Caladrius Blaze on PC (7/10)

Posted on

For some time now I have been interested in playing various SHMUPs in MAME. Some of the best looking pixel art exists in these titles and, even though I am terrible at them, I’ve spent hours on games like Gun Lock and Raiden. I was looking for a decent PC-based title and got this one off of Steam based on some of the reviews.

Unlike 90s classics of the genre, this one is full-on 3-D. As a result, it really doesn’t look anywhere near as nice as sprite-based shooters. Also unlike those 90s games, this one features character portraits which lose their clothes as they take on more damage. Japanese culture is really weird.

Idiotic aesthetics aside, the game plays pretty well. It is a bullet-hell game so it is beyond my middle-aged reflexes on any setting above easy but I can manage to hold my ground reasonably well on the first few levels. The main gimmick (besides the partial nudity) is that each ship has three special, upgradable shooting modes. The elemental shots will drain as you use them, taking time to refill, but they are the key to survival. The modes range from impenetrable homing missile attacks to a little golden palm tree they sprouts an inch away from your ship and doesn’t do hardly anything.

I have played a few more modern shooters since I got this, and, in hindsight, I think Caladrius is missing a little bit of the excitement of the top-teir SHMUPs. Yet I found it was a good entry point into the genre even if you are not a pervert.

Wasteland Remastered on PC (6/10)

Posted on

Wasteland is considered a classic RPG from the Apple ][ era but it’s one that I never played back in the day. I have tried it in AppleWin emulation and then later with the modified MS-DOS port on In both cases I only made it to the second town before giving up. These original versions required looking up flavor text in the manual for various hints and passwords. This kills whatever sense of immersion they may have been able to squeeze out of 8-bits of computing power. I think much of the nostalgia for this game is built on the knowledge that the same team would eventually create Fallout. Well that and the memorable box cover art.

After the success of Wasteland 2 Kickstarter, Inxile proceeded to create a remaster of the first game. If I was ever going to tackle it, it was going to be with a modernized version. Of course the graphics have been completely updated into 3-D. Character sprites now look like board game mini-figurines on a detailed 3-D map. The pixelized monster portraits and character designs have been smoothed over with Photoshop brush work. There is also a full soundtrack and plenty of battle sound effects.

There have been quality of life changes too. The first big change is that the manual look-up references are built into the game, many of which have been illustrated and narrated as cut scenes. There are dozens of save slots. The game can be played entirely with the mouse. In reality, most of the remastering seems to be limited to the aesthetic details.

Wasteland Remastered

The game still plays clunky as hell. Combat is not terribly exciting and can be hard to follow. You see flashes of damage on character portraits but it never really seems to match what is being described in the text scroll. There are also many times when the text box fails to tell you how many enemies you are facing. This is too bad because this combat system is mostly the same style as the one in the Bard’s Tale games, but in those games it at least feels like there is some strategy.

The biggest problem with the game is the inconsistent ways in which you solve puzzles and interact with the world. There’s this seemingly robust skill system, but most problems can be solved with either a rope, a lockpick or punching. Interacting with NPCs is really goofy too. Some characters require you to turn on combat in order to allow them to join your party. Others require you to stand in a specific spot and then trigger a skill. There is no “Talk” command. If you are going to play this game, a walkthrough is almost mandatory especially when it comes to the endgame. I think you are probably able to put the game into an unwinnable state.

All that said, I did manage to get through it. While the world is nowhere near as fun and creative as Fallout or even the Wasteland sequels, I did enjoy some of the sections of the game quite a bit. I probably wouldn’t recommend this to more casual fans of CRPGs. If I were writing an SAT question based on this game it would be: Wasteland is to Fallout as Mad Max is to The Road Warrior or something like that.

Aer: Memories of Old on PC (3/10)

Posted on

Aer takes a 1995 Zelda aesthetic and makes it into a boring slog. This game felt like a college game design project. The story is about ancient animal gods or something. You can turn into a bird and hold a lantern. The core of the game is exploring three simple dungeons to find the appropriate pads to stand on to get to the magic thing. Collect three magic things and you win!! The Epic game store is noteworthy for giving away free games but a lot of what they offer is this type of stylish indie game with no pay-off.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura on PC (7/10)

Posted on

With this game I have finally played all the key 90s RPG classics. I attempted to play a few years ago but because the GOG version of the game ran so poorly in Windows 10, I gave up. This time around I found the Unofficial Arcanum Patch and that made most of the performance issues go away. That is, until the last stretch of the game in which characters began randomly to disappear from my party and saves became corrupted. I managed to complete the game by turning off the high-res patch and saving every few minutes, but, man, was that ever annoying.

The main selling point of Arcanum is its steam punk setting. It’s the technology of the Nineteenth Century mixed with magic and the stereotypical fantasy races. In the end it just feels like another D&D style fantasy game where you have to defeat the evil wizard, etc. I was a magic, sorry magick user so the technology stuff had little impact on my play style. Aside from the opening sequence, in which a blimp is destroyed by planes, and the occasional reference to trains this might as well have been Middle Earth. For a truly steam-punk RPG play the excellent Ultima: Martian Dreams.

The main quest line is okay. It does eventually degenerate into the aforementioned cliché of defeating the evil wizard but there are plenty of little side quests in every region to keep things interesting. Much like Fallout at the end of the game you get a recap of all the good deeds you accomplished, so it pays to offer your help wherever you travel. There are lots characters and lots of possible dialogue interactions, and, because I focused on charisma, I was able to talk my way out of many-a-problem. It could get a bit wordy at times but that can be expected of games of this vintage.

Arcanum uses the same engine as Fallout 1 & 2 but has a janky combat system that’s sort of turn-based and sort of real-time. It works most of the time, but once your characters are leveled high enough it just becomes, “point at the thing and it will die.” Despite its flaws I found the combat to be fun or, at the very least, satisfying.

The main problems with this old-school interface were inventory management (especially dealing with your party members), navigating the zoomed-out map, and moving around on screen with limited visibility. I think Arcanum is still worth playing if you can tolerate its technical flaws and its failure to live up to its setting’s potential.

Fallout 4 on PC (9/10)

Posted on

I was quite a bit hesitant to get this game because I had heard that a big part of if was building and maintaining settlements. Along with crafting, this type of management system is one of my least favorite types of game play. The first few missions are all about teaching you to create and build settlements but there soon comes a point when you can ignore that part of the game in get to the really fun part: exploration and combat. Why would I want to maintain a farm when out can explode dudes.

The V.A.T.S. system is no replacement for the turn-based combat of the original Fallout games, but it has its own appeal that melds well with otherwise standard FPS mechanics. I never got tired of the slow-motion replays of the body parts flying everywhere.

The main story is the game’s weakest element. You awake from a cryogenic sleep to discover your infant son has been kidnapped. This plotline ends about halfway through the game and it shifts to working between the various factions of the wasteland. None of them seem particularly evil and yet you are tasked with destroying them by the various other groups. At that point I stopped caring.

The real fun of the game is exploring the massive open world. There’s a little story connected with every location. Sometimes its told explicitly, other times it’s gleaned from the items and messages that have been left behind. Very soon I was ignoring the main quest and just running off in random directions looking for adventure. Before I knew it I has sunk well-over a hundred hours into the game. I even started to enjoy the settlement building as I collected trophies and magazines from around the Commonwealth.

Wake up Grandma, it’s time to kill!

I finally completed the main quest after which the game wisely allows you to keep playing. I still think the original two Fallout games where the best in terms of narrative, but, of the three 3-D games in the series, this one was the most fun to play, and was the best looking (even though it’s still very gray and brown).

Resident Evil 6 on PC (4/10)

Posted on

I don’t know why I keep thinking these Resident Evil games might actually be good. Everything about RE6 is frustration. There’s the odd camera positioning that gets all screwy in the many tight corridors of the levels. Then there’s the never ending boss battles in which you have next to zero ammo and have to trigger quicktime events while looking for minions to kill for resources. Checkpoint save locations are few and far between. The levels are tedious, gray, and overlong and there is very little variety in the action.

On top of all this is the decision to break the game into four separate narratives each of which is more confusing than the last. Not to mention you are forced to sit through a 5-10 minute credit crawl between each section. So lame. I bought this as a two-pack with RE7. Do I dare continue?

Shadow of the Tomb Raider on PC (8/10)

Posted on

The third in the reboot series which is more or less the same as its predecessors. Excellent graphics, the usual fun mix of platforming, puzzles, and combat.

The story is the typical bad guys that want the object that will give them the ultimate power in the universe! Plans are thwarted and Lara triumphs! I was close, but I didn’t have the energy to 100% this one.

Prey on PC (6/10)

Posted on

Prey takes a very ambitious approach to game play. There are always multiple paths towards achieving your goals and this goes beyond the standard stealth vs. guns blazing options. You can stack objects to get anywhere within the sizable, open environments. At times, this feels like cheating but there are sections that require it. Also, as an appeal to psychopaths, you can also kill any NPC you meet. I’m not sure if it’s possible to kill your way into an unwinnable state but I wasn’t about to waste my time trying. The problem with all this freedom is that half the time I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. There are tons of special abilities you can unlock but they aren’t really required to do anything so I was never compelled to try any of them out.

The story is just as open as and free flowing as the environments. I found myself inundated with reams of boring backstory and world-building via various NPC e-mails and books. This has become a common story-telling trope that I am seriously sick of. This ain’t Zork and I want to live in this world and not read about it while monsters are cloaked and hidden everywhere. Despite all these attempts at fleshing out the universe, the story feels half-done and never really grabbed me.

Throughout the first half of the game I found myself getting beaten down constantly. Your character is so weak compared to the enemies and there is no proper tutorial explaining how you can use stealth and the objects lying around to your advantage. Maybe I just suck at this game, but I was constantly on the verge of rage quitting every ten minutes or so. I can’t say I completely hated the experience. When I did manage to defeat a particularly tough enemy in an unusual way it was quite satisfying but that wasn’t enough for me to recommend this game.

Thief 2: The Metal Age on PC (6/10)

Posted on

Thief 2 has not aged terribly well. I’m usually not one to complain about dated graphics, but in this case they affect the game. A core mechanic is hiding in the shadows, so when the game engine can barely render a shadow you’ve got a problem. I would plan my movements based on scurrying between dark areas only to discover that I would be running through a brightly lit hallway. There is probably a mod out there somewhere that fixes all this.

The guard AI is pretty janky too. Sometimes you could just clop around in your tap shoes and the enemies would be none the wiser, but then other times you’d turn your head and trigger their alerted state. Eventually I got used to just walking in a slow crouch all the time to avoid them.

There is a bit of a story here which is told as inter-level cutscenes. It’s not bad for what it is (sloppy amateurish art and all) but for some reason the main baddie is voiced in that Howie Mandel baby voice. So goofy.

Ultima IX: Ascension on PC (5/10)

Posted on

With the completion of this playthrough, I have now completed all the Ultima games (technically I never finished Ultima I, but that one’s a bit too retro for me). Now, everyone says Ascension is the worst of the series, and I think I agree, but it is not as horrible a game as its reputation would suggest. Taken on its own, it is a playable and fun adventure RPG game that hints at what would eventually become possible in games like Skyrim, Fallout 3 and The Witcher. But let’s be clear here, this game is still a hot mess.

Lord British stands on his throne
Lord British stands on his throne, because, yeah, that’s normal.

So, let’s quickly go over the major problems with the game. First, the graphics are buggy and you often find characters standing in odd places, items floating in mid air, and camera clipping all over the place. The controls are wonky with the right mouse button used to walk forward and a weird switching between mouse pointer inventory management and movement. Your character runs so slow that I would recommend anyone that wants to play the game to enable the fast walk cheat. The game crashes a lot. I couldn’t get it to play in-game cinematics on my Windows 10 PC. The story bears little relation to what has happened in the first eight games and is an unsatisfying ending to the Guardian cycle. Mainly, it just feels incomplete.

Dupre is the real hero here

What the game has going for it is its ambitious, persistent open-world. You kill a bandit, he drops a sword. If you return to that spot days later, the sword is still there! This is both awesome and potentially game breaking. If you drop an important item in an obscure place, good luck ever being able to retrieve it again. The world is just begging to be explored, but unfortunately, like I mentioned above, the game is incomplete. There are only a few surprises to be found.

I never figured out what this ghost ship was all about
I never figured out what this ghost ship was all about.

And, if you don’t know exactly what spell to cast at the exact time, you may never find that hidden weapon. I appreciated the lack of hand holding but felt no shame in relying heavily on walkthroughs to complete the game. Unlike most modern RPGs, the Ultima series leans heavily on puzzle solving. This can be quite enjoyable as you are forced to think your way through the various dungeons. Admittedly, by around dungeon #6 it starts to get a little old and I just wanted to bash monsters and get to the prize at the end.

The main complaint about the game is the lackluster story that just abandons the cliffhanger that was set up in Pagan. I did enjoy meeting all the old characters from the past, but there wasn’t even a slight attempt to flesh them out (perhaps except for Dupre). This should have been the cumulation of 20 years of world building and it just lands with a thud. There’s a cringey attempt at romance and plenty of interactions that lead nowhere.

However, if you are a fan of the series or even just a fan of mid-90s 3-D games, this might be worth trying out despite its many flaws. Just be patient and don’t expect too much from it.