Saints Row 2 on PC (6/10)

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I vowed to avoid open world games but then goes and makes Saints Row 2 free. This series has always been an answer to the growing seriousness of the GTA franchise (GTA V was just released for free on Epic, erg!). It’s unapologetically violent and filled with drugs and and mayhem. The fourth installment was able to get around the awkwardness of this by setting things in a virtual fantasy world. In this version, you are literally gunning down innocent people in a semi-realistic world and it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I’m no prude, but it not handled with the correct amount of satire or humor this sort of anti-hero gameplay just feels icky.

Hob on PC (8/10)

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Hob is from the same studio that created Torchlight and much of the same beautiful artistic style is on display here. This is pretty much a Zelda clone in which you keep clearing out dungeons in order to gain abilities that let you clear out harder dungeons. It even has nearly identical swordplay mechanics.

Like just about every “arty” indy game, Hob tries to tell its story in an obtuse way without dialogue. It works okay but the ending presents you with a hard choice. A choice which you can’t freakin’ understand because the entire game is spoken in Simlish. That means your final decision will be based on a random stick push rather than thought. Whatever. It was mostly fun and moved quickly, so I basically liked the game.

Legend of Grimrock on PC (8/10)

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Legend of Grimrock brings the real-time dungeon crawl formula of Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder to the modern age. Perhaps the best single improvement is auto-mapping. I know that filling out that sheet of graph paper was half the fun in the originals but I really didn’t miss it here. You are still exploring the layout and looking at your map to guess where secrets might be located. You can even jot down notes if you want to be thorough. But because I was not constantly having to look away from the screen, I was able to get a feel for the spaces much more quickly and look more carefully for secret buttons and loot. This is crucial because, in reality, Legend of Grimrock is a puzzle solving game at its core. The goal is to figure out the correct combination of levers, buttons, and pressure plates to trigger in order to open doors and make your way deeper into the dungeon.

The combat works the same as in the old games. You have four characters with a front and back row. Right-click a weapon to perform an attack and use the WASD keys to dodge and move around your enemies. The magic system is much improved too. Your mage will have a sub menu of nine tiles and the various spells are triggered by quickly clicking runes on the tiles. Weaker spells use a single rune, more complex ones have more complex patterns. Remember, all this is happening in real-time, so the combat feels much more like an action game than a tactical RPG.

As far a story goes, there is only the barest amount of narrative to follow. Most of the details are in various notes you find lying about and the occasional vision while you rest. Nothing fancy, but the final boss fight brings it all together into a satisfying finish. What the game lacks is a diversity of environments. There are only three wall tile types and when everything is laid out in a concise grid, lots of visual detail would have brought it up a notch. Thankfully, the game is just about the right length for the minimal amount of content in the game.

Transistor on PC (4/10)

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The only thing Transistor has going for it is a beautiful art style and high-quality voice acting. The rest is an exercise in tedium. Despite the artistic detail there is little interactivity to the world. The level designs are dull. The combat tries to be original but is just frustrating in that it lives uncomfortably between turn based and real-time. Plan your moves, take your actions, then run around. Boring. All this might be forgivable if not for the deliberately obtuse story telling. You’re a singer in a computer or something? With a talking sword that speaks in circles. It’s horrible.

Flashback on PC (7/10)

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I must have attempted to play this game about a dozen times. I would download it from some abandonware site, fire up DosBox, and then proceed to be frustrated out of my mind by the sluggish controls and unfair level design. Or maybe I was just terrible at that first jungle level.

Well, this is the 25th anniversary remastered edition. It’s more or less the original game emulated, but there are a few quality of life improvements. First and foremost is the ability to rewind the game after you die for an immediate do-over. Second, there are on-screen help boxes to guide you through the cryptic control scheme. There are also a bonus “street art” pickups on the levels (which are a complete waste of time) and the ability to switch to that goddawful “SuperHQ” graphics mode where the pixels are all smoothed out. Does anybody think that mode looks good? It just negates any pixel art charm.

A lot of the game is still frustrating as hell, but at least I didn’t have to reload after each of my million deaths. As beautiful as the Prince of Persia-esque rotoscope animations are, they are what make controlling your character such a pain. You are surrounded by monsters and you have to wait for what seems like an eternity for the gun-draw animation to finish. By the time it’s done you are already mashing the keys and inadvertently hitting the sheathe weapon key.

Eventually I was able to get used to the controls (somewhat) and just appreciate the artistry of the visual design. This game was touted as the follow-up to Out of this World and it has a similar feel. But it’s a much more of a standard platform game in the mold of the previously mentioned Prince of Persia. The story is told through its wonderful vector art cutscenes and less through your direct actions. There are a few inventory puzzles to solve, and an early section which starts to feel like a quest driven RPG. More of that would have been nice, but as a platformer it holds up pretty well.

Abzû on PC (5/10)

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Hey, it’s a walking simulator with a twist… swimming! I’ll give it this, Abzû is a very nice looking and great sounding game. The score is magnificent. You know the soundtrack has to be good when seemingly half of the game credits are taken up with the names of the various instrumentalists. Unfortunately, like all of these “art” games, there isn’t much in terms of a game here. You just swim around, (literally) look at fish, and occasionally click on a hot-spot. I’d be more forgiving if there was a good story to follow but, “evil thing making the ocean all evil and the only way to stop it is to swim to the end of a tunnel” is not a good story.

The Silent Age on PC (6/10)

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The biggest puzzle in this modestly sized point-and-click adventure is figuring out how to get it to even run. I bought it for 99¢ in a Steam sale a year or two ago and when I finally got around to playing it, I discovered that it would crash immediately after launching. Well, let me spoil this first puzzle for you: the game won’t run if you have Citrix Receiver installed on your computer (same for any game based on the Unity Engine). There is a fix that involves reinstalling Citrix with some command line flags. Goggle it.

Anyhow, once the game is up and running you will see its flat, vector art style with simple animations and colorful palette. This is mostly a story driven adventure in which I found the puzzles not to be very challenging. Basically, if you find an object, you know it is going to be used to unlock some other object. The only place where things get a little tricky is when time travel comes in to play. A handful of puzzles involve setting up things in the past and finding your results in the future. These are rare. Mostly time travel is only a means of navigating to hidden exits.

That said, for the money, it provides enough story and things to explore to keep it interesting and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I say that a lot, don’t I?

Doom [2016] on PC (9/10)

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I think this is a reboot. Was there actually a plot in the original Doom? Whatever the case, this version of Doom is a vast improvement on the previous game in the series.

This is a return to the pure shooter style of early FPS games. There are a few cut scenes and all that, but who cares. The killer feature here is the ability to pull off gory finishing moves in order to gain health and ammo. And you are not just running backwards. The level design is impressive. They are bright a spacious with lots of verticality and room to move. And you will have to keep moving as the onslaught of demons is relentless.

OCD gamers can scour levels for secrets and challenges. I was just content blasting away.

GNOG on PC (7/10)

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GNOG is a cute little puzzle game in which you are left to click and poke around without any instructions and without knowing what your goal is. This is a little frustrating at first, but once you realize that you are trying to open up the big cartoon heads, things start to make sense. Or as much sense as opening up floating heads makes.

There are some common tactics: right-click to flip the box, figure out how to pop the back open, then things get weird after that. The main draw here is the surreal art and soothing music. It’s not that hard and it really just feels like a point and click adventure with no story. The game does get some negative marks for crashing on the end puzzle (with no way to get there without starting over) and for not working if you have Citrix receiver installed on your PC. Talk about weird.

Ruiner on PC (7/10)

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Ruiner rages with a riot of red. So much red. It’s like an entire game based on a Photoshop filter applied to the R channel. I went in to this thinking it was going to be your standard twin-stick shooter like Nex Mechina and I was excited. No, this is one of those aim with the mouse, steer with wasd games. That control scheme always seems a little bit off and, when you’re in an isometric view, the aim never quite matches with your perspective. On top of this there are several special moves bound to other buttons. The most important of which is a chainable dash move. This is very awkward when you need to use you mouse both for aiming and positioning your dashes.

About two levels in to the game I was getting flashbacks to Until I Have You, which has similar cyberpunk aesthetics, but also has a game ruining control scheme. I gave that game a bad review on Steam describing it as being like controlling a game with a theremin. The developer then contacted me wanting me to elaborate. Awkward. That’s just about as weird as when Sweetwater Music calls you in regards to your online purchase of strings and a few guitar picks. There’s customer service and then there’s just leave me alone so I can never leave my desk and buy things on the Internet and rant anonymously in the middle of the night.

By that third level Ruiner had become so frustratingly hard that I was considering giving up. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized, “Hey, there’s an easy mode!” Upon switching down the challenge the game actually became fun. The whole point of the story is that your some cyber-modified human with unstoppable kill-powers. When you die every few minutes, you lose a bit of that key plot point. With the tempo is slowed down, I was able to wrap my reflexes around the janky controls and actually start to feel like I wasn’t just clicking randomly. Maybe the game could have used a more gradual difficulty curve to make normal mode actually playable to an old geezer like me. I recommend it. It’s short, über stylish, and spazzy fun.