Full game reviews, or just collected thoughts – impressions cover the games we’ve played.

Dive into Dark Delve

Review of Dark Delve on XBLIG: Try
If you like old-school fantasy RPG, this is everything you love in a more modern package.

CheckMark Games threw down the gauntlet and offered us our first shot at a pre-release review with Dark Delve:

Dark Delve is a first person dungeon crawler where the player explores a sinister dungeon and engages deadly monsters in exciting turn based combat. Create a custom group of characters to dissolve a centuries old curse in the 6+ hour campaign or test your skill in one of several unique challenges available. The dungeons abound with secrets to uncover and enemies to defeat.

At first glance, Dark Delve reminds me of classic 3D dungeon crawlers such as Bard’s Tale or Eye of the Beholder. Old-school fantasy gamers will feel at home with the basic mechanics of exploration: treasure chests, secret doors, monster encounters (planned and wandering), traps, and puzzles.

The combat system throws in a few twists, including a chain/break system and performance-based rewards and healing. As a fan of older turn-based RPGs (such as the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior), this was more complexity than I initially expected. However, it encourages faster, riskier kills over long, drawn-out strategies, so I spent more time on exploration than on combat (which is my preference).

The class system offers an excellent range of abilities without being excessive. Three core classes (warrior, mage, and rogue) keep character creation simple. Each class has three skill trees (such as Knight, Paladin, Assassin, and Druid), which offer a wider range of builds.

Exploration will likely make or break this game for most people. As an Explorer, I spent around 5 hours thoroughly exploring the first dungeon, and barely scratching the surface of two others. Suffice it to say, the 6 hour campaign is an underestimate for me.

However, if you’re into combat, the exploration aspect may not entice you. The first dungeon doesn’t give many hints and it’s not a small map. In addition, features like the “rest” meter can be frustrating–I didn’t keep track of the altars that act as resting points, so I found myself making trips back to the surface often.

I rate this game a Try. If you like old-school fantasy RPG, this is everything you love in a more modern package. If you’re not a fan of the genre, it probably won’t change your mind. But it’s definitely worth a try–or even two, as one eight-minute trial may not be enough to fully get a handle on all of the mechanics.

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Explore secret societies in Esoterica America

Review of Esoterica America on XBLIG: Try
This adventure game has a complex storyline, but is light on gameplay.

I found it hard to pin down this game’s genre in the 8 minute trial. Initially I thought it was a role-playing game or a King’s Quest– or Maniac Mansion-style adventure game, but it’s more of an interactive story punctuated with mini-games. Sam, the game’s protagonist, is given an empty notebook for his 21st birthday, and is sent off on a quest to determine what really happened to his supposedly-dead father. It turns out that his father was involved in various secret societies, so Sam must investigate these and fill his notebook with facts.

The story is told in a minimal black-and-white comic art style. Cutscenes consist of zooming and panning layers of static images. Most cutscenes are voice acted, although the quality of the voice acting varies. Still, the overall presentation is compelling.

The game’s main selling point is the story, but I suspect it may be polarizing. The initial tease of secret societies reminded me of pulp-fiction games like Call of Cthulhu or 7th Sea where societies are played up larger than life. Instead, this is more a straightforward presentation with a New Age or real-world conspiracy-theorist feel. As I’m somewhat skeptical about such things, it didn’t grab me.

However, if you’re into that sort of thing, this game does a great job. The 16 pages of information that Sam collects covers the history and practices of societies such as the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, the Eastern Star, and the Illuminati. The story itself is short, but the cliffhanger ending and the credits imply this is going to be an ongoing tale.

Gameplay ties the story together, but I found it lacking. Much of the game revolves around exploring a room and clicking on any interesting items—this either adds new pages to Sam’s notebook or progresses the story forward. In addition, each of the four lodges requires Sam to undertake a series of challenges to progress. This starts with a meditation minigame, where Sam must dodge distracting thoughts and nullify them with his color-coded mantras. After that, Sam must solve a problem for the lodge’s leader by completing a puzzle.

Progression through the four lodges is completely linear. To travel to the next lodge, Sam must finish his quest at the current location and talk to the right person or click on the right object. Even though all four lodges are shown on the map, Sam can only travel to the next lodge in the sequence. If Sam misses a notebook entry, there’s no way to go back and collect it. Completionists can take heart in the fact that, by skipping the text and cutscenes, the game can be completed in less than an hour.

Overall, I give Esoterica America a Try. There is a complex story as well as loads of supporting content. It’s not the sort of fantasy or sci-fi you’d expect to find in an adventure game, and I applaud the developers for thinking outside the box. However, from my experience, if the story doesn’t grab you in the trial period, the gameplay probably won’t be enough to make you stick around.

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THE Avatar Legends Are A Zelda-Effectian Wonder

Review of Avatar Legends on XBLIG: Buy

I loved this game. The Avatar Legends is a shining example of something that I have wanted to do with my Avatar since I first created one. I’m playing an actual, fully fleshed out RPG with viewable asset changes to my Avatar (swords and shields that looked the same on my character and in menu). You’re playing as your Avatar, whom has been pulled from it’s safe haven on the Dashboard into this new and dangerous realm. None of the other Avatars whom have come have been able to open a special chest that only the ubiquitous “Hero who will save us all” can. Now that it’s been established that you’re the (Avatar) Hero, you must prove to others that you are who you say you are.

This being a somewhat story driven RPG (and in 3D no less) that seems to almost want to be an offline MMORPG, there isn’t the widest variations on the enemy types. You have Orcs, Orc Warriors, Yetis, Skeleton Warriors, Skeleton Archers, Dark Knights, and Large Dark Knights. A couple of the enemies have samey sort of palette-swaps but nothing awe inspiring. All that said, I like the way all the enemies looked. Once you got used to each enemy’s range and attack pattern you could nuke them pretty efficiently. The difficulty of enemies is determined by what area you’re in not what level you are so don’t guess the wrong area to start in or you may kneecap yourself. Level-ups come at every 100 EXP (didn’t know that until I looked at the help menu and no, there is no EXP bar) and give you 10 option points every time.

The story of your Avatar saving the world gets lost a little after the beginning and becomes engulfed in Fetch-Quests, Search-Quests, and Kill-Quests that have interesting dialogue options associated with many of them. Some quests have multiple means of solving them. Sometimes you’ll get dialogue options related to your Speech, Intelligence, or Strength loadouts in addition to the “I’ve found the object you are looking for” or “I have Gold” options. There isn’t a Paragon/Renegade portion to the Speech option. It’s just how well you communicate to others. You can talk your way into people giving you more gold or even items they may otherwise have never even mentioned.

I found the jokes in it amusing for the most part. There are some definite inside jokes that I wouldn’t have gotten years ago related to programming and developers that I follow on Twitter. There are the almost standard “funny death epithet” on the gravestones. The jokes I liked best weren’t jokes. They were the responses you could make to things people said like screaming, “THIS IS SPARTA!” in response to “Are you ready?” and other rather inane dialogues that every RPG has. I wish I could interact with the items in my menu. There are several books that I found or was given that were funny but after you’ve read them they’re just dead weight in your backpack.

I think the story isn’t stronger to avoid the paradox of “you must save the world now” versus “you have all the time in the universe to help everyone you’ve ever met”. The main game is at least a good 6 hours of play on Normal with you only doing what’s absolutely essential. There’s another few hours I spent doing everything I could do easily and another 5 to 8 hours I spent grinding for money to buy my Perfect Town, finding the in-game collectibles to acquire the Ultimate Weapon, and walking over almost every square inch of the maps looking for hidden Easter eggs or treasure chests.

There is a World/Story Builder that I’m glossing over because I can’t get it to work no matter how many times I try to build something simple. It crashes and makes me very angry.

Multi-player is also available. I tried that briefly and found it somewhat janky. That’s more to do with how XBOX treats multi-player across systems than anything wrong with the game. There are griefers already, so if you’re not into… other people… don’t worry. You’re not missing out on much. It does seem to have a rather novel Prestigeing system so check it out with friends if you can.

At $3 (240 imaginary space dollars) this game is a must Buy for anyone looking for the kind of game that neither Zelda or FFXIII fully gave us. I keep looking for more to do in the game and keep finding plenty to occupy myself. I know I’d love something else even half as good soon to do with my Legend of an Avatar.

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An Army of Minions!

Review of Minions! on XBLIG: Buy
This shooter’s simplified style belies serious strategy and real challenge.

Minions! is a slightly different take on the shooter genre. Instead of a first-person view, however, there’s a choice between a third-person camera and a top-down camera (which functions like a dual-stick shooter). Its seven missions feature common scenarios such as search-and-destroy, escort, and hold-and-defend. While it only offers a single-player mode, the player character is constantly assisted by a collection of eponymous minions in a nod to team- and squad-based shooters.

In addition, Minions! throws in a few RPG elements. The main character earns experience from directly killing enemies (minions can steal your kills) which can be used to beef up speed, damage, health, and shields, and gold drops. It’s possible to go back and grind through previous missions for experience. Over the course of the game, three specialized minions can also be customized for hire during each level. While both of these elements were helpful in the long run, I didn’t see a noticeable difference in power as I leveled up. This isn’t a complaint—I never felt I could substitute level grinding for good tactics or strategy.

Good strategy is essential to winning. While I found the first three missions a piece of cake—mainly because they’re almost impossible to lose, given infinite respawns—later missions became frustratingly difficult. Mission 4, for example, requires taking down the Red Team’s super tank before it reaches Blue Base. I replayed it countless times, maxed out my character, and still couldn’t win by attacking the tank head-on. It turned out the only effective way to win was to draw the tank’s fire and let my turret and minion allies (with their effective rocket and laser attacks) do the hard work for me.  Again, this isn’t a complaint, although it will likely be a turn-off for some casual gamers. (Full disclosure: I reached the final level, but could not finish it.)

I’m not a fan of the presentation, but the gameplay more than makes up for it. The game’s style reminds me of Lego men (although I don’t think Lego would ever license a game with this much blood). It has charm, but the oversimplified 3D models and rough animations may be a turn-off at first glance. In addition, most of the player character’s voiced quips fell flat for me, and some are even groan-worthy (the female commando starts one level by saying, “I wonder if there’s a mall in this town?”).

I give Minions! a Buy. While it’s not going to give A-list squad-based FPS titles a run for their money, fans of that genre will enjoy the strategic elements (although casual gamers will likely find them frustrating). It’s a difficult game, but it has a lot of variety and it’s addictively fun.

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Sequence mixes the rhythm and RPG genres

Review of Sequence on XBLIG: Buy
Polished art, professional voice acting, and excellent dance pad and guitar support make this rhythm/RPG hybrid

Sequence—an unassuming name for a complex game—is primarily a rhythm game in the vein of Rock Band or Dance Dance Revolution. Rather than isolated challenges, each song represents a battle against a monster, with well-executed RPG elements tying them all together. Instead of one set of scrolling arrows there are three panels of arrows used for spellcasting, defense, and mana regeneration. In between battles, there’s a complex leveling and crafting system as well as an engaging storyline.

The storyline is standard fighting-anime fare. Ky, an ordinary college student, is knocked unconscious and awakens in a tower where he must battle through seven floors to escape. The Shepherd Naia, guiding him from a control room somewhere else in the Tower, is his only ally. The writing is lighthearted, and the subtle use of internet memes and real-world details drew me into the dialogue. It’s not a particularly complex story, but I was curious as to what was really going on in the Tower.

The most noticeable thing about the game is the presentation. Every screen features a detailed background and characters are professionally illustrated in a cartoon style. Cutscenes are mostly static with simple animations, but they are fully voiced by a fairly large cast of actors. The result is a high quality experience that could easily beat some XBLA games.

Sequence’s strength is the use of peripherals. While it’s possible to play the game with a normal controller, use of a guitar controller or a dance pad is also supported. Dance pads work just as they do in DDR, but require a controller to select spells and flip between the spellcasting, defense, and mana panels.

Of the three controller options, the inclusion of guitar support impressed me the most. The control scheme is fundamentally different, not just an option slapped on top of the existing game. The fret buttons correspond to the four arrows, and the strum bar must be used just like in Rock Band. The orange fret button and the strum bar are used to flip between panels, and the whammy bar is used with the fret buttons to cast spells.

I’ve played both DDR and Rock Band for years, and the dance pad felt the most natural. Using the controller and the pad is awkward at first, but it quickly becomes natural, and I found it was easiest to change panels and adapt. The guitar control scheme is a clever use of a limited set of buttons, but it takes some time before it feels natural. It would have been nice if the guitar replaced the four arrows in each panel with colored gems as in Rock Band—it still feels natural to play because of the order of the buttons, but it takes slightly longer to process which button corresponds to which arrow. The controller is a good choice if you don’t have (or aren’t comfortable with) a dance pad or guitar, but button mashing just didn’t have the same appeal as the other controller options.

RPG elements are the main difference between Sequence and other rhythm games. Ky can equip weapons and armor, select a set of 6 spells to carry into battle, level up (and down) with experience points, and craft new items using drops from enemies. Ky progresses from floor to floor by repeatedly fighting one of three different enemies (selectable before the battle), crafting a key, then fighting a boss battle. The game sucked me in, although I realized around the 6th floor or so that I was really just playing a series of WoW-style grind quests—”kill enemy name to collect X number of quest item.” Still, the rhythm game mechanics were so entertaining that I didn’t care.

Like many rhythm games, Sequence offers four difficulty levels, which can be changed at will until the third floor of the Tower. I played on the lowest level and didn’t find it overly challenging, but it was still enjoyable. This is a good thing—Sequence’s mechanics focus more on perfect combos than either DDR or Rock Band. The third floor limitation is generous while still requiring a certain amount of discipline. However, I felt the third floor limitation also locked me into using one controller since I was much better with the DDR mat or controller than with the guitar.

I give Sequence a Buy. For Rock Band or DDR fans, this is a must buy—it puts a new spin on the game. But even novices can find something to like in the story or the presentation, and shouldn’t feel too overwhelmed on Easy—grinding for experience and gear can make up for a lack of skill.

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Go back to the 80’s with Retrocade: DataStream Y2K600

Review of Retrocade: DataStream Y2K600 on XBLIG: Try
Atari 2600-style graphics make this take on Frogger a blast from the past.

It may not look it at first, but Retrocade: DataStream Y2K600 is, at its heart, Frogger. Developer QuimbyRBG has taken those basic gameplay elements—a lone player crossing a series of moving streams of objects—and created four different variants, as well as recreating the original.

In most variations, the basic game mechanics are collecting data nodes and opening or closing streams. The goal of Arcade mode is keeping streams open; the goal of Corruption is closing them down. Waypoint is a race against the clock, and collecting data nodes increases the timer. Glitcher and Flow Rider return to the original goal of Frogger—crossing from one side of the screen to the other.

I found controls to be touchy on occasion. I sometimes died unexpectedly when moving against a stream or trying to squeeze into a narrow gap. It’s not easy to judge collisions with the naked eye with objects moving in opposite directions, so I found the best strategy was to go with the flow as much as possible. In addition, moving up and down through the data streams requires more precision than the thumbstick or the (notoriously imprecise) D-pad can provide—an unintentional slip of the thumb often sent me into a different stream, usually right into the path of an obstacle.

I’m impressed by inventive game design. I wouldn’t have recognized the gameplay as Frogger had the developer not specifically mentioned it. It’s easy to see the comparison after it was pointed out; the four new game modes are unique enough that their inspiration is not instantly recognizable. It also helped that the developer took the Frogger concept completely out of its original context and created a new theme (computer data streams) that still fits with the original mechanic.

While the gameplay is certainly inventive, the graphics are a matter of debate. I recognized the chunky, solid-color blocks as a throwback to Atari 2600, so I was able to look past the simplistic graphics. In fact, I felt they served the game well, expanding and shrinking as streams opened and closed without being distracting. However, Mike thought it was too simplistic for the Atari 2600 reference and read it as another case of “bad graphics as retro.”

I give Retrocade: DataStream Y2K600 a Try. Initially, I found the diversity of game modes fun. But if you don’t like retro or chasing the high score, you’ll likely get tired of it quickly.

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FortressCraft-ing a Console Clone

Review of FortressCraft Chapter 1 on XBLIG: Try
These are not the blocks you are looking for…

FortressCraft is a lot like MineCraft. There is no getting around that immediately apparent fact. This game seems to be playing off of MineCraft’s Creator mode rather than starting from one of the more refined iterations but later “Chapters” will likely follow the same development paths. The inspiration was apparently both MineCraft and another game called Dwarf Fortress but looks like MC or a brighter Infiniminer.

I didn’t follow this game’s development as closely as I thought I would solely because I couldn’t see how this particular PC game could be ported to the console’s game pad. The mouse is so great at certain functions that the WASD controls didn’t bother me too much (I wasn’t too big of a PC gamer when little). FC uses the left bumper to remove blocks and the right bumper to place blocks in 1st-person mode only. The type of block to be placed is chosen with the D-pad and scrolling through groupings of eight choices by holding a direction on the D-pad and clicking one of the triggers. 3rd-person mode is used to see your avatar do emotes that are selected with the D-pad. all of that sounds awkward and almost needlessly busy but it becomes easier with practice.

There is no differentiation of worlds as far as I’ve been able to tell. They aren’t randomly generated. Nor are there natural caves below the surface level. It doesn’t matter what you dig up as you can place any type of block except for TNT right from the beginning. Above ground there is cicada-filled summery background. Below ground and under outcrops the background noise starts to sound like a drafty tunnel with occasional drips from nowhere. Actual music plays only at sunrise (the sun is already in the sky but needs to rise a bit to leave the horizon before it’s counted as “sunrise”).

Finding a number of Artifacts is the only type of actual game built into FortressCraft. This is a type of Marco Polo game where you listen for what was described to me as a “glowing” sound. Once you hear it, you try to find wherever it’s loudest or highest then dig down a bunch. The best thing to do after that is exploit one of the game’s many shortcomings to see through walls. I would block myself in so that I was in a two block high crevasse then place a block in my head space so I could see through the earth to the general direction of the Artifacts.

As usual, having random people able to come into your world to play with your legos is a crap-shoot at best. I got some helpful, some ok non-talkative guys, and a jerk I had to shut the whole world down just to boot out. I wish I could leave all permissions on but with no way to boot a single idiot I can’t recommend doing so to others.

This game has quite a number of faults. The highly vaunted graphics aren’t better than MC’s with the Painterly Pack skinning it. Figuring out what option does what is not easy and many options are gradations on poor vs poorer graphics. Loading someone else’s world takes exceedingly long and if you fall through what I’m calling “the Matrix” you get “eaten by a Grue” which is cute. Attempting to stack blocks under yourself while jumping is problematic because if you clip your feet with a block you cause a minor error where the screen gets staticky and your Avatar is reset to wherever it believes is best. That’s a quick-ish way to get out of a deep mine without the jet-pack but an annoyance at all other times.  Just be sure that if you want to go world hopping that your own personal world is saved on a USB and you play in other people’s worlds on your hard drive or you’ll lose everything you worked so hard to build.

Despite all of the problems with FortessCraft, I still think it’s a Try. You may have to run through the free trial a few times to see if you can accept the difference in controls. Anything approaching MineCraft is impossible to give a fair trial in the allotted 8 minutes. I have played this game much longer than I needed to review it simply because I can play a MC-like game on my console in about 5 seconds rather than having to go to my inconveniently placed PC and get my build-a-world fix done quickly.

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