Ion Fury on PC (9/10)

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Ion Fury is more than the nostalgia cash-in that its marketing might suggest. It an FPS that gets to the core of what a great FPS should be: a combination frantic firefights in environments that test a player’s skill and clever level design that rewards exploration. Missing from all this is a deep and thoughtful story but I didn’t really miss it. Too many games these days try to be movies instead of games. I appreciate the effort, but the writing in video games rarely is even on par with a Disney channel sitcom. Gameplay is king and Ion Fury has it in spades.

The game is built using an updated version of the 3D Realms Build Engine. It still looks like Duke Nukem 3D but the resolutions are higher, the controls a much smoother, and the sheer amount of stuff in the game is increased. You are still mainly just looking for key cards on your path to the final boss battle(s). And, you know what, I didn’t care. The levels are incredibly designed, the enemies are just smart and varied enough, and there are plenty of stat challenges to shoot for. Finding all the secrets without a walkthrough is probably impossible but when you do find one is a truly rewarding. This was an unexpected gem.

Control on PC (7/10)

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In Control you are in control of Jesse. She’s been plunked down into a giant, oppressively designed government building and there are glowy monster-men attacking her. Not much else is explained. Only after a few hours of playing do you start to get a feeling for what’s going on. Something about a long lost brother, a voice in her head, and a mysterious force called The Hiss.

It’s not terribly engaging but at least the combat mechanics can be fun. You have a selection of weak pistols but mostly enemies are taken down with Jesse’s multitude of psychic powers. The most useful of which is her ability to launch objects at enemies. It’s pretty much a gussied-up version of the Half-Life 2 gravity gun. There’s also a shield, a dash, possession, and levitation but those are only have limited use. It’s a bit of a Metroid thing where a few zones are only accessible with a specific power.

In the end I was mostly just frustrated with the third-person perspective and all the running around. Apparently there is some sort of Alan Wake tie-in and that would explain the similar game play feels. But there was just too much obtuse story telling for my tastes.

Dishonored 2 on PC (8/10)

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It’s time to return the steampunk world of Dishonored in which you sneak around and strangle everyone who crosses your path. Dishonored 2 should be commended for allowing players to complete their goals in a variety of ways. I usually prefer the stealthy, non-lethal approach, but if you want, you can murder everyone in sight or even ignore the enemies and run to the end of the level.

As you play you begin to acquire super-powers allowing the player to teleport, see through walls, etc. The teleportation power is the first one you get and it is by far the most useful. I felt like I was cheating because I was allowed to zap myself above and around obstacles. The challenge became trying to collect all the charms strewn throughout the world without ever being detected or using lethal takedowns.

Once again I finished the game without ever killing anyone, but I still was tagged for 2 or 3 deaths along the way. I wish there was a progress screen so I would know mid-level if I accidentally hid a sleeping enemy in a killer rats nest or whatever. There was also a glitch where bodies weren’t where I left them when loaded a save, causing them to be detected by guards. I really don’t have the patience to replay the game and attempt a perfect run especially since the various endings are just quick voiceovers that change slightly based on your actions. I got my “good” ending and that’s enough for me.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent on PC (4/10)

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In the end this just became tedious. While you control your character like an FPS, this is almost a point and click adventure. Most missions require you finding an object, combining it with something else, then clicking the combined object on a locked passage. Occasionally you will find yourself hiding from a zombie-like monster (Outlast style). But it is literally a monster—one enemy type the entire game. There’s also some sort of mechanic where you must maintain your sanity, but it’s not interesting at all.

All this would be a moot point if there was a compelling story. Alas, there was not. The backstory is developed as written notes and the occasional narrated flashback. But it’s so easy to forget what it’s about since you, the player, are not involved in the story telling. Something about an orb and a shadow. Who cares. Pass on this one.

The Talos Principle on PC (6/10)

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The Talos Principle is a solid puzzle game in which you manipulate objects around rooms to connect light beams, stack object, etc. in order to get to a prize. The more prizes you collect, to more puzzle zones are available. All the while there are tons of terminals with messages to read that try to world build and pose philosophical ponderings about consciousness. In the end, I really couldn’t care less about the “story” and I eventually just gave up about halfway through the game. The puzzles started to get too tedious and a wall of text was not a good enough reward for success.

Mushihimesama on PC (8/10)

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Lately I have become obsessed with bullet-hell shmups like this. I’d see these images of these impossible patterns of projectiles and wonder how anyone could maneuver a ship around them for more than a few seconds. Most of my experience with them has been through Mame arcade emulation with a special interest in ones with detailed pixel art. No matter the title, I could always manage to get to the end of the maybe the first level and would then be absolutely destroyed after that.

Mushihimesama is a classic Cave arcade shmup, but here, in the Steam PC port of the game, there are several modes of play including a forgiving novice mode. This reduced difficulty level is still painfully hard on my Gen-X reflexes but I managed, over the course of many hours of play, to just about master the entire game through to the end.

This is where the appeal of these games ultimately lies: the gradual mastery of the mechanics, levels and patterns of bullets. It’s not easy but it always feels like you’re getting a little bit farther after every punishing defeat, Plus, the skills I have lean on the baby mode have helped me get a little further on the more aggressive difficulties. I will never master the hardest levels but it’s within the realm of possibility.

Caladrius Blaze on PC (7/10)

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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)

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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 Gog.com. 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)

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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)

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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.