. The tileset changes as you progress down through the dungeon, searching for better weapons and armor more than you are for the cure to the ghoul-inducing plague (if we’re being honest). The sprite-based character art is cartoony, but it clearly lets you know what kind of monster you’re facing, and even what kind of armor or weapon you’re using (the fact that Dungeons of Dredmor did not do this was a constant annoyance for me).

Stats play an important role in the game, as they’ll determine your likelihood of success in tasks like picking locks or activating old computer terminals. In a departure from most other roguelikes – and more in line with the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series – actually performing tasks can help you get better at doing them. Patching yourself up with a mobile surgery unit, for instance, will improve your medical skill. It’s also possible to boost skills, Fallout-style, when you level up – you’re given points to put into your three main attributes of “Might,” “Finesse,” and “Brains,” and more to add to abilities like lockpicking and deciphering – a skill that makes its importance known when you begin downloading alien data from locked or broken computer terminals scattered throughout the dungeon.

Without conserving ammunition and food, you will quickly find yourself unarmed and starving in a dark corner of a low floor, worried to make even a single move in any direction lest you wake the robot guardians and blob creatures that inhabit The Pit. It’s that “Game over, man” moment from Pvt. Hudson in Aliens, and while you can technically still use your fists to assail your enemies, you know you doomed yourself for ditching that combat knife to free up inventory space several floors above.

There could be a few minor pitfalls to mention. The sound design is fairly forgettable, but certainly appropriate for the game (although the similarly-roguelike FTL shipped with a pretty stunning soundtrack).

And if roguelikes definitely aren’t your thing, Sword of the Stars: The Pit is probably not going to change your mind. However, if you’ve so far managed to miss this wonderful and strange genre, it certainly could be the one to make you love it.

85/100