Mini Metro

mini-metro-gameplay-screenshot-1Explaining how a puzzle game works can sometimes be very esoteric. Someone could be sitting there for an hour listening, and still be a bit fuzzy on what’s going on. As such, it can often make things a lot more understandable simply by wrapping such a game in a real world setting. Mini Metro does this quite well. If one were to say it was a game where players attached lines to shapes so that tiny shapes could travel those lines and get to similar shapes, that would be hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. If one simply says its a game where one creates a subway system, suddenly everything makes a ton of sense.

This is a game with a very minimalist presentation. Stages look like subway maps with simple black or white backgrounds and blue representing water. Each station appears on the map as a shape with three stations present at the beginning of each stage. This is where players start, dragging their mouse or finger from station to station in order to set a train line. Players start with three lines and three trains. From there it’s up to them how their subway system will be laid out.

Don’t waste too much time, though, because passengers are going to start showing up wanting to go places. These are depicted by smaller shapes corresponding to that of the stations. This way players have an idea where passengers are going and can plan out their routes accordingly.

mini-metro-gameplay-screenshot-2Things are simple enough with only three stations, but over time more and more stations will pop up. From there, one must be clever about how their lines are set up. Sometimes a series of loops might be best. On other occasions, straight lines work better. Often, a combination of the two will be in order. At first this isn’t too difficult. However, as time progresses there will be a lot more stations on the map. When this happens, it will become harder and harder to keep up with all of the stations and passengers. This is intentional, though. The game is designed to eventually overwhelm. The player must simply persevere for as long as possible, getting as many passengers to their destination as possible before a station becomes overcrowded with people waiting. When that happens it’s game over.

To give players a little bit of help, they receive an extra train each in-game week. They’ll also be given a choice of a few other bonuses to improve their subway system. These include extra carriages, additional lines, and larger stations among other things. These will help a lot in accommodating all of the people trying to use the subway. It’s always a relief to use these in helping take some of the strain off of a particularly busy line, but one knows it’s only a matter of time before another areas becomes crowded.

mini-metro-gameplay-screenshot-3Mini Metro has quite a few stages to it, each in a popular metropolitan area. These include London, Paris, Osaka, Shanghai, Mumbai, and the like. Each provides their own geographical challenges, especially if they have a lot of water around them. Many will need to be unlocked before visiting, though. This is usually done by managing to score at least 500 on a map or maps preceding it. There is also a daily challenge mode which does exactly what is says on the box. It’s nice when one wants a change of pace from the standard game.

This is a game that can be played in short spurts or marathon sessions. Hop into a map and have at it setting up a subway system. It’s very satisfying to set up an efficient system for getting people around, especially later in the game when one has to deal with huge throngs of passengers. It’s a relaxing, simple enough concept that makes time fly by. This actually makes it a pretty good way to pass the time while commuting on a busy subway, all while making one’s own virtual subway system, which is strangely meta in its own way.

Mini Metro is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam, GOG, and Itch.io. It’s also available for iOS and Android, as well as the Nintendo Switch.

Jotun

jotun-gameplay-screenshot-1Games that throw huge bosses at players just feel epic. They instantly illicit a, “Yikes!” as battle begins. From there things evolve. First one runs around desperately trying not to get killed. The monstrosity in front of them is probably blasting stuff, smashing things, and barely giving players a moment to catch their breath. There’s a lot going on and there’s just this massive creature there that would like nothing better than put an end to players’ adventures.

Then something happens. Players start to figure out the patterns. At first one starts to discover the best way to dodge incoming attacks. Then openings to counterattack become noticeable. Suddenly, the player lands a blow on the boss. From there, momentum slowly begins to shift. Then, finally, after a pitched battle, the player emerges victories.

Of course this is simplifying things just slightly. It’s highly likely that players died several times and had to redo the battle. However, at some point they figured out what to do, and executed it reasonably well. Then they found their on screen alter ego standing over the corpse of a once terrifying boss. With that, a tremendous sense of satisfaction washes over the player, only to be yanked away as the process repeats on the next boss. That’s okay, though, because eventually the game will be completed, all the bosses dead, and those who finished this will be able to enjoy the sense of accomplishment. Even if one doesn’t finish the game, they’ll likely have the good sense to point at it and tell friends, “The fights in that game are epic!”

jotun-gameplay-screenshot-2Jotun is one such game that deserves these accolades. The game follows the story of a recently deceased viking woman named Thora. Her death was less than glorious and as a result she has to prove her mettle to the gods. Doing so will ensure her a place in Valhalla. The gods are fine with this, so they issue her a challenge. If she is able to defeat a number of Jotun, giants of viking mythology, they will grant her a place in paradise.

From there, players venture forth exploring a number of different worlds. The game is structured as half boss fights and half exploration / puzzle solving. First one must explore a couple of areas in the domain of a given Jotun. Here Thora will look for runes that open up the sealed door to the giant of that realm. She’ll also occasionally find fruit that will increase her health pool, as well as alters to various viking gods. When she comes across these alters, she is granted new abilities, which are quite helpful. The exploration and puzzle solving usually have little to no combat. It’s more about figuring out how to get all of the runes and power ups in the area. It makes for a slower pace, but is a nice counter balance to the extremely busy boss fights.

Meanwhile, fighting the actual Jotun is as epic and exciting as the little story at the start of this article implies. Seeing as the game is presented from an isometric view, it’s all about dashing in, getting in a few swings and getting out after. There will also be specific mechanics to engage in, but never get caught out. Doing so will likely result in a very large foot coming down on Thora’s head, or some other unpleasantly over-sized outcome that will take off a ton of health.

jotun-gameplay-screenshot-3These beings are giants after all, and the game really emphasizes it. When Thora engages one of these creatures, the camera pans out until she’s just a tiny little person on the screen. Often she barely comes up to the ankle of a Jotun. Seeing this is imposing enough as it is, but then the giant starts attacking.

From here it’s all about learning patterns, battle phases, and figuring out how and when to attack. Each boss will have multiple phases, so there’s a lot to sort out, but it’s very satisfying when one does. Battles are tough but fair. If a player dies, it’s clear it was because of something they did or didn’t do. Maybe they didn’t see an add. Perhaps they got greedy and tried to get in one too many swings with Thora’s ax when it was obvious the Jotun was about to attack. Another possibility is that one neglected to look for alters of the gods and / or fruit to make Thora stronger, and are now at a disadvantage in the fight.

The game is such, that it pretty much bombards players with opportunities for self-reflection when things go wrong. If a player dies a few times on a particular Jotun, the best thing to do is pay a little more attention in the fight. Make sure there isn’t anything that one is missing. Most players will have a eureka moment where they figure out what they need to do. Not long after that, the boss is usually dead, with the player sitting triumphantly in front of their monitor.

jotun-gameplay-screenshot-4With regards to graphics and music, they both add so much to the experience. Visually everything has been hand drawn frame-by-frame. The art style is reminiscent of cartoons from the 1970s with bold colors and just enough detail to add personality to the Jotun. They’re usually angry, or at least thoroughly annoyed that a mere human would have the nerve to poke them in the toe with her ax. Meanwhile, the game’s soundtrack is fantastic. It’s all orchestral pieces with a mix of softer tunes for exploration areas. Here, it runs the gamut from the serene to the foreboding. When a boss fight commences, players are greeted with a cacophonous explosion of instruments that instantly signal that shit just got real.

People in the mood for some epic battles against giant bosses mixed with a nice serving of viking mythology would do well to take a look at Jotun. The battles really are fantastic. Even the exploration can be fun, not to mention relaxing. Meanwhile, the game looks and sounds amazing. All in all, it’s definitely worth a play.

Jotun is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG. It is also out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Switch.

VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

va-11-hall-a-gameplay-screenshot-1Cyberpunk has a lasting appeal to it. Since it was first introduced almost 40 years ago, it has steadily increased in popularity. There’s just something romantic about a high-tech neon city shrouded in eternal night. The tough part when making a game set in this backdrop is coming up with something that stands out from the crowd. Sukeban has done a great job of this. They’ve taken this popular aesthetic and wrapped it up in a visual novel coupled with a heavy dose of bartending. It sounds strange, but you’ll be surprised how well you mix drinks for clients by the end of the game. VA-11 Hall-A is incredibly engaging.

The game focuses on a women named Jill who lives in Glitch City. It’s a dystopian town where corporations rule the roost and a paramilitary group called the White Knights enforce the law. It’s a harsh place where one can hardly be blamed for wanting a drink. Sometimes folk need a moment to forget about all the problems the city has. So, from the start the game sets a tone that it takes place in a world where an oppressive regime calls the shots and there are groups constantly protesting it and trying to fight back. This backdrop is made all the more interesting one considers that the developers are from Venezuela.

va-11-hall-a-gameplay-screenshot-2While the story itself is quite interesting, what really brings it to life are VA-11 Hall-A‘s characters. There are a number of them and each are dripping with personality. On one end of the spectrum is someone like Donovan. He the no nonsense editor at the local newspaper. On the other end is Streaming-chan who insists on livestreaming every aspect of her life. This leads to all sorts of conversations when people come to the bar. Some people may want to talk about current events. Others will discuss minute details of their personal life. Then there’s everything in between. It makes for some interesting conversations and also gives hints as to what sort of drinks someone might like.

This brings us to the primary gameplay aspects of VA-11 Hall-A. While all of the conversations with clients take care of the game’s visual novel aspects, this is where players pick up the controller and get to business. From here it’s time to do some bartending. Sometimes characters will bluntly tell Jill what they want to drink, especially early in the game. Later on, though, it becomes important to be able to read their moods and personalities. They’ll hint at what they want and players have to figure it out for themselves.

This can be made easier or harder depending on what players do with Jill when she’s off work. She’ll often be hanging out in her apartment, and one can decide how they want to spruce up the place with some of the money that she earns at the bar. This can range from little decorations to doodads and entertainment devices. Be sure to always have enough left over to pay the rent, though. These little bits of shopping are important because it helps with Jill’s mood and keeps her better attuned to what her customers want. The better her mindset, the less likely she’ll make a mistake with an order.

va-11-hall-a-gameplay-screenshot-3Mixing drinks is actually a fairly involved process. There are a number of different ingredients that each impact the flavor of a drink in different ways. Then players can choose how much of each ingredient to put in. On top of this, one has to decide whether the drink should have ice or be aged. It’s even possible to make a drink a double sometimes. So, there’s a lot of depth to making these things for customers. What’s even more interesting is how players will discover they’re memorizing drinks and who likes what as the game progresses. The game has a book on how to make every drink, but eventually players will barely need to check it because they know how to make almost everything by heart.

While all of this is going on, players will be bombarded by VA-11 Hall-A‘s aesthetic. Visually the game goes for a very anime-inspired style of pixel art. Each character is full of personality and the environment has that dingy neon high-tech feel synonymous with cyberpunk. Meanwhile, the game’s music is an interesting mix of synth-laden tracks. Think of any of the recent electronic genres ending in “wave” and there’s a decent chance it shows up in the game’s soundtrack. With that, there’s a lot of good music to enjoy here. Players largely dictate what they want to hear as they pick all of the songs in the bar’s jukebox at the start of each shift.

va-11-hall-a-gameplay-screenshot-4As unusual as it may sound, “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” actually works quite well together in a game. VA-11 Hall-A‘s story and characters really go a long way in carrying the game because they’re all so interesting and likable. Meanwhile, organizing Jill’s apartment and serving up drinks is a lot of fun. People looking for something a bit different in a cyberpunk setting should seriously consider looking into this game. It’s well worth spending some time with.

VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG, as well as for the PlayStation Vita. The game is also slated for release on the Switch and PlayStation 4 some time in 2019.

Axiom Verge

axiom-verge-gameplay-screenshot-1When playing a metroidvania game, it can be fun trying to figure out how much either Metroid or Castlevania influenced it. In the case of Axiom Verge, that is easy to see. The game is very clearly a love letter to classic Metroid games. From its aesthetic to gameplay, it is a well put together homage to the classic Nintendo series.

The game follows a scientist named Trace who is caught in a lab accident that renders him unconscious. When he comes to, he finds himself on a strange new world with no idea how he got there. Before long, he meets an AI and agrees to help it defeat a mad scientist that is up to no good. After this, the plot thickens quite a bit as Trace recovers some of the memories that he lost due to the accident.

Right from the get go, players can see parallels with the early 8-bit Metroids. Graphically, Axiom Verge went for the same sort of simplified pixel graphics. The detail is greater than that found in classic NES games, but doesn’t quite take things to a fidelity on par with the 16-bit era. Some of the monsters have a similar feel to those found in Nintendo’s classic series as well. That being said, the environments in the game are dripping personality. It’s really exciting venturing to new areas, as it’s hard not to be curious what they’ll be like.

axiom-verge-gameplay-screenshot-2The game’s bosses are also a sight to behold. They’re imposing figures that fill up much of the screen. This is something that was common during the 8 and 16-bit eras, but largely went away for a very long time. It’s nice to see this sort of thing come back in Axiom Verge. Boss fights should be epic, larger than life battles. That’s exactly what we get here.

As one explores the world of Axiom Verge, it’s easy to see that it is a very large place with lots to explore. There are plenty of branching paths and tucked away places beckoning at the player. It’s easy to start thinking about what they may hold. Will there be a new gadget? Maybe a boss is down that path?

Of course, often times it will not be possible to venture down those roads immediately. There will be some sort of barrier blocking it, or it will be a jump too high, or the path will be too tiny for Trace. These are all instances where one is quickly reminded that they are indeed playing a Metroidvania and will need to discover a key item in order to go down that road. Nevertheless, there are constant hints of new opportunities to explore that will entice the player onward.

While doing this, it becomes apparent that the game is a bit more combat-oriented than others in the genre. It has a bit more of a run-and-gun feel to it. There are a lot of enemies that would like nothing better than take down Trace. As such, he’ll be spending a lot of time blasting these things to pieces. He has a decent-sized rifle to start, and gains new types of shots as one progresses. From there it’s up to players to swap out weapon types as situations dictate.

axiom-verge-gameplay-screenshot-3Then there are the gadgets that give Trace new abilities. There are a bunch of these, such as a lab coat that allows Trace to pass through solid objects, as well as a nifty grappling hook. One particularly fun piece of kit that he gets is a little remote controlled drone. It’s a tiny robot that walks on four legs and has a laser for fighting enemies.

This little guy is used to enter areas too small for Trace. These can be simple corridors with a switch on the other side to open a door. Other times, it could lead to a series of rooms crawling with enemies ready to attack the drone. Usually, in this situation, there is some useful item at the end of all this. If the drone is destroyed, it de-materializes and players return to Trace. This doesn’t mean that the drone is gone forever, though. It can be redeployed, but players need to start all over again in the area they are trying to explore with it.

The game provides a good challenge. Players need to figure out where to go next, remembering old areas that may later be explorable. The sheer number of enemies and obstacles necessitate one being on their toes if they don’t want to get killed. Meanwhile, boss fights are extremely exciting not just because these things are so big, but they also have some interesting patterns for players to figure out.

With all of the Metroidvania games to come along in recent years, there is a lot to choose from currently. One needn’t fear choice paralysis, however. Axiom Verge is an excellent place to start when delving into these games. It’s easily one of the best of the bunch. The game offers tons of exploration coupled with fast-paced action. It has an interesting story with some nice twists. It’s graphics and sound are a nice homage to early Metroid games and other titles of the 8 and 16-bit era. The game just does so many things so very well. People interested in delving into the genre for a bit should seriously consider picking up Axiom Verge.

Axiom Verge is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam, as well as PlayStation 4, XboxOne, and Switch.

FTL (Faster Than Light)

ftl-faster-than-light-gameplay-screenshot-1Piloting a spaceship through the cosmos can be a challenging endeavor. Doing so while being chased by an enemy fleet all the more so. Add in random attacks from pirates, systems breaking, and answering distress calls, and would be captains will find their hands quite full. These are the sorts of things that players will have to deal with in FTL. It’s a sci-fi rogue-like where players command a spaceship, dealing with these aforementioned challenge. It becomes a matter of managing all of the SNAFUs while improving one’s ship, fighting enemies, and getting away from that nasty fleet.

The premise of the game is that the Galactic Federation has suffered a civil war and the rebels look poised to win. Players pilot a ship loyal to the Federation. They’re carrying data that could turn the whole war around, but need to get to HQ several sectors away. Complicating matters is that the rebel fleet is hot on their tail.

As such, players use their jump engines to warp from way point to way point in a sector. There’s generally no way to find out what might be lurking at any of these destinations, though. So players just have to wait and see when they get there. It could be a civilian ship in need of assistance, pirates waiting in ambush, or there may be a merchant eager to do business. All sorts of things could happen.

ftl-faster-than-light-gameplay-screenshot-2A lot of the time, though, it’s someone or something that wants to start a fight with players. As such, there is a lot of combat in FTL. Battles are actually quite involved, but thankfully the game can be paused at any time to issue orders. Ships have a handful of crew members that can be moved around to operate systems. When a fight breaks out, players may want people manning the shields and weapons. Any system with a crew member operating it will function slightly better than leaving it on autopilot.

As battles wear on, players may also have to decide if they want someone staying where they are, or risk a drop in performance because crew are needed elsewhere to repair damaged systems. A balancing act becomes necessary between optimizing systems, repairing damaged ones, putting out fires, and healing injured crew. Then you may be attacked by a boarding party and all of that goes right out the window.

All the while, there’s the whole matter of blowing up the enemy ship. Players will start off with two weapon systems, usually one missile launcher and one beam weapon. From there they must decide what systems to target on the enemy ship. If it has powerful weapons, it makes sense to target their weapons in order to disable them. If they’re trying to escape, target their engines. Different situations will call for prioritizing different systems on an enemy ship, and these may change multiple times over the course of a battle. Players can also control where power goes in their systems, so there may be times where it is necessary to divert power from one area of the ship to another in order to win a battle.

As one can see there is a lot to keep track of during a fight. It’s never overwhelming, though. When things get hectic, just remember to pause the game, take a deep breath, then get the crew doing what they need to do.

Victory often leads to salvaging the defeated ship for fuel, scrap (the game’s currency), and possibly new weapons. From there, players just need to send their crew around to repair damaged systems, heal up, then jump to the next way point to see what surprises might lurk there.

ftl-faster-than-light-gameplay-screenshot-3As this continues and players go from one star system to the next, their ship will get into a more and more precarious state. Fuel may run low, missiles might run out, the ships hull may be almost completely destroyed (once its gone, it’s game over). There is a lot to worry about. As such, later in the game resource management will become very important. There might be times where one can spend a few scrap repairing the hull, but that means not using the scrap for system upgrades. Increasingly, it may become better to avoid fights so not to risk the hull. Then again, if a battle breaks out, that may result in salvaging much needed fuel if victorious. Decisions, decisions.

If one successfully makes it all the way to Federation HQ after all this and defeats the rebel fleet, good job, that’s a win. It’s also one of the ways that new ships can be unlocked. The other is meeting specific conditions during a playthrough. In either case, it opens the door to other interesting, sometimes unusual vessels that can completely change the dynamic of the game. They all have their own goodies that help them stand out from one another. Some of them are really quite powerful.

Visually, FTL is very utilitarian. It has a 2D pixelated look to it that gets the job done. It’s enough to figure out what is going on and that’s about it. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is suitably space game sounding. It’s ambient electronic stuff that is common for games in this setting.

A session of FTL can be a harrowing experience. Between all of the combat and staying supplied enough to get to the end of the game, there’s a lot to keep players busy. Given the rogue-like nature of the game, most sessions will probably end in death. However, those times where one reigns victorious are immensely satisfying. They exemplify why Faster Than Light is such a great game worth trying.

FTL is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG, as well as iOS.

Pig Eat Ball

pig-eat-ball-gameplay-screenshot-1There will be one big challenge in this write up of Pig Eat Ball. Can words adequately convey what the game is? Or will the the images in this article better explain what the game is all about? So, here we go.

Let’s begin with story. That’s as good a place as any to start. Players take control of a space pig named Bow. Her father is the king of the space station that she lives on and feels Bow is at the age where she aught to marry. With that he has begun a competition for the eligible bachelors of the space station. Whoever wins will get to marry Bow. Of course, Bow is none too pleased about this. So, she decides to enter the contest herself in disguise. Her hope is that if she wins she’ll be able to get out of her situation.

With that, players embark on a journey through the various sectors of the space station. Here they’ll find the different stages scattered about, easily identifiable by large space clams. Bow must complete the challenges that they set out for her. When she successfully does this, they will give her a pearl.

pig-eat-ball-gameplay-screenshot-2Many of the tasks given to Bow will involve collecting tennis balls. She gathers these by wandering around, sucking them up, and storing them in her belly. The difficulty here is that these make her fat. She’s already quite plump, but after gobbling up a few of these balls, she’ll become too big to get through narrow passages. If players want to slim her down to get through, they’ll need to make use of the barf button.

Yes, there’s a barf button. It’s actually extremely important. Using it will cause Bow to vomit up whatever tennis balls she has consumed, blasting them out in a spray of green slime. It makes a huge mess, but that’s just the way things go. Once she’s walked through the narrow area, she can suck up the balls again. However, it’s better to wait a few seconds for the vomit to drip off of them. If players rush and wind up making Bow consume three vomit-drenched balls, she’ll feel sick and throw up again. So, patience is key here.

Throwing up isn’t just useful for getting through tight spots. It’s also a weapon. The stages often have enemies that want to do harm to Bow. These aren’t exactly the safest places in the world. Luckily, she can barf on them. This will usually hold them in place or slow them down for a while as they are covered in goopy green bile. So, as one can see, vomit is a multi-purpose tool on Bow’s path to victory.

pig-eat-ball-gameplay-screenshot-4Stages feel like something right out of an 80s or 90s arcade game in terms of layout. There will be all sorts of obstacles in the way of Bow and the tennis balls that she needs to collect. There are the aforementioned narrow spots. There’s enemies lurking about. There are one-way paths. There are spiky things that you don’t want to come into contact with. The game also has a number of areas where Bow can use her suction to attract a ball, but needs to lead it through a puzzle-like labyrinth in order to actually get to it. Some stages go for something completely different too. For instance, there’s a sandwich making level. Another is themed around bowling. There are also boss stages with giant, over-the-top enemies to defeat. These things are even more over-the-top than whatever players have experienced up to that point. That’s really saying something.

The game also makes references to several classic arcade games with its level design. Players will likely spot the obvious ones right away like Pac Man and Q-Bert. Others may take a little while to recognize depending on how knowledgeable one is about these games.

Stages also award players on how well they are completed. As such, there is plenty of motivation to replay them and trying to get a first place gold medal in every challenge. Each stage has clever, efficient ways to complete them. It’s actually quite satisfying figuring these out.

If players tire of playing the stages already present in Pig Eat Ball, there’s even a level editor. With that people can create their own stages, or just play levels created by the community. This opens the door to a bottomless pit of stages to keep people busy.

The game even supports a party mode for four-player local multiplayer. With that, the door is open to rigorous vomiting with friends. In a virtual setting anyway. The logistics for real life group vomiting would probably be a nightmare.

pig-eat-ball-gameplay-screenshot-4Pig Eat Ball‘s aesthetic really helps to cement the zaniness of the game. This is seen first and foremost in the character design. Right from the opening scene, players are introduced to Bow’s father. He has a cake for a head and a personality not all that dissimilar to the King of All Cosmos. It certainly sets the tone for the game. Players are later introduced to the king’s guards. These guys also have cakes for heads. There are the peculiar-looking clams, too. It would also seem that there are a number of mischievous pill bugs with a penchant for tennis milling around the station. On top of this, the color scheme and level of detail in the visuals helps everything really pop off the screen. It’s very similar to the bright colors so common in classic arcade games.

Meanwhile, the game’s soundtrack is lighthearted and upbeat. It has a lot of memorable tunes and they’re easy to get stuck in one’s head. They all do a lot to bring that arcade game feel to the forefront.

It can be very hard to make a video game that is meant to come off as weird and over the top, but also not seem contrived. Pig Eat Ball does this very well. It’s visual style and characters are endearing, while gameplay is entertaining, silly, requires some thought, and is just an overall good time. People looking for something well off the beaten path would do well to try this game out. It’s easily one of the most unusual, yet enjoyable titles to come along in a very long time.

Pig Eat Ball is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and Itch.io, as well as  PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Papers, Please

papers-please-gameplay-screenshot-1Every now and then a game comes flying out of left field that makes people reconsider what video games are. One such example of this is Papers, Please. Here, players take on the role of a border inspector in the fictional totalitarian state of Arstotzka during the Cold War. With that, players are responsible for monitoring anyone trying to come into the country. They will do this by looking at people’s passports, visas, fingerprints, and such and compare them to guidelines set out by the Ministry of Admission. As one can see, this is very different from the vast majority of games out there. It’s also surprisingly engaging as players find themselves getting better and better at doing their job.

Everyday players will head to their border post with a new set of guidelines from the Ministry of Admissions. Things will start off simple enough, but over time there may be more things to check for, and the job will get a lot more nuanced. People visiting from certain countries may not be admitted. On some days, special visas may be required. Does the person standing at the desk match the sex of the person on the passport? Is the issuing city on the passport correct? Is the date on their visa correct? There are all sorts of things to watch out for while when inspecting these people.

Players can’t afford to dilly dally while doing this, either. They get paid by how many people they let into the country correctly. As such, it’s important to process people at a brisk pace if one wants to take care of their family. Going too slow will result in an already meager pay cheque becoming all that much smaller. However, one also needs to make sure that going fast doesn’t lead to mistakes. The Ministry of Admission doesn’t tolerate this and will dock pay when it finds out. They may even arrest you in some cases.

papers-please-gameplay-screenshot-2When money becomes tight, the other aspect of Papers, Please‘s gameplay comes starkly into focus: players have a family to take care of. All of that money being earned as a border inspector is paying for things like rent, food, utilities, and medicine. If there isn’t enough money to go around, players need to decide what their family will have to go without. This becomes even more complicated when someone is sick and medicine is needed to keep them alive. Tough choices will have to be made, but don’t dwell on them too long. You still need to get up in the morning and go to work again.

The whole thing can feel a bit grim, but a satisfaction begins to stir inside once one gets the hang of things. Developing an efficient method of going over potential entrants’ paperwork, and getting enough people processed each day to earn enough to live becomes strangely enjoyable. It feels all the more unusual because it is being juxtaposed against the constant reminder that the game takes place in a harsh totalitarian regime. So, players get into this state where they’re having a blast basically doing paperwork while being bombarded with reminders as to how terrible the game’s world is.

papers-please-gameplay-screenshot-3While all of this is going on, the game’s visuals underscore the Cold War feel of Papers, Please. It’s a very simple, pixelated look. However, the design of characters, environments, and sparse use of color echoes the Brutalist architecture that was so common during the era. This is further accentuated by how quiet the game is. There is the occasional music. It’s very reminiscent of themes one would expect to hear coming out of the Soviet bloc 40 years ago. Otherwise, it’s just the sound of the player shuffling through papers, stamping passports, and ordering the next person into the booth. Everything feels very harsh and cold.

Still, it is the satisfaction of getting good at being a border inspector that carries people through Paper’s Please. It’s the sort of game a lot of people probably never would have expected to be fun. Yet, here we are. Grasping a system, then figuring out how to work as efficiently as possible within it can be very enjoyable. Even if the country the game takes place in is incredibly harsh, it’s almost as if processing people’s papers extremely well becomes a little oasis of happiness in that otherwise troubled place.

Papers, Please is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG as well as for the PlayStation Vita.

ZeroRanger

zeroranger-gameplay-screenshot-1Even spending a few minutes with ZeroRanger, the game feels like a Where’s Waldo of shoot ’em up references. This is a game that was clearly developed by fans of the genre. Seemingly everywhere one looks, there are references to shmups of old. Some of these may be blindingly obvious. Meanwhile, others may slip under the radar until the umpteenth playthrough. It’s a love letter to these games that long time fans will thoroughly enjoy. Even if this is your first shooter ever, there’s still plenty to like. The game has responsive controls, nicely scaling challenge, and a very appealing retro art style.

Like so many shooters before, in ZeroRanger the earth is being invaded by beings from another planet. As such, players need to hop in their ship and blast their way through entire armadas solo to try and stop them. There are a few other twists and turns in the story. However, this is the general gist of things.

That being said, most people don’t play shoot ’em ups for robust narratives. They just want to blow stuff up. Happily, there is plenty of opportunity for that here. The first stage feels like something from the early 90s. There aren’t too many ships and things are relatively calm. However, it doesn’t take long before the pace picks up in a big way. By stage three things get very intense with gameplay becoming more and more bullet hell-ish. It’s interesting, as it feels like the game is trying to straddle the middle ground between traditional shmups and more hectic modern ones.

Boss fights will have bullets flying everywhere. There are patterns to be learned, and strategies to hammer out. All the while, the game makes little nods to classic shoot ’em ups. This can especially be seen in some of the mid bosses that look a lot like ships from other popular series.

zeroranger-gameplay-screenshot-2Playing through ZeroRanger, it’s interesting to see how the game evolves.  It starts off being a very traditional experience. Then things shift into the world of bullet hell. For the last little bit of the game, things go right off the rails (in a good way!). First, players’ ship suddenly gets the ability to turn into a giant robot. Then a little bit later they’re greeted with a gauntlet of shmup-y mini game boss thingies. It’s not the best set of descriptors but it will have to do without giving away spoilers as to why this happens. Basically these entail a number of smaller fights with a shoot ’em up premise at their core, usually with a lot of dodging, as players try to deal with the game’s final boss. There may even be a reference to Undertale in all of that. They’re very challenging and very interesting, but also make for a nice change of pace from other games in the genre.

Hopping into a game of ZeroRangers, players have a couple of ships to choose from that play a little bit different from one another. Also, at the end of each stage, they will have the choice of two special weapons to equip on their vessel. These include a lightning spread shot, homing lasers, and a powerful, concentrated shot among others. As a result, there are a lot of ways that one can tackle the game. Each weapon behaves very differently, so can lead to a number of combinations to try out during playthroughs.

zeroranger-gameplay-screenshot-3Visually, the game goes for a very stripped down retro look. It skips along the periphery of what might be considered an 8-bit aesthetic. The ship designs and environments have designs and levels of detail comparable to games of that era. However, the color palette is kept to a far more minimalist level. Green, orange, and black are the dominant colors on screen at any given time. It helps give ZeroRanger its personality and the game jokes around with its choice of colors from time to time. One certainly gets the impression that its developers are rather fond of orange.

Over the years, a decent number of shoot ’em ups have made their way to the PC. ZeroRanger is a very nice addition to that library. The way it takes so much of what made shmups from other eras good and combines it with solid controls, challenging bosses, and a nice, minimalist visual style makes for a very satisfying experience. ZeroRanger would be right at home in anybody’s shoot ’em up collection.

ZeroRanger is currently available for Windows on Steam and Itch.io.

Epistory – Typing Chronicles

epistory-gameplay-screenshot-1Typing games are an interesting little sub-genre. They’re the sort of thing some people probably remember from their childhood. Neat little programs packaged in some sort of educational software bundle to help kids get get used to using a keyboard. Then, somewhere along the way, people started making large, grandiose game experiences out of these things. Usually titles like Typing of the Dead tend to get the lion’s share of people’s attention. However, there are other other interesting typing games that come out every now and then.

One fine example of this is Epistory – Typing Chronicles. It follows the tale of a girl riding a fox as the pair explore a mysterious, magical world. The game goes for an aesthetic that feels like something straight out of an old pop-up children’s book. As new areas open up, the camera pans out as paper landmasses, trees, and the like sprout up. All the while, a narrator is advancing the story as the girl and her companion explore this world. Basically, the game uses a storytelling method similar to what was found in Bastion. So, a narrator will comment on the fly as the player do things and enter new areas.

As players wander around, they can press the space bar while stationary. This allows one to enter typing mode. If there is anything that has words associated with it, players will be able to see them and type the words. Successfully doing so will destroy the object. Sometimes these things will be fairly mundane like areas overgrown by weeds or a fallen tree. Other times, these will be enemies.

epistory-gameplay-screenshot-2Trees and the like are no big deal and players can take their time with them. However, enemies mean business and would like nothing better than to bring an end to the girl and her fox friend’s adventure. Some smaller, less dangerous critters will come crawling up looking for a fight. However, the big fights happen when players walk on particular circular platforms. These are peppered throughout the levels and clearly mark out areas where large fights will take place.

Early on, fighting these things will be pretty simple. Just hit the space bar to enter combat, after which a series of words will appear above enemies that need to be typed. Once all of the words are typed the enemy is defeated. In this situation, players only really need to worry about prioritizing which enemies to go after first depending on how close they are and how fast they move.

Later in the game, though, new abilities will become unlocked. These essentially allow players to change stances, each associated with a different element. For example, fire will cause the word following the one the player typed to burn away on its own. Meanwhile, ice temporarily freezes an enemy in place. Lightning can link to multiple enemies at once, at least for enemies susceptible to it. Finally, wind has a push back ability which is useful for buying time. With that, players will find themselves in more and more challenging situations that require frequently hopping between these stances if they want to win. It’s nice as it adds an element of tactics on top of all the typing.

epistory-gameplay-screenshot-3As players defeat enemies, blow up fallen trees, and the like, they slowly accumulate points that allow the girl to level up. When this happens, she receives a few points that can be spent on a skill tree. This allows one to customize what she’s good at. Some might want the fox to be able to move faster. Meanwhile, others may opt to improve one of her elemental abilities. There are a bunch of different skills that can be improved, so there’s a decent amount of wiggle room in terms of what one can do in the tree.

As all of this is going on, it’s hard not to notice how nice the game looks. It has a very unique art style that doesn’t appear often in games. Going with an look like that of a pop up book, the visuals add a touch of whimsy to the game. It very much feels like one is being told a story as they explore the game’s world and see forests, ruins, mountains, and the like spring up before them.

Ultimately, Epistory is a very nice entry into the world of typing games. What really makes it shine is the different stances that players need to hop back and forth between. It adds an extra layer of challenge with the tactics that are required, making the game all that much more engaging. While the game’s visuals will likely grab the attention of casual passersby, it’s the games approach to typing that brings Epistory its lasting appeal.

Epistory – Typing Chronicles is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG.

Glass Masquerade

glass-masquerade-gameplay-screenshot-1Jigsaw puzzles are fun, but they take up a lot of space. They require a decent-sized table to do them on. If you’re not going to glue them to something and put them on the wall as a decoration, they’ll need to be stored in a closet until the next time they’re completed. In this day and age where living spaces are getting more compact and urban for a lot of people, these puzzles aren’t all that practical. Thankfully there’s games like Glass Masquerade. It’s a very casual game where players make stained glass clock jigsaw puzzles. The game is beautiful, relaxing, and a great way to close out a busy day.

Really, this is just a very simple game. It has a globe trotting theme where players visit various countries and complete puzzles with an image related to that nation. Some of these may be a bit tricky if one is not familiar with a given region. However, the puzzles are still plenty doable. Just try and match the shapes without worrying too much about the overall image. If you can figure out what the picture is supposed to be, so much the better.

glass-masquerade-gameplay-screenshot-2Visually, the game is very pretty. Then again, the developers did choose to make a stained glass-themed game, so it would be hard for the game not to look good. It’s a style that has turned heads for centuries after all. All of the puzzles are very nice to look at, with a softness to their colors that is very appealing. Meanwhile, the game plays very soft music that further accentuates the laid back feel.

At its heart, this is what makes Glass Masquerade worth spending some time with. It’s just so relaxing. The game’s visuals, music, and simple act of putting together puzzles all work together in trying to help players’ worries and stress drift away for a bit. Moreover, it’s amazing how much it can engross someone. Don’t be surprised if what was intended as one quick puzzle before bed turns into an hour or so of play time. It’s very easy to get into a mindset of, “Well, one more puzzle can’t hurt!”

glass-masquerade-gameplay-screenshot-3The actual process of doing a puzzle brings one to a screen with a clock in the middle where the pieces of glass will be placed. Each puzzle will have around six pieces with a small circle on it corresponding to circles on the clock. This gives players a few freebies to get the puzzle started. From there, you’re on your own. Pieces are distributed on two rings around the edge of the screen. Each can be rotated separately while picking out pieces to try and place. While they are on the rings, players will only see a blackened out shape of the piece. Only when one is selected is the actual color and art visible. Early on, these pieces are quite large, but on more difficult levels, there are far more tiny and / or similar shaped ones, complicating things.

While the clock is always front and center while playing, it’s mostly there so players can challenge themselves if they so choose. It lets them try and beat their times if they want to complete puzzles as fast as possible.

Glass Masquerade is a nice, relaxing casual experience for those times when someone doesn’t want a bombastic game session. It draws players in with its soft colors and art direction and tucks them in with some very soothing music. All the while, it still provides a nice challenge putting the puzzles together.

Glass Masquerade is available for Windows and Mac via Steam.