Friday, August 18, 2017

Interview with David Amador of Upfall Studios on Quest of Dungeons

Quest of Dungeons is a roguelike unlike one most gamers have encountered to this point, namely it is looking to closely emulate the actual original Rogue and not just borrow a few concepts from the formula. I got the opportunity to interview the game’s lone developer, David Amador, about the game, the genre as a whole, and his perspective as an independent developer who has worked on a wide variety of platforms.

So you're coming into a room of people who are getting ready to check out Quest of Dungeons for the first time and perhaps we'll say they're not all hardcore gamers. What's your quick pitch for the game to try to help set their expectations and suck them in?

DA: That's a good question and kind of the main point of Quest of Dungeons existing, I wanted to create a roguelike that was easy enough for people to play even with no previous roguelike contact, but still had most of the traditional mechanics, so the game is easy to pick and learn most of the mechanisms but still has depth and strategy. Even being turn-based was on purpose but I wanted to give it a more "modern" approach so that's why it's so fast to play, a lot of people don't realize right away it's not real-time. Most of the time I define it as a "fast paced turn based roguelike that is easy to pick but can still be quite a challenge". Someone once said this to me as I explained the game "So a roguelike with training wheels that get removed?"

I've gotten pretty deep into the fourth floor of but met my demise at the hands of a boss that did some pretty crazy damage and caught me being conservative with my healing. How many floors are in the game proper and what would you say is your impression of the overall average run time people have in the game?

DA: There are 3 mansions, first two have 7 floors, the other one 6. There is also a custom game mode where you can choose the size of the dungeons between 5 and 10. It varies from person but usually between 1h30 to 2h by run is probably the average.

What would you say is your favorite class to play as in the game and why?

DA: The Shaman, probably because it was the one class I didn't had to guide much by the usual class standards. The Warriors needs to be strong and have more health, Wizards less powerful but using Magic, it would be weird any other way. But with the Shaman I just merge some characteristics from several classes and tweaked it to what I thought would be cool.

When you originally set out to make the game what was the goal you'd set for yourself in terms of what you were looking to accomplish? Did you envision that you'd have it ported to so many platforms?

DA: The original goal was to make a tablet/smartphone roguelike that could be played while commuting to work, because I wanted one, it needed to be fast, pause at anytime and continue later. For the first couple months that was all it was, eventually during beta tests I noticed players liked the tablet version a lot, because of the bigger screen, and I saw potential for a PC version, with mouse replacing the "touch". When the opportunity for making it to a console showed up I knew I had to remake a lot of stuff, so I spent a full year remaking most things to be controller friendly instead of "touch". Had I thought the game would make it's way to consoles I would probably planned some things better, I had to come up with solutions along the way as new platforms showed up. On the other hand had I planned for so much stuff the game initial version would have probably take a lot more time to make, this way I made versions as each one was profitable or not.

Before we get into the next group of questions what would you consider to be the essential core of something being a roguelike with any legitimacy to the claim? Do you bother to distinguish between "roguelikes" and "roguelites" or do you consider it to be splitting hairs?

DA: I never bother much correcting anyone, but I think it's important to have both so developers can clearly state what their game is about, so that players know what to expect, if trying to be a more traditional roguelike or just influenced by some things. For me, and this is just my personal opinion, not the definition, I like roguelikes to have permadeath, procedural content, turn-based preferentially and or/some sort of rpg elements or dungeon crawling, that is what I think about when thinking about roguelikes.

Having produced a pretty true-to-the-source roguelike what are your thoughts on the surge in popularity of this type of game, especially in the indie space?

DA: Personally I think is great, and for me the most interesting thing is what is happening with games that are trying not to constrict by all roguelike rules and apply them to other genres and mechanics. That leads to some really good games that may have never existed if roguelike wasn't as popular as it is.

Do you think the roguelike "brand" is being watered down by its being crossed with so many other genres or do you think the use of core elements that define roguelikes in a variety of genres and styles is exposing the value this set of concepts brings to the table?

DA: Having variety is good, there is nothing wrong with wanting to break from the roguelike formula and do something different, inspired by it, but I think we should try to keep the roguelike concept intact as much as possible, that's why it's important to distinguish between "roguelikes" and "roguelites".

What got you started as a game developer and what skills towards that end did you bring to the table when you first started out?

DA: I always wanted to be a game developer so when I was in high school I took the opportunity to join a game studio before even graduating in order to pay some bills. That was my first contact, my skills shifted a bit, I started wanting to be an artist, doing 3D modeling, even took a couple courses, but eventually I realized I was maybe better at programming than arts so I shifted my focus to that.

What would you say is the greatest benefit of being a "lone wolf" developer and, for you, the biggest downside?

DA: Some things are surely more agile in the decision process making, also costs are lower than keeping an entire team, which I couldn't afford. The big downsize is wearing multiple hats, from coding to marketing to social and business side, all of that consumes time and I'm not very good at some.

Having ported Quest of Dungeons to so many platforms did you do a good job of writing your initial code to make moving it around as easy as possible or was that not necessarily a part of the original plan and you've gone to some trouble to get it working everywhere?

DA: I have a clear distinction between the engine code and the actual game code, as far as the engine code goes, I made it flexible enough to support adding the other platforms, and never got into much trouble. I would say the Nintendo 3DS version was the most problematic one but mostly due to the hardware specs. The other ones were relatively smooth.

As for the game code, well that was a bit more "nightmarish", as I mentioned before I initially thought the game as touch only, that meant all UI had to be remade, but I still needed to support game controller and touch because of existing platforms. I realized that what made the mouse/touch work wasn't exactly ideal for controller and vice versa. I spent nearly a year rewriting a lot of stuff and adding a bunch more content to the console release, and now it's much better but it's still something I feel like I planned poorly. But after that it's not relatively simpler to make a port. I got the Switch version running in less than 2 weeks (not optimized or 100%), I just spent the rest of the time optimizing, tweaking and adding more content.

Having released the game previously on other Nintendo platforms would you say you've seen anything different in Nintendo's approach with the Switch overall with you as an indie developer? What are your thoughts on the tools and mechanisms for developing on the Switch in general in comparison to the DS and Wii U platforms?

DA: Yes, I think having worked with Nintendo helped as I could skip the introductions step and I already knew the process. I'm very impressed with the tools they are making available for devs, from early stages they are already better then Wii U and 3DS, I can't get into details but let me tell you there is a big difference, and I'm not just saying this to sound good.

For your next project are you again planning to go multi-platform? Any general word on a genre direction? Something in the same vein or breaking the mold and trying something wildly different?

DA: I try to always have multi-platform in consideration, but that on how the game is received as each port costs money, so yes I want to, if it happens or not it will depend on the quality of the game and how well it does. I have a couple ideas of things that I want do in the RPG top-down genre but I need a break from that after 4 years, so for the next project I've been exploring new genres to see what it might turn out.

I’d like to thank David for taking the time to answer my questions and provide a window into his thoughts on the topic of roguelikes in particular, since I’m a huge fan. Quest of Dungeons is currently available for the Nintendo Switch in the Japanese eShop and a date for the other regions should be forthcoming.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Nindie Preview: Lost Castle

In many ways on the surface Lost Castle looks like a relatively simple game, and when playing through it on a given run, it can feel like one too. The classic beat-em-up elements are all there for the most part: Your basic and strong attacks, a special attack on cooldown, and hordes of normal enemies to beat through followed by tougher bosses at the end of each level. What Lost Castle most critically adds to this formula, among other things, is choice and progression over time through the addition of roguelike elements.

Every time you begin a run in Lost Castle you have merely the weapon you've been assigned by the RNG gods. Sometimes it will be a weapon you favor, sometimes it will just be junk. Where you go from there, and what you do with it, will be subject to your skills, your luck, and what you've invested your hard-earned souls on between runs to enhance your situation. Whether you're giving yourself a boost in your overall picture, giving yourself more initial choices of weapons you'll have to start the game, or looking to minimize the negative effects of the bad potions you'll likely pick up there are a number of things you can influence.

A big part of what feels so good in the game and makes it work well is the variety of weapons available and the play styles these enable. Ranged weapons can be effective but take more time, up-close weapons are effective but can make you vulnerable when you miss, and hybrid weapons will sometimes show up that will allow you to shift between these two modes which can be very nice. While they may all look somewhat alike you'll want to pick up every weapon you encounter and check what its strong and special attacks are in particular before passing on them. As you get deeper into the game it is the special attacks that will often determine what you choose to keep as some of them can do substantial damage or be effective at keeping you alive.

The other aspect of the game that can keep things interesting are the items, potions, and passives you'll be able to pick up from chests or killing bosses. There are simple items like food, a wide variety of objects that can enhance you in a variety of ways, and then a number of concoctions you'll be able to drink... but most of the time you won't know what they'll do until you drink them. They could give you healing, poison you, give you temporary powers, or enhance one of your stats for the rest of the game. The problem is, not knowing which it will be, complicates when best to give them a try. You could easily kill yourself deciding to drink one in the heat of battle, and having it cut your health down before you even take a hit. If you're over-cautious and decide to use one out of battle you may find it would have powered you up significantly and that you've wasted it. This element of chance can make for some difficult and risky decisions as you make your way through the 5 worlds but adds to the fun!

The big highlight of the game is certainly its very colorful, and often difficult, bosses. With each receiving their own intro of sorts the bosses have a real sense of personality to them and that makes having to kill them, or at least trying to, all the more fun. It is usually in these battles where you need to have made good choices or gotten lucky with your weapons and their special attacks as those often make all the difference in whether you're successful in these sometimes drawn out fights. In any case Lost Castle is full of both old-school arcade charm and modern challenge so it will be a great addition to the Switch line-up.

This preview is based off of the PC version of the title but should be representative of both the overall look, feel, and gameplay that will be transitioned onto the Switch. There is currently not a known release date for this title.

Nindie Preview: Time Recoil

Reminiscent in feel and flow to a mix of the brawler Mr. Shifty and the classic original Max Payne (though in this case in a top-down view) in many ways, Time Recoil is the third twin-stick shooter that developer 10 Tons will be bringing to the Nintendo Switch. Though it shares some assets with its other two shooters 10 Tons has done a fabulous job of differentiating its gameplay completely. Whereas Neon Chrome sports large levels and is a roguelike, and JYDGE is an objective and enhancement-focused action/puzzle game in some respects, Time Recoil is all about precision shooting, thinking quickly, and time.

As the survivor of an experiment gone wrong you have been given unique abilities. Your objective will be to stop the madman Mr. Time who is set on changing history and destroying society as we know it… or something like that. In order to stop him you’ll need to jump through the past to different key points to collect intel, kill specific targets, and capture key people. Over the course of your mission you’ll need to move quickly, taking out any resistance you meet and generally trying to string together as many kills as quickly as you can. Getting a kill will begin to slow time in general for a few moments but as you progress you’ll also unlock special skills that you can use either offensively or sometimes to complete complex objectives in mere seconds by practically stopping time.

Depending on which skill level you play on between Normal, Hardcore, and Murderous you’ll have varying degrees of challenge as the guards you face will become more responsive and your ammo will begin to drop less. This will force you to not only be accurate but to essentially begin to plan out your levels, alternating between shooting to make kills and often then dashing through walls and making kills through force. Precision is vital to your survival as you not only will want to conserve your ammunition but you’ll also want to keep you timer from kills active so your chances of evading bullets and gaining access to more powerful enhancements remains in place. Once time goes back to normal you’ll often find yourself vulnerable and exposed.

In addition to the story mode you’ll have an opportunity to fine tune your skills and show what you’ve learned in the Mission Archives. Here you’ll have an opportunity to speedrun your way through the levels, trying to get the best time possible and often looking to clear the whole level in about 3 seconds of “real time”. Here it becomes almost a sort of ballet with you needing to determine your best plan of attack and then work to execute it perfectly since every minor moment will count.

This preview is based off of the PC version of the game but it should be identical in overall feel and flow when ported to the Switch. There is no current official timeline for its release.

Nindie Preview: Thimbleweed Park

If you happen to be a fan of old-school point-and-click adventures on the PC, you’re in luck as they seem to be in re-emergence. While the genre was always quite popular it was many of the LucasArts classics like Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series that made them special with their blend of unusual characters, witty dialogue, and amusing puzzles. Thimbleweed Park is a throwback to those games, and was created by some of the leads from those same projects.

If you’re unfamiliar with the style you’ll navigate the environment, and then interact with objects and people within it by choosing among multiple verbs provided on-screen like Open, Use, Look At, and others. What you’ll quickly find is that in some way almost everything has a part to play, even if it is just for some quick laughs, so no stone should be left unturned. In particular playing out all of your dialogue options when talking to people tends to make for the best fun as you never know what the topic will shift to or what silly things people may say.

You’ll work through the game in third-person perspective, controlling a variety of people but mostly focused on Agents Ray and Reyes, who’ve come to this small town trying to solve a murder. What they find is a sleepy town full of oddballs, many of whom have secrets, but so do these agents who’ve come to the scene. In all honesty the narrative itself takes a back seat to the humor and the enjoyment mostly comes from exploring your many dialogue options and solving sometimes unorthodox puzzles.

The game has been received with relatively universal accolades and it should be well-suited to mobile play on the touchscreen-enabled Switch. With the ability to simply put the Switch to sleep at the press of a button and then resume with ease it should make for an excellent game to play on the move, stopping and starting back up without missing a beat.

This preview is based on the PC version of the game, though the version on the Switch should be identical in both features and appearance. No final date has been announced but it should be coming to the platform soon.

Nindie Preview: Quest of Dungeons

Though the Switch has many roguelikes, the game type that seems to be quite en vogue at the moment, before the arrival of Quest of Dungeons it had none that were close to the authentic root that name refers to. Rogue is actually a very old game, whose graphics were originally only ASCII characters, where you’d move through a randomized dungeon seeking out adventure, loot, and monsters. While modern roguelikes will borrow pieces of this formula, usually permadeath, aspects of risk/reward, and perhaps random layouts, Quest of Dungeons is an attempt to provide an authentic experience but with an improved look and feel.

At the beginning of each quest you’ll have a choice of four character classes: A warrior, an assassin, a wizard, or a shaman. Each plays very differently so you’ll want to carefully consider your choice. Do you prefer to get up-close and personal, fire on enemies from afar, leverage ranged spells and keep an eye on your mana, or keep your options open by going down the middle? In addition you’ll be able to choose your level of difficulty to help you either breeze through the experience or to get slapped around a bit.

On each floor you’ll generally find a variety of rooms, monsters, and quests, always with a vendor and perhaps a few bosses thrown in as well. Combat is very basic, you’ll either run up to your enemy and fight them in a turn-based fashion (visually just generally bumping into them, not with elaborate JRPG-esque flourish) or you’ll target them and attack from afar. As you gain experience and loot you’ll find improved gear, collect tomes that will give you new skills or spells to make use of, and for some classes have opportunities to learn to wield other weapons which can provide better attacks.

For people looking for a light experience, something to play on the go or to passively play as you watch television, Quest of Dungeons could be a good choice. In general it isn’t very demanding or taxing to play but that also isn’t to imply that it’s easy. If you’re not paying careful attention to your health, especially when fighting bosses, you’ll quickly find yourself dead. In addition at times scarcity of healing can be an issue so you may need to choose to evade your attackers or at least develop tactics to help ensure they can’t attack you en masse. It’s refreshing to see an example that very closely resembles the roots of this now very popular game type. Even if what is at the core of modern roguelikes is actually quite simple the reason for its popularity is that the formula works.

This preview is based on the PC version of the game though the appearance and gameplay on the Switch should be identical. It is currently available on the Japanese eShop and is awaiting a final date of release in other regions.

Nindie Preview: Snow Moto Racing Freedom

Racing in snow-covered landscapes is coming to the Switch in the form of Snow Moto Racing Freedom! As a sequel to an already-successful title there is apparently quite a demand for this genre, so fans should be thrilled with this mix of open-course checkpoint racing in Sprint League, closed-course carnage in Snocross mode, and then the more advanced challenges of Freedom League.

 For the most part the mechanics of racing are pretty simple. You’ll be able to accelerate, brake, there’s a way to get some boost at the press of a button, and you’ll have a number of options for stunting if you feel so inclined or are looking to get some added oomph in your boosts. Turning becomes the most crucial thing to master, especially when your turns are sharp, as the feel for this is a bit different than you’d be used to playing different types of racing games. It all makes sense but it is an adjustment.

In the time I played I enjoyed the open landscapes of Sprint League the most, as they were the most interesting to try to navigate and find shortcuts in to get a leg up on the AI and their mostly set path. In addition the elevation changes in several places on these course afforded easy stunt opportunities so they helped get me out of my shell a bit. The mini map is helpful for ensuring you keep track of things, most crucially which direction you’ll want to go through the checkpoint in, but you’ll need to plan your own path overall. Snocross mode, with its set tracks and hairpin turns, I found to be much more challenging as you’ll really need to be on top of your control game to succeed and there’s little margin for error.

 Aside from the variety in tracks Freedom will also throw different times of day and conditions like fog into the mix to keep things from getting too stale. Racing in these less ideal conditions can be tricky since you’ll have a tendency to get yourself into trouble more easily if you stray from the intended path. Visually you’re able to switch your camera from being close behind, further behind, and the pretty-intense first-person view. I tended to go with the further behind camera since I like to have the full picture of where other racers and obstacles are in relation to me, and it helped me improve my technique, but first-person did have its allure.

More than anything Freedom represents an option on the menu that normally isn’t present and for that it gets some respect. Variety is the spice of life and for snowmobile enthusiasts an option for racing something familiar and dear should be fun. As someone unfamiliar I’m unable to comment on the authenticity of the handling and feel of this racing experience but I can at least appreciate its novelty.

This preview is based off of the PC version of the game but should be representative of the final gameplay. There currently isn't a known release date for this title.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Interview with Jonas Byrresen of Bedtime Digital Games on Figment

Figment, a surreal and imaginative adventure through a very hand-drawn world, is on its way and it should represent a very different kind of game experience than has been seen on the Switch to this point. I was able to get some of the time of the game's Creative Director, Jonas Byrresen, to discuss the game, the indie marketplace, and the appreciation of games as culture.

To start things off: You're at a conference and someone comes up and is asking you to describe Figment to them. What would you give as an answer to that?

JB: The short on the floor version would go something like this: Figment is a isometric adventure game where the player must journey through the different areas of the mind, on a quest to help it overcome fear and trauma. It is a game that mixes exploration and puzzles, with a unique art style and music.

If I have more time, I would also add that that it is story driven game with many layers. A story about overcoming fear and how experiences shape our mind. The story have a broad appeal, but also have a detailed layer for the players who like to look for it.

Looking over your past games you've come up through the mobile-leaning path, paired with the PC space with Steam and Humble, gotten into consoles through Sony, and now seem to be working to stay in the PC/console space. This seems to be very common for indie developers, and conceptually it makes sense. What are your thoughts on the journey you've had along the way and to now also be targeting the Nintendo Switch?

JB: That does seem to be a normal road for many indie developers to have taken over the years. We actually launched our first game on both Steam and mobile very closely, but focused mostly on mobile. This was due to the nature and design of the game, that we felt would work very well on the platform, and with mobile gamers. I think this is why many indies have started on that platform. The mechanics and designs that fit on it, are often an easy and good place to start for a small indie team.

Though I would say that things are changing. Mobile is far from an easy market to make a success on for many reasons, so more and more indies just jump straight to PC, where audience is willing to pay and many look for new creative games.

For us it was a natural journey, mostly determined by the nature of the games we worked on, moving on the the platforms that we felt worked best. As the team expanded and we gained more experience, we wanted to do more advanced games. With deeper settings and narratives, while keeping our creativeness from the first game. This, for us, means focusing on PC and consoles, such as the Switch, and the potentially looking a mobile later on. I think it is best to always think of the game first, before the platform deciding platform, and chose the one that fits the game best.

Along those same lines you've now seen at least 4 major marketplaces between the 2 mobile, Steam, and Sony. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of each of those and what are you hoping to get out of the Switch eShop marketplace by comparison? Do you think the odds of being seen, with the current library being smaller and there being less releases currently per week than elsewhere will help offset the much smaller current installed base?

JB: Console and PC have the the best attention around release, mostly due to the many of the games sites and YouTubers focusing on these platforms. Players and press on these platforms are constantly looking for next big thing, and they therefore often rewards both creativity and solid quality. Though it must be said that PC market is good deal more crowded than console, so marketing is a must to break through.

The mobile marketplace is not a good place to start for an indie company. It is dominated too much by the big guys in our experience. That being said, if one can get a break through, it does have a very long longevity compared to other platforms, with a constant flow of new player discovering your games over a long time. We also find it interesting a platform to port games to. Games that have had success on PC and console can often get attention on tablets.

Regarding the Switch, we of course see a good deal of potential in being on a platform with less games, but we also feel of our new game, Figment, will fit the platform and its audience well. For us it is a platform with sense of something new and adventures, with quality-minded users. Just what we want to aim for.

Looking at and, maybe moreso, listening to the music from the game I'm struck by how unafraid it all is to be what it is. A little strange, a little silly, and just utterly distinct. First, this is a major part of what I love about the indie game movement, so thank you. But second I can't make a blanket statement of truth but in general my impression is that it is the European development studios who are leading the charge with these very distinctive and daring games where the art styles, music, and even gameplay are concerned. Am I crazy?

JB: Not at all. It it something we have discussed before in both the office and with other devs at events. European games have a tendency to look at more varied themes when developing games and find inspiration in varied sources. Not saying other devs can’t do that around the world, but I think the tendency is there for sure. From our understanding, the primary reason for this is that you can get cultural funding for games many places in Europe. Games are seen as both something commercial and something artistic, and games can get some funding with a good artistic and cultural angle. Figment is a game that have gotten cultural funding from both a Danish culture fund and the Nordic Game culture support. This system can allow for more experimentation when it comes to developing games.

In relations to this subject, I often have an easy time spotting other Scandinavian games, as they often have a special vibe to them, unique to our part of the world. Often a good deal of dark gallows humour, maybe some caricatures and deeper meaning ones you gets past the surface. I think the point is that a devs culture often will shine through, and that can sometimes create a unique game experience if embraced properly. Would be interesting to see what kind of games could emerge if more parts of the world did cultural funding for games.

Aside from perhaps obvious inspirations like Escher or Dali on the visual front are there other influences? What about for music?

JB: Another major influence have been the Miyazaki movies. They often mix the common with the the supernatural to create something new, and this have inspired us a lot in creating our game world. Besides that, we have looked a good deal at different ideas for how the subconsciousness is structures to get more ideas for our game world.

Regarding the music, there have been several sources, some famous, such as Tom Waits, but mostly more outlier genres. Not something you normally hear on a standard radio station. This means music that is great at conveying some of the negative feeling that our enemies represent, but also types of music that could capture the unique and surreal moods in the game world. Luckily for us, our sound guy Niels, aka. Stöj Snak, is a massive talent when it comes to mixing up genres, does a lot of music himself and have a great network of local musicians for us to use. Having him at the centre of our audio design have been a great boon.

One piece of the modern game development process, at least it seems where indies are concerned, is to open up aspects of the design process through blog posts or social media. What are your thoughts on that, do you think this is just a piece of the indie puzzle and people are excited to share their work, or do you think studios feel obligated to do it and it is more of a necessary evil? Somewhere in-between?

JB: For us, sharing your progress and doing blogs posts, is something that is of use, both as a marketing tool, but it can also be good for the developers on a personal level.

First off, It is important to keep showing your game to the players out there, so they don’t forget you and is looking forward to your game. There are so many games out there, so it is a must to build a following and keep putting your name out there.

As a bonus, it can also help motivate the developers on the team. We often work to long periods on our games, so it can be helpful, almost therapeutic, to show and tell about your work. It can put into perspective how much progress you have had and how much you have learned. At the same time, nothing is more motivating than experiencing other people reacting positively to something you have worked on for a long time.

I will add though, that inexperienced devs should be aware of not spending more time on blog posts than actually making their game, as it does take time, and also to remember that most people don’t understand the timeframe of game development. Be smart and learn from what others have done.

As you all finish out your work on Figment, and hopefully are met with great success, do you have anyone looking at where you'll be heading next?

JB: Yes we do. We have already started working on future projects. Our company is very focused on the idea of utilizing our developers, so we can keep making more games and not sitting still. This means both new games and maybe also looking at where we can take Figment in the future, but I can’t say in more details at this point.

I wanted to thank Jonas for taking the time to answer my questions with some great details and Emilie for helping to coordinate the interview. Figment is planned for release on all major platforms, including the Switch, in the coming months!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: Phantom Trigger

In Phantom Trigger you play as Outsider, a sword-wielding, scarf-wearing warrior fighting through some very strange environments that look like they’re alien but perhaps they’re something unexpected. As you progress through the 4+ Worlds in the game you’ll periodically shift into the real world where you’ll see the story in progress of Stan, a man with a terminal disease who is having strange and sometimes nightmarish visions connected to elements of his childhood. One of the hooks in the game early on is to try to understand what’s happening and how this all interconnects. The choices you make in some key areas will influence the outcome of the game as there are 4 potential endings, so you never know if a choice you’re making may come back to bite you or not. Using this as a foundation the often-intense hack and slash gameplay is given a bit of a purpose and the effort to encourage replay is appreciated.

The central focus here is certainly on intense action, but you’ll need to be both wise and a bit crafty to be successful, especially as the challenge ramps up. When faced with a combination of enemies in a given space you’ll need to quickly size up a strategy and then execute it, often carefully. You won’t simply be able to storm in and slash everything in sight, not by a long shot. As you gain experience you’ll learn new combos and you’ll need to figure out how and when to use them. You’ll need to rush in and then pull back often. You’ll need to prioritize specific enemies that are capable of hitting you from long range. Finally, and sometimes most vitally, when everything falls apart you’ll need to develop a sort of combo and dash strategy that works and hope to wear down the mob before you die. Over the course of the game, especially if you’re daring and go after the Hard difficulty, you will have to restart quite a bit, and in some places often. Aggravation and keeping yourself going on the edge of death were consistent themes along the way in the game, but since I like a challenge I never let it get me down… at least not for long.

Probably the biggest standout element of the game’s action challenge is the boss fights. Each one will require some level of observation and experimentation, and in most cases I had to fight and lose a few battles just to figure out how to do damage to the them. All I’ll say is that you’ll need to be very observant of even seemingly small details when you get into these fights and you may want to reflect on anything they say if you’re stumped. There are clues and prompts you’ll see in their worlds teaching you about the its nature, ultimately its boss, and sometimes the means to defeat them but it can all be pretty subtle. Very little in the game that you run across doesn’t somehow relate to teaching you a new strategy or tactic and that includes some elements, and the opportunities they present, in the environment.

Beyond the raw action there’s very much a need to explore in Phantom Trigger if you want to get the most out of it and the narrative. There are items you’ll be able to give to certain characters to affect the story’s outcome strewn about as well as obelisks that will enhance your powers (which will give you quicker access to more combos), and they’ll require some extra work and looking around to find them all. In the classic gaming tradition the path to them will often be off to the side somewhere when you see the checkpoint ahead. Depending on how much of a completionist you are and how determined you are to get the most out of the story will dictate whether or not the added time and trouble are worthwhile. One note is that since the game doesn’t offer a map you’ll need to be quite thorough to find everything as even though I was trying to do so my first time through I missed a few things along the way. Be willing to backtrack and explore if you want to find everything, there are a surprising number of nooks and crannies in the level layouts.

The mention of no map also leads a bit into some of the challenges in the game. Without a map if you’re looking to find everything it is honestly pretty easy to get lost and then be challenged getting back on track in places. On a general level areas you’ve cleared will remain strewn only with corpses but the fact is in some spaces new enemies will spawn again. This can lend to confusion over whether you’ve been back through that area already. In addition some checkpoints will try to be helpful by offering directions but those are tied to progressing through the level normally, which will require you to follow a longer path at times, so when you revisit these guideposts they’re not always pointing the right way. The game does attempt to be helpful in some places, as it will include an icon and a direction to get to the level’s boss or main objective, but it wasn’t always available when I sometimes needed it. This can be overcome but you could lose some time to it over confusion. While the controls are generally responsive I do wish in some specific cases I could halt their execution or change things up. You’ll need to learn to carefully use some of your moves, especially when around certain enemies, since you’ll be vulnerable when you finish them out in some scenarios and until you figure this out you’ll likely lose quite a bit of health to this. I also ran into a few quirks with some specific enemies but only in one odd case did it require me to restart from my last checkpoint so overall I had very few technical issues with the game. The last issue I’ve encountered, moreso in Hard mode with the added enemies, is some slowdown at times, though I’ve found it can be managed.

When it comes to extended play there are opportunities for it but whether people choose to take them may be another matter. I assure you that if you choose to take on Hard difficulty (assuming you initially beat the game on Normal) you will be challenged. While I was able to get through the first three worlds, riding on my experience from before, once I got to the fourth world I really had to work to make progress, which is a challenge in the labyrinthian layout that you’ll find there. Once you’ve beaten the game the Arena mode will also become unlocked and the few times I’ve tried it have been pretty crazy. It is essentially an endurance mode that will put you in a large room with one of the game’s puzzles to work out. As you knock down pillars enemies will be released that you’ll need to deal with. Once you’re able to solve the puzzle (being careful not to hit any wrong pillars accidentally while you’re dispatching your enemies) you’ll then move on to battle that world’s boss once again. Defeat the boss and move on to the next world’s set-up only this time it seems the puzzle has only gotten more complex. It’s a stiff challenge, but I’ll need to play it quite a bit more to fully understand it. I will note that the game does offer drop-in co-op play but since you’ll be sharing a health bar whether that’s a help or a hinderance may remain to be seen. Still, a nice value add if you want to try to tackle the game with a friend and you can both be careful as you make your way through.

I found Phantom Trigger to be a challenging and distinct experience, mixing up some elements I appreciate in multiple titles with the action and nature of the boss battles, and giving me something to chew on for a while. While I normally don’t go right back through to attack a game I just finished on a harder difficulty setting I did that here and the game hasn’t disappointed. As I’d said I felt pretty good about myself being capable of facing everything the game could throw at me, but then hit World 4 and now I’m carefully trying to survive and progress… it’s a tough one. The Arena mode seems to have potential but for the most part it also doesn’t strike me as something everyone will want to replay once the main game has concluded. Since one of the things I’d wished for was for such a mode to exist to extend my play of Mr. Shifty I do greatly appreciate the added effort and opportunity to get some more out of the game now that I’ve mostly mastered the mechanics. While not everything in Phantom Trigger is perfect I’d say people looking for a meaty action challenge won’t be disappointed given the difficulty it brings with both its varied enemies and creative bosses. The fact that it tells an interesting story along the way is just icing on the cake.

Score: 8

  • Challenging action with powerful combos
  • Distinctive boss fights
  • A story that sucked me in more than I expected

  • Exploration can lead to getting lost
  • The challenge may be too high for some
  • Occasional issues with glitches and slowdown

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Nindie Preview: Aqua Moto Racing Utopia

If you’re anything like me the lack of a new Wave Race title since the days of the GameCube is an absolutely painful reality. The feel of the waves and their unpredictable flow absolutely made it one of my favorite racers of all-time. Thankfully it seems that if Nintendo isn’t willing to give us a sequel the folks are Zordix are looking to step onto the scene to deliver wave-riding, stunting, and racing action to the Nintendo Switch.

As the latest iteration in their Aqua Moto Racing series Utopia is showing a certain level of refinement in how it handles the waves and their action. While there were several other jet ski games on the market at the same time as Wave Race the majority of them failed to embrace the challenge, leaving them feeling more like slightly floaty driving games set on a water-covered road with some ramps. Utopia is obviously aiming for the fences and not only brings impressive water effects to the game reminiscent of Wave Race’s, it also in some cases makes them bigger and choppier! This is absolutely at the crux of my excitement for this title coming to the Switch.

The game offers 3 classes of competition with racing on both Runabouts and Jet Skis as well as a Stunt Mode. While, in theory, both racing divisions would mostly be similar I’m pleased to say there’s enough of a difference in their handling and style that both are distinct. The Runabout racing tends to be far more aggressive with people bumping and jockeying for position while the Jet Ski races require quite a bit more careful maneuvering and are more risky for getting physical. Stunting has never been something I’ve been much of a fan of but the number of possible stunts is pretty high, the movement and flow of them feels pretty fluid and consistent, and there are provisions for chaining so it seems to be well supported. There is online play available but at least at the 2 times I’d tried to get connected there didn’t seem to be much going on at the moment, I’m not sure at this point in the game’s life on PC what the windows are where people tend to be ready to go.

While the similarities to Wave Race are numerous, and some of the locations in the game feel familiar, I’d say that as a whole the track layouts in Moto are generally more demanding. Not only are the waves typically bigger but there are often almost slalom-like sections to tracks that will demand you bring your speed down, carefully consider how you’re coming off of waves, and generally forcing you to race more carefully than I remember. This is actually an improvement and helps make the races more tense and engaging. Looking forward to seeing how this will translate on the Switch!

This preview is based off of the current build of the game on the PC platform but the gameplay and presentation should be representative. The current release date for the Switch version is unknown.

Review: Ironcast

The Nintendo Switch has absolutely been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality roguelikes on the console. While they all may have elements in common they also tend to be quite distinct from one another and Ironcast is absolutely no exception. Created through what may seem like an unholy alliance of a gem matching puzzler, a resource management simulation, and a turn-based strategy game I can honestly say I’ve never played anythinglike it. The developer, Dreadbit, has absolutely thrown down the gauntlet for strategy genre fans, with a game that will force people to learn, plan, improvise, and execute in order to survive through its challenging campaign.

Set in an alternate history version of Victorian England, complete with lumbering mechanized war machines called Ironcast, you’ll take control of your choice of a Commander and a mech. Far from these choices being cosmetic the combination of these two options will build the foundation of the strategy you’ll be looking to implement. Whether you favor aggressive offense, locked-down defense, or specialization in a particular type of firepower both your Commander and your Ironcast of choice have attributes you’ll need to leverage to their utmost in order to be successful. You’ll do this over a number of missions, and these come in a variety of forms as well.

The conflicts you choose to get involved in, how you perform in them, and a heaping helping of luck will shape your progress as you try to level up, gain new abilities, and equip your mech with more powerful weaponry and defensive measures. In order to survive the extended boss battles you’ll absolutely need to make the best use of your time and opportunities. The behemoths you’ll face in these two major battles are formidable in their defense but more critically in their firepower, and they’ll shred through you like your armor is made of paper if you haven’t prepared adequately up to the point of their arrival.

Once you get into battles your primary focus will be on the gem matching aspect of things. As always you’ll want to focus on matching as many gems as possible per string (if nothing else just for the experience gain) but when you throw in elements like overcharge spots, commendation medals, link nodes, and sometimes things like supply crates you’ll need to incorporate some planning and anticipation into the mix as well. A weak move now, if you can take the short-term hit waiting for the next turn, could yield much better results and like all roguelikes there’s a very heavy unpredictability to Ironcast and it will force you to constantly measure the risk/reward benefits of every action, down to even the order you activate your systems in. Especially if you have an overcharge available do you put that into your shields so you can survive a bigger hit or do you use it with your weapons in the hopes it will pack an additional punch. In particular, if you use it with your weapons you’ll have to consider what type of weapon it is, what defenses they have up, and even then whether or not your shot may miss entirely. The RNG gods are strong in this game and, as always, they can be very fickle.

Getting past the basics of working your gem matching skills, planning is the far more crucial element of managing your resources and making the best use of them to both protect your Ironcast and to damage your opponent’s. If you want to bring up your shields or get your mech moving you’ll need to expend both energy and coolant. Firing your weapons will consume both ammo and coolant. If you need to make repairs to your systems that have been damaged or disabled by enemy fire you’ll need resources for that as well. The careful management of these resources, and the decisions you’ll be forced to make on a turn-by-turn basis dictated by the board, what your enemy is doing, and potentially the objectives of your mission will be the difference between success and failure. The bad news is, from experience, that your worst enemy isn’t often something to do with the game but your own lapses in judgement if you’re not keeping everything in mind. Of most critical consequence would be failing to manage your coolant reserves and trying to fire your weapons or use your defenses since you’ll be able to do so but the cost will be often significant damage to your mech and its systems from overheating.

While you’re trying to manage all of this consider that your enemy will be actively firing on you as well, potentially damaging your key systems, and forcing you to rethink your strategy. Do you try to compromise their shields, making them vulnerable to a wider variety of attacks, or do you focus on simply trying to disable that gun they’re hammering you with in the hopes it can buy you time? If you forego keeping your Ironcast moving for a turn will an extra attack or two that buys you turn the tide? Adding to your strategic layer will be special abilities tied to your Ironcast and that you’ve managed to get through leveling up. The right ability used at the right time can absolutely turn the battle around but things often don’t go as planned so you’ll often likely need to float a turn or two if you want to properly set the stage for using one and you may well not survive that long.

While I can try to express, in words, the undertaking you’ll face in the game unfortunately it really takes experiencing it for yourself to get the full idea. Your initial batch of runs will likely be incredibly bumpy as you try to get used to the systems, identify what Commander and Ironcast suits your style of play, and work to understand and refine your strategies in the wide variety of scenarios you’ll face. While each failure will return you to square 1 in true roguelike style fortunately you’ll accumulate Commendation Points that you’ll be able to use to unlock new Commanders, Ironcast, special abilities, and even boosts that will start you out with more base hit points, enhance your rate of getting experience, and more. At least with this little by little you’re able to put yourself into a progressively better position for fighting effectively.

Taking all of this into account we’ll get to whether or not it is all worth it. If you enjoy being challenged and engaging in highly strategic gameplay my answer would be it is absolutely worth your time and effort to learn. With that in mind I’ll also say that I was among the people who greatly enjoyed Has-Been Heroes while a great number of people chose to throw their hands up in frustration instead. Of all of the games I’ve played on the Switch in many ways I consider Ironcast to have a similar spirit as HBH as a game that won’t apologize or compromise just because you’re struggling. It sets the bar high and expects you to get there or die trying. That said, if you take the time and put in the effort you absolutely can beat the game and I’ll say accomplishing that feat was among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Ironcast is the kind of game that only indie studios would likely be daring enough to attempt, defying all traditional expectations and making people invest some blood, sweat, and tears to cross the finish line. If you’re up to the challenge your mech is waiting for its Commander, and the good people of England are depending on you!

Score: 8.5

  • An inspired mix of genres, blending gem-matching and strategy in an unexpected way
  • While it is incredibly challenging the Commendation point system provides an excellent user-controlled pressure release valve
  • A very satisfying game to master and beat

  • The level of challenge won’t be for everyone
  • The story, though somewhat interesting, is also nothing terribly new
  • The RNG Gods can be incredibly fickle, though your own concentration is most often your biggest enemy

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Puzzle Adventure Blockle

To this point the Switch has had a number of puzzle games, but here hasn’t been a well-executed traditional single-player puzzle experience on the platform. Puzzle Adventure Blockle is a quality attempt to deliver one, mixing a colorful and cute anime style with 8 worlds of puzzle action. Each has a theme and will tend to introduce new mechanics to the mix, though there are some constants that transcend levels as well. If you’re thirsty for some quality puzzle action, and you’re not discouraged from playing for its odd choices in presentation, Blockle will keep you entertained for several challenging hours.

Throughout the game you’ll be mostly indirectly controlling a cute cat named Kulu, who is accompanied by the very curvaceous (and kind of baffling, I’m just accepting it’s a “Japan thing”) and bubbly Arika. Whether she’s a human, a goddess of some sort, of both is something you’ll need to find out for yourself over the course of a story that is simultaneously stock in many ways but punctuated by some truly bizarre and suggestive dialogue at times as Arika flirts with Kulu. I’m not sure how this intersects with the puzzle gamer demographic exactly, but I suppose in its own way it at least keeps the story of the two of them collecting world stars for the shady Mayor character from being completely dull.

The majority of puzzling in the game will have you turning the levels 90 degrees at a time, making Kulu fall this way or that along with a variety of objects. You’ll do this either to collect items of some kind, to trigger special spaces that have a variety of effects, or to simply get to the door that allows you to move on to the next level. If you’d like to be challenged each level has 3 objectives of some kind that will have you either collecting special gems or completing the level within a certain amount of time or moves. If you get all 3 you’ll get a crown for the level but these accomplishments appear to only be cosmetic and for personal pride, nothing is locked or restricted until you collect a certain number. It is possible to “die” in levels, with Kulu typically being crushed by an object of some kind, but you’ll have 5 hearts to help you still make it through successfully. If you lose all of your hearts for the level you will lose your progress to that point in the stage, being forced to start it over again. An additional feature that is very helpful (since in the more complex layouts you’ll tend to realize you’ve put yourself into a position where all moves will result in Kulu meeting an untimely demise) is that the Y button can be used to move back a turn. Making use of this can help for testing out theories, though keep in mind that even rewinding won’t bring back the hearts you’ve lost from Kulu being pancaked by something along the way.

The degree of difficulty in most Worlds usually ramps up progressively, with the first few levels letting you become familiar with the newly-introduced mechanics of the world and the rest then having you apply those lessons in more complex scenarios. There are, however, exceptions to this and it can sometimes be odd to get stumped mid-way through a World only to then perfectly complete the next few levels following it on the first try. Continuing on the topic of things that are peculiar there are also mechanics that will get randomly introduced for the first time in a single level, often on the last of the World, and then not show up again until much later on. Contrasted with how smoothly the majority of elements come into play this tendency is a bit odd.

When it comes to scoring, Puzzle Adventure Blockle creates a bit of a dilemma. One positive is that it is absolutely distinct on that platform in terms of the nature of the puzzle challenges. Since it is exclusively single-player you also won’t have to get a friend to enjoy the game to its fullest, additionally setting itself apart from most of the pack on the Switch currently. All of that said, because it is such a traditional puzzle game, I wouldn’t consider it the kind of experience that would likely encourage people to break out and give the genre a try. The fact is that many of the elements at play here have been done in some form before, just in this case they’ve been executed in a way that’s far more attractive than you’d typically see for games of this kind. I believe the biggest factor in deciding whether you’ll enjoy Blockle or not, if you’re at least open to getting a new puzzle game, will be the art style, humor, and look of Arika specifically. I can confidently say that I know people who absolutely would avoid the game because of her presence, though undoubtedly there are also plenty of people who will either find her amusing in some way or even benign. If you’re searching for a traditional puzzle experience give the screen shots and some video a look and decide for yourself if it is for you. While I wouldn’t consider it revolutionary there’s no doubt that Puzzle Adventure Blockle is a very well-made and well-executed puzzler that is price appropriate for the right audience.

Score: 7.5

  • It looks great, and is very colorful
  • The puzzles in the game range from easy to quite challenging
  • Every few levels new mechanics are introduced to keep you on your toes

  • Arika’s busty looks and poses, mixed with some pervy humor at times
  • Sometimes the challenge varies wildly between levels
  • Though well-executed and packaged, there’s ultimately little new here

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: Retro City Rampage DX

If you’re a fan of classic gaming or popular culture (even better if both) and somehow haven’t played Retro City Rampage DX up to this point you’ve been missing out. Chock full of references, call-outs, cameos of sorts, and absolute insanity it expends a lot of effort to keep you engaged and having fun. The one downside, with it now on the Switch and having aged a number of years, is that those same references that were very fresh at the time can now feel a bit stale. Thankfully if you’re down for mayhem it still delivers that in spades.

Trying to describe the plot is a bit of a challenge since it is all quite silly and peppered with characters and bits of story borrowed from just about everything under the sun. While comparisons concerning its style are often made to the original Grand Theft Auto games to me the insanity of it all reminds me much more of the Saints Row series in spirit. Absolutely nothing is sacred, and the destruction you often cause is so silly that there’s almost no room for subtlety. For some this could wear a bit thin as warning, but I’d imagine most long-time gamers will find it all entertaining in bursts. It feels it was intended to be played shorter sessions and that would make sense with the fact that it has spent a lot of time on mobile platforms.

With that in mind while some titles play better on a large screen perhaps it isn’t surprising that I prefer to play River City Rampage DX in handheld mode while passively doing something else. The action is fun but for the most part not terribly intense, with some exceptions, but I find it great to help me blow off some steam and enjoy myself. There are certainly some problems you’ll need to solve and obstacles that you’ll need to focus on but if I just need to run around blowing up everything in sight it isn’t terribly strenuous, I actually find it relaxing.

Your options for play will consist of the Story Mode, where you’ll go through a series of both required and optional missions to collect pieces of a time machine (among other things) to advance the story along. That’s not to say there aren’t a ton of things that you can do to get yourself off track though as temptations are everywhere from simply deciding to plow into a bunch of pedestrians and then try to lose the cops or by finding one of the spots that will throw you into a more arcade-like mode with an objective usually set on destruction. If you’re looking for a quick fix you’re more likely to want to gravitate to the straight-up arcade mode that will quickly let you choose between the missions you’re unlocked and get right down to the business of trying to get the best score. These missions usually only take a few minutes and are a great way to fill in the blanks of your day. Finally there’s also a Free Roaming Mode where you can simply do whatever catches your fancy within the game world for some fun.

At the end of the day this is a throwback 8-bit version of games with more modern sensibilities and it is well-executed. The controls are relatively simple and sensible, the action is varied enough (though usually centered on doing something illegal or insane), the silly references are abundant, and the amount of content means if you enjoy the game you’ll have something to play for quite a while if you want to do it all. If you’ve played it in one of its previous incarnations there’s nothing new here, it’s just on the Switch and probably in the most refined and versatile form it has ever been in. If you’re not into destruction and pop culture call-outs the game also isn’t likely for you. But if you’re in search of something light, fun, and packed with mischief it is a good time, even while showing its age.

Score: 7.5


  • Modern mayhem-making gameplay in charming 8-bit form
  • If you’re into the humor and pop culture call-outs it can be a lot of fun
  • Practically perfect portable pandemonium!


  • The cultural references have a tendency to show their age in places
  • The style of play isn’t for everyone
  • If you’re looking for depth of gameplay you won’t find much here

Review: Rocket Fist

Competitive local multiplayer action seems to be one of the things the Switch was made for, and already there are a number of diverse options for fans of the genre available. You have the classic fun of Bomberman, the retro-inspired action of Astro Duel Deluxe, and the smash-up action of De Mambo, as well as a few others. Each has been good, and I’m sure people could log some serious hours playing and of them with friends, but to this point I’ve not felt any has stood as clearly being the best. Rocket Fist changes that for me, delivering a mix of frantic multiplayer action, a sensible set of options to allow you to configure your matches, available bots that do a reasonably good job of filling in for humans, and a terrific Adventure mode that caps off with one of the more memorable bosses I’ve fought in quite some time. Probably the easiest way to describe the action in the game is to say it is robotic dodgeball, set in arenas with a lot of angled surfaces to amplify opportunities for strategic (or lucky) shots. Only one button is needed for gameplay, and it alternates between throwing your fist and thrusting forward when you don’t have one (if you’re feeling lucky it can also catch an incoming throw). While the thrust can help you dodge an incoming shot or move more quickly to ups fist it is also possible to use offensively to stun an opponent as well, which will then make them drop their fist if they have one. Aside from making angled shots another great (and sneaky) tactic that can be effective is to throw your fist at another one that hasn’t been picked up, causing both fists to ricochet out in two directions. There are no guarantees but it can really catch your opponents by surprise when they’re just about to pick one up. With this relatively simple core set of moves Rocket Fist is quick to pick up and enjoy, though the mastery of using the arena’s angles effectively will still tend to separate the T1000s from the Twikis pretty quickly.

One of the stumbling blocks some of the other titles in the genre have run into is that they haven’t had AI bots (well, or maybe only decent ones) available so in order to fully enjoy multiplayer mode you’ve needed some friends around. Since these games tend to follow the mold of “the more the merrier” even if you had one friend to play with the matches would still feel a little less thrilling. Thankfully Rocket Fist addresses that with AI bots that, as bots go, are pretty competent and can be scaled from the relatively stupid Easy to the frighteningly-accurate Hard+. While there’s no online play available this fills in the gap pretty nicely and, when mixed with the numerous options you have for tweaking the rules, it provides for diverse ways to play and enjoy the same mode.

Power-ups in Versus mode are pretty diverse, and some of them are also a bit detrimental so people will need to be careful what they go after. What I find interesting is that while most multiplayer games like this almost need power-ups to keep things exciting I find the game enjoyable as a straight shoot-out as well. Ghosts for players who get knocked out are also an option, and their ability to annoy the people remaining is quite impressive so I could see people choosing to either disable them or possibly everyone who dies will team up on the same person who simply wins too often. There’s also a choice to make between Deathmatch and Survival, which is a smallish distinction but does radically change things up between who is the most successful at accumulating kills and who may be better at staying out of the action to mop up after the other players have eliminated each other. If there was a criticism for Versus mode it could be that matches are over too quickly. I think the addition of an option to allow people to take more than one hit before dying could really shake things up and add more potential for tension and big comebacks in matches.

While the multiplayer action is certainly what I’d consider the long-term star of the show the Adventure mode is absolutely fantastic as well and deserves its praise. Playing through five sectors of steadily-increasing challenge you’ll face new opponents throughout, including the shielded bastards who you’ll need to ricochet a shot to kill, and each will also include a boss at the end. The bosses progress nicely from relatively easy to beat in Sector 1 all the way up to the ultimate showdown with Uncle Knuckle to conclude the game. I love his design and finally beating him made for a very satisfying close to the mode. With 3 difficulty levels, attempting to beat the game with no continues, and the fact that it tracks your best times there’s decent replay incentive though something like leaderboards would be a nice future update to push people to replay it further.
As I said at the beginning, in what is becoming one of the most contested types of games on the system (keeping neck and neck with roguelikes) I firmly believe that at this moment as a total package Rocket Fist delivers the best deal on the system currently. While it is local multiplayer only, ceding ground only to Bomberman R in that area, I believe that the included provisions for bots does a reasonably good job of compensating. The rules and controls are simple to understand but the nuance with how best to use the walls to make difficult attacks leaves substantial room for people to refine their technique. Throw in what I’d consider to be a replayable and challenging Adventure mode to refine and perfect your skills and I’m calling it: Rocket Fist has thrown a knockout punch against the current competition in this space.
Score: 8.5 Pros:
  • Controls and gameplay are easy to understand
  • The bots do a good job of filling in for humans
  • A surprisingly worthwhile single-player Adventure mode

  • More maps would always be welcome!
  • No online support, though this is common for this genre
  • Not sure if an armor option could help, one hit kill gameplay can make rounds very brief

Interview with Daniel Leaver of Dreadbit on Ironcast

Ironcast is coming and bringing its unique version of both history (it is set in a steampunk Victorian era complete with giant mechs) and gameplay (gem matching with resource management with strategy? Of course!) to the Nintendo Switch. While it has been out elsewhere (you can read my preview based on the PC version) to this point the Switch version will benefit from numerous updates and enhancements! I was able to get some of Daniel Leaver's (the founder of Ironcast's developer, Dreadbit) time to discuss the game, its inspiration, and what it will bring to those looking for a strategic challenge on the Switch.

While, at first glance, the gameplay in Ironcast reminded me of the classic Puzzle Quest RPGs when I started to play the version on PC I was struck by how little it reminded me of that series in the end. There's more challenge and depth to Ironcast by a fair margin. What were the inspirations for the very strategic gameplay you end up engaged in? 

DL: You’re spot on when you referenced Puzzle Quest! I loved those games on my DS as they take a very addictive and satisfying mechanic (spotting complex patterns in coloured gems) and gave gem-matching a purpose beyond just ‘high score’. Ironcast was born from that same desire; to have match-3 form a satisfying resource generation mechanic for a turn based strategy duel. I was also playing a lot of Hearthstone at the time, so turn based combat was really ticking all my designer boxes!

For any strategy game to work it’s got to have questions without obvious answers. Ironcast works as a good strategy game because you’re ALWAYS thrown difficult questions to answer; do I fire my weapons, or raise my shields – I only have the resources for one of them. Should I pick that augmentation or that activated ability, both have strong benefits. Should I shoot the enemy’s main weapon, reducing the damage I take, or blow up their shields, improving the damage of my subsequent attacks!?

The look of the game screams gem matching but as you play you begin to realize that while there can be specific bonuses for some characters related to getting big combinations a lot of the time the goal isn't to simply clear as many as possible. Resource management within the turn and having a vision a turn or two down the road becomes important. Do you think there's a general sweet spot approach or do you think it really all comes down to the situation you're looking to manage?

DL: It’s really down to the situation. I generally always clear as many nodes as I can per match to maximise the experience points earned, but clearly there’s an argument for matching only as much as you NEED, leaving something on the board for the next turn.

Playing through the PC version there's no question the game brings the challenge to the table. What tweaks have been made for the Switch version specifically to either make it a little easier or to further enhance your options?

DL: We’ve made tonnes of balances for Switch. The game was too hard on PC, certainly, mainly down to inconsistency.

One example was that players could match 3 times per turn on PC, meaning they had 3 opportunities to completely fill their ammo bar, launch several shooting attacks, re-fill the bar and repeat. This meant that some enemies felt incredibly easy, as a player was able to ‘burst’ them down in a single turn if the enemy was caught out with no defences, making the next enemy they face feel really hard (taking 7-8 turns to kill if they did correctly use their defences). This inconsistency was frustrating. On switch, we give players only 2 matches per turn, but reduced the enemy’s maximum health to compensate. This gives a more consistent experience.
We also allow the player to fire on the first turn, rather than having to wait for weapons to charge, we allow them to sell unused or unwanted weapon systems for some extra cash and finally, we allow them to reshuffle the node board if it’s too unworkable, but at the cost of the rest of their turn.

I assume that for the Switch the game will support both the touchscreen and controllers?

DL: Correct! We’re really proud of the way Ironcast seamlessly works in both Handheld and docked mode. Players can, at any time, use full touch-screen controls to match nodes, fire weapons and perform any action in the game, or use the joycons or Pro-controller to play instead. They can even mix and match depending on what feels good. I like to match nodes with my finger but fire cannons with the triggers!

What is your favorite combination, I suppose unlocked within the first few hours, of pilot and mech and why? 

DL: I like to use Commander Henry Brent and the Windsor Ironcast (all our mechs are named after famous British castles, by the way). Henry Brent’s Commander ability is that you always start each battle with 1 free layer of energy shields to protect you from attacks, and the Windsor’s activated ability is that it’s able to steal and transfer a layer of energy shielding from your opponent to your own Ironcast. This makes for an incredibly well protected Ironcast very quickly, without spending any vital resources.

One of the challenges I started to have dawn on me quickly is that certain mechs, with their default weapons, simply don't play very nice with specific missions. Specifically Salvage. That said, I've somewhat learned to do all I can to avoid Survival missions as well. Since one aspect of roguelikes is the concept of risk/reward aside from the challenge being random, and offering a variety of scenarios for people to learn to contend with, would you say there are good reasons to seek out something like a Survival mission if you have the right equipment and strategy?

DL: Yes! You’ve hit on another thing we’ve tweaked for Ironcast Switch. Survival missions now award players with about 30% more scrap (the currency of Ironcast) for completing them, to help balance the fact that you tend to take more damage in them. Conversely, Salvage missions will give the player free systems (salvaged from the enemy wreckage) if completely properly, so we now give LESS Scrap rewards for those. Salvage missions used to be seen as a ‘must do’ mission type on Steam, so this makes those decisions a little less clear-cut now!

How has the process of getting the game seen in the Steam ecosystem worked out for you so far? Do you think the game's gem matching appearance, if people just stick to screen shots, has helped at all to generate interest since it is unique or do you think there's a chance more people may give it a skip just base on that impression? Any impression that the Steam marketplace is so vast that the challenges in getting Ironcast seen remain regardless?

DL: I’ve always said that there’s so many gamers on Steam that even the smallest niche of genre has the potential to sell 100,000+ copies. The way I view it is that those who hate match 3 would probably not give Ironcast a second glance (despite probably loving the strategy and depth it offers). However, for every player like that, there’s another who says “Oh, cool! It’s a bit like Puzzle Quest meets FTL, and I loved those games!” and end up buying it and having a great time!

Generally, I’ll do all I can do appeal to that second group of players, rather than try to convert the former. If the word-of-mouth is strong with Ironcast, they may find themselves giving it a try after all!

With the current state of the Nintendo eShop being far more curated, and there only being maybe a handful of games each week, even with the much smaller install base do you feel like your chances of doing well on the Switch are improved since the chance for getting eyes on your game are improved?

DL: Yes! Very, very excited to get some eyes on Ironcast in the eShop. I read somewhere that there’s currently less than 50 games on the Nintendo store right now to ‘compete’ with. There were over 50 games launched on Steam YESTERDAY. So, absolutely.

What has the working relationship with Nintendo been like as you've come through their process compared to having gotten through similar processes on other platforms?

DL: I personally can’t comment on this as our publisher Ripstone were the main point of contact with Nintendo. However, I can say that they passed Ironcast through their certification process with no ridiculous requests for odd changes to our content, so that’s a bonus! Overall, a very smooth process.

Once you're done with getting Ironcast launched on the Switch any tentative ideas for what you may be trying to bring to the table next?

DL: Yes! Loads of ideas, but nothing to speak about right now, I’m afraid.

I want to thank Daniel for taking time from his busy schedule as well as give a shout out to Michelle and the excellent folks at the publisher Ripstone Games for helping arrange this interview. Ironcast is set to change everything you thought you knew about classic Victorian England on August 10 on the Switch eShop!

Review: Use Your Words

The moment I saw info about Use Your Words, as a huge fan of the Jackbox party games, I was curious about how it would handle things and differentiate itself. While certainly not every game in the Party Packs has been a massive hit with at least 2 titles per pack they’ve made heavy contact and usually one stands out as brilliant. For me the best title they’ve made is Quiplash (and its sequel) and my family and friends have spent a lot of time playing it and enjoying it immensely. I relate this because it paints the picture of where I saw the bar in this party game genre being very high and I wasn’t sure how this new kid on the block would set itself apart and offer something new. I’m pleased to say that while Use Your Words hardly reinvents what works it does an excellent job of creating new variations on a theme that my family and I found entertaining and compelling, and we’ll gladly add this to our regular rotation on game nights.

For those unfamiliar with how these games work what you’re really buying into is the hub for the game and once everything has been set in motion it will be controlled from each player’s smartphone, tablet, or even a computer with a web browser. Everyone will log into a site, register with a specific code, and then be hooked into the same game session. The audio and visuals for the overall flow come through the console but all interaction for collecting answers, etc is handled through each person’s device. It is a very versatile, easy, and incredibly scalable way to set these games up and in general it works very well.

In terms of what Use Your Words is shooting to do differently it all comes down to the various modes you’ll enjoy over the course of a game with between 2 and 5 of your friends (not including the provision for spectators). My favorite flavor offered is probably Sub The Title, which will show a relatively brief video clip with just a little bit of context and then the challenge is for people to suggest what the subtitle should be for the scene. The clips we’ve seen so far have been varied and have prompted some strange and funny responses. Another similarly original mode is called EXTRA, EXTRA! It will prompt everyone with some sort of unusual picture, calling on you to come up with a headline. Again, this has played out quite positively with silly and unexpected pictures that have forced people to use their creativity.

The last two modes, Blank-o-Matic and Survey Says, use much more traditional text prompts that are very similar to the likes of Quiplash. In the case of Blank-O-Matic you’ll be asked to fill in the blank for a provided prompt. Survey Says comes up at the end for the game’s lightning round finale but generally provides a prompt for you to come up with your funniest response for within 60 second. In the case of these two modes the laughs are still very much there, they just do less to differentiate themselves from what’s already out there.

Going over the high level details the presentation is clean, smart, and generally fun with running commentary to keep things moving and entertaining. Configuration is vital, and there are a number of options that I’d consider important. Of most interest is the fact that you can put it in “Family mode” to remove some prompts that would make multi-generational play a little more awkward. Another feature that can be toggled off, and that is unique to this game, is “House Answers”. If you leave them in this feature will always include one stock/pre-made answer in with the choices. If anyone chooses this answer they will incur a penalty. While this can keep people a bit on their toes nobody seemed to like it and it had a negative effect on people’s thinking in some cases since if there was one answer they were sure was from a human they’d tend to just pick that one just to avoid a risk of losing points.

The first key to this game being worthwhile will be access to more than one other person. In general I’d say the minimum number of people you need to make something like this fun is 4, though you could play with 3. The cap is apparently 6 for active players and then additional people can watch and enjoy the fun as spectators. The next key to enjoyment is people with a sense of humor. Not everyone “gets” this type of game and aside from enjoying straight answers for their potential ironic properties things can only be fun as what the participants are willing (and capable) of putting in. Each prompt represents an opportunity for fun and laughs, it is on you and your friends to take it over the finish line. The last key is often that you’ll want to play it in bursts and not too much continuously, at least not with the same people. Too much repetition tends to cause peoples’ answers to become more predictable and patterned, or people will just tend to burn out of ideas. Two or three rounds with the same people will hit a sweet spot and then return to it later so the enjoyment won’t wane.

While Use Your Words is very much a copy of an established (and very effective) format credit is due for the new twists it brings to the party. The MST3K-esque potential in the Sub the Title mode, specifically, is huge and opens the door to some very different opportunities for people to exercise their funny-making chops on. The pacing can tend to be a little slow because of the use of video clips (though they are very short) but I think the developers have tried to find a balance in reminding people of the context (which can be vital) and keeping things moving. I like the idea of the “House Answers” feature, it’s a great stab at adding an extra challenge, but in our playthroughs my family found it changed the answering strategy too much within our group so we were glad to have an option to disable it. If you’re looking for some fun and have access to a group of people on a somewhat regular basis Use Your Words will provide a few evenings of entertainment and engagement for everyone.

Score: 8

  • The Sub the Title mode is a great idea and stood out as my family’s favorite
  • The scalability where you can have 6 people playing without needing controllers for them is terrific
  • Configuration options to help tune things for your audience

  • Some of what it brings to the table has already been done
  • This type of game is only as fun as the people playing it will make it
  • To play you absolutely must have an internet connection and at least 3 people