Category Archives: first impressions

Rescuing a village of emotional fruit people is just what you do in Karambola


Here’s a funny coincidence: I played Karambola, and then, the next day, ate some carambola, for the first time, as part of a fruit salad when visiting family for babies and a BBQ. I found the starfruit to be quite sweet, but maybe my taste-buds are off as I was the only one to think this. Others claimed it as bitter. To me, it tasted like a sweeter grape–no, not the cotton candy kind–and I am officially a fan. I’m also a fan of the point-and-click adventure-in-your-browser game Karambola, strange as it is, an artsy mix of bitter and sweet, a satisfying snack in the end.

First, if anything, Holy Pangolin Studio’s Karambola has reminded me of a great sin–that I’ve not yet played Samorost 3 this year despite totally saying I wanted to. These games swim in the same bizarre and silly point-and-click adventure pool where everything is all at once familiar and slightly unsettling. I mean, in this one, a flock of evil bird-thoughts–which I assume are standard endothermic vertebrates that happen to bring about unwanted thinking to those they encounter, like gray clouds hanging overhead–attack a village of peaceful and, might I add, emotional fruit people. Unfortunately for our titular protagonist Karambola, all of his friends scatter, lost to their own inner demons, and it’s up to you to bring them back via some smart if unconventional puzzle-solving clicking.

Each distraught villager is its own scene and puzzle, and some are easier to figure out than others, but all clues are directly in front of you, distorted or purposefully blurred, hidden in the environment for you to find. Still, everything is eventually doable with enough thinking and clicking, and you are then treated to a little animation of the emotional fruit-headed villager coming back to reality and happiness, color washing the screen clean. Then it is back to the Mega Man-esque level select screen to save the next downer, until all hope is returned.

Music and sound effects are vital to Karambola‘s storytelling, especially since you only get a screen of text at the start to explain the setup and then nothing more. Audio helps sell these villagers as villagers and sets the tone for each scene, whether it is the rhythmic lighting up of windows or muted guitar chords as a pinecone-headed figure cries into a wooden tube in the woods. A lot of the music is low, soft, clearly atmospheric, and it mixes strongly with the colorless, almost sketch-like artwork of the fruit people against the water-colored backdrops. There’s also a really fantastic little musical loop that plays when you click on the evil bird-thoughts to get a glimpse of unspoken story in their silhouetted bodies. Some of the bands on the soundtrack include Bird of Either and Avell, which are both new to me.

Lastly, some linkage. I know, I know…I just linked to some bands’ Facebook pages, but these are the more game-relevant ones. First, check out this interview with Karambola‘s creator Agata Nawrot. Second, give this oddball of a game a shot by clicking here and enjoying it in whatever browser you like to use. I played mine in Mozilla Firefox, for what it’s worth. Lastly, fruit flies are the worst, but evidently evil bird-thoughts are much worse, so don’t let your guard down. After all, there’s never been a better time to be playing videogames than right now.

The future rewards those who press on in Read Only Memories

gd early impressions for read only memories rom

Well, the newest videogame bundle to make your eyes pop out of their sockets is the Humble Narrative Bundle, which, at its “pay whatever you want” tier, is handing out copies of Her Story, Cibele, and Read Only Memories. Yowza. I already have Broken Age, but the next tier contains that, plus 80 Days and Sorcery! Parts 1 and 2. I don’t really know what those last two ones are. Oh, and if you drop $10 or more, you’ll get Shadowrun: Hong Kong – Extended Edition. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound like a hypnotized ad man here, but this bundle is phenomenal, especially if you like games built more around stories than crazy upgrade mechanics. Y’know, like me.

Despite Her Story being on my list of games I just didn’t get to in 2015 yet really wanted to, I dove into Read Only Memories first. It seemed…well, to be honest, a smaller adventure, and perhaps something a little easier to digest in small chunks, as I wasn’t intending to play through anything on one single sitting last night despite there being a Steam Achievement called “Iron ROM” to do exactly that.

I’m going to do my best to describe the story or at least the setup, but like all things cyberpunk, there’s a lot of jargon and acronyms to wade through. Read Only Memories takes place in 2064, where most people have their very own personal robot, commonly known as a relationship organizational manager (ROM). These AI-driven bots act as interactive personal computers, but are limited to their programming. All that changes with Turing, a ROM made by the protagonist’s old friend Hayden, which is much more advanced. to the point of being sapient. Turing breaks into your apartment in the middle of the night after Hayden is kidnapped, requesting your help. Not because you are some superhero, but rather, according to Turing, the most statistically supported in getting the job done. Trust me, it did the math.

And that’s all I really know, having completed the prologue and am somewhat into chapter one. You’re tracking down clues as to the how and why Hayden disappeared, all while learning about Neo-San Francisco and its colorful cast of characters. It’s very much a retro point-and-click adventure title, with lots of things to interact with in a given scene, as well as plenty of throwaway text written for silly combinations, like using spoiled milk on a parked car. Normally, in a game like The Blackwell Legacy or A Golden Wake, you’d probably get a “I don’t think so” or “That’s not going to work” kind of comment, nothing else. Here, in Read Only Memories, you get a response, which only encourages me more to try everything on everything. I guess this previously thought smaller adventure is going to take me that much longer to finish. Sorry, I can’t not click on stuff that potentially holds fun flavor text.

Writing is key for Read Only Memories, much more prevalent than puzzle solving so far. Be prepared to read. Thankfully, the writing is strong and fun, if a little long in parts. Turing is a cute robot that can also be frightening when you realize it knows next to everything about you. Well, me. I made Turing address me as “Pauly” and use the pronouns of “him/his.” Also, I have an omnivore diet. It’s nice to see a game include such options and openness, as well as a future were LGBT characters face less discrimination, but then again…this is San Francisco. In actuality, this is a queer-inclusive videogame, and its developers are also involved with the GaymerX series of LGBT video gaming conventions.

I’m definitely interested in seeing this mystery unfold, as well as trying more drinks at the Stardust bar. Then I’ll move on to Her Story. Or maybe Cibele. Regardless, more story-driven adventures are in my future. Also, Read Only Memories has reminded me that I need to check back in on Matt Frith’s work and see if he’s done anything else to Among Thorns, which certainly shares some similarities with the darker side of technology.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap really makes you shrink

gd early impressions The-Legend-of-Zelda The Minish Cap

Don’t ask me why, but I often like to begin playing a new game–well, new to me, that is–during the Thanksgiving holiday break, with me digging into Metroid II: Return of Samus and Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters in the past. Well, this year, I only had my Nintendo 3DS with me as I traveled down to South Jersey for turkey, Christmas tree decorating, and too much Black Friday shopping even during “regular” hours, and while I dabbled in my daily staples of Pokémon Shuffle and Nintendo Badge Arcade…I wanted something fresher. You know, from 2005, the era of the Game Boy Advance. Enter The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap.

This is also one of those freebie 3Ds Ambassador titles given to all us early investors, of which I’ve played just about all of them for various lengths of time. You can read some words on things like Kirby and The Amazing Mirror, Metroid Fusion, and Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 by clicking this very sentence. I think the only one left for me to really try, and maybe write about some day, is Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.

The Minish Cap‘s quest begins when Link, who I renamed Pauly, is chosen by the king of Hyrule to seek the help of the Picori after Vaati destroyed the Picori Blade and petrified Princess Zelda. Also, evil monsters are now running rampant in Hyrule, with Vaati creating as much chaos as possible in his search for the Light Force. Link was selected for this journey because he’s able to see and interact with the Minish, a race of small, elf-like people. Along the way, Link rescues Ezlo, a strange being resembling a green cap with a bird-like head, who joins him and is able to shrink the leading adventurer to the size of the Minish.

The basic gameplay is nearly identical to previous games in the series, with Link acquiring items, exploring dungeons, and defeating bosses for extra hearts and story-vital trinkets. The two stand-out elements that make this GBA adventure unique, as far as I can tell, involve Link shrinking down to the size of an ant and fusing kinstones. The former is used to open up new areas to explore, but also provides some stunning visuals, with plants now as large as trees and shoes on a tabletop a major roadblock. You see tiny doors everywhere, but you can only shrink in specific areas, which means you have to either figure out how to get there or come back later on when, I assume, you kill and roast Ezlo, gaining his powers by piercing his duck-like flesh with your cartoony chompers.

Fusing kinstones, is really addicting, mostly because it is really rewarding, and I hope the loop of finding a kinstone, fusing it with someone, going out for that revealed treasure, and finding more kinstones never fades. Basically, kinstones are items you collect as you cut grass and attack enemies, and back in town, if a person has a bubble over their head, you can take your half of a kinstone and match it with theirs. If they complete each other, something will reveal itself on the Hyrule map. So far, it’s been rupees, entrances to hidden areas, and more difficult enemies that drop a lot of money.

Look, I’m playing The Minish Cap with a guide open next to me on my laptop; however, I am not following the guide line by line. In the past, I’ve struggled to get through many quests involving Link, Princess Zelda, and the Tri-Force because I either get lost or forget where I need to go next or simply walk away from the journey for too long. There’s a reason why I still haven’t gotten through The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and it’s because every random chance I hop back into it…I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, what world I’m supposed to explore. Anyways, at any time, you can press “select” to get a clue as to where to go next from Ezlo, but even that is not always crystal clear. My greatest fear is returning to a dungeon I already completed and spending a chunk of time in it before realizing I’m supposed to be elsewhere, using that boomerang. So I’m only using the guide to keep me on the main path; I will not let The Minish Cap suffer the same fate as Link’s Awakening.

I’m really enjoying it, and, through glancing at the guide, The Minish Cap doesn’t seem to be the longest of Link’s adventures. That’s fine by me. There’s only a month left for 2015, and I have a number of other conquests to see done before 2016 comes crashing into my face. Cue panic face.

Trying to thieve as a master thief in Thief

gd early impressions Thief xbox 360

The Xbox One recently rolled out its list of backwards-compatible games, and, no, Thief is not one of them. Not yet, at least. I’ll get to the connection shortly, I promise. I’m a big fan of this function, and it honestly was one of the attributes that resulted in me picking up this current-gen console over the other, despite all the hubbub around the possibility of PlayStation 2 emulation on the PlayStation 4. Anyways, with the fact that some of my Xbox 360 games are ready to be played on the newest console, this meant deletion and freeing up hard-drive space was imminent.

Once I deleted Just Cause 2 and moved my save game profile to the cloud–which is a technology that I’m still scared to trust–my Xbox 360 began downloading the next game in my queue, which turned out to be Square Enix’s Thief, released back in February 2014. It’s a stealthy game I’ve been eyeing for some time, though it was immediately strange and revealing going from sneaking around the Commonwealth in Fallout 4 to sneaking around the less-imaginative, ultra dark, Victorian-themed, plague-riddled City.

Here’s the story: master thief Garrett teams up with his former apprentice, Erin, on the same job from their contact Basso. It’s clear that Garrett and Erin differ on what it means to be a thief, with Erin happily murdering guards to ensure no one follows after them while Garrett would prefer to be less violent. Along the way, he steals her claw weapon. As they arrive at the Baron Northcrest’s manor, they discover some ritual taking place. Garrett calls off the job, but Erin refuses to listen, falling into the center of the ritual, which was nearing its completion, becoming engulfed by some mystical energy. Garrett is knocked out trying to save her, and only awakens from unconsciousness a year later.

It’s not a great story so far–I’m past the prologue and somewhere into the second chapter, after visiting a church–and a lot of that falls on Garrett’s cloak-covered shoulders. He comes across as a self-righteous do-gooder, stealing from the rich and keeping it for himself, but also always has a snarky one-liner to say for every situation, often to the point of mockery. I get the sense that he lacks empathy and could care less about what happened to his friend Erin, but we’ll see where things go. It’s hard to get a lot of story when your main character spends the majority of his time slinking around houses in the dark, half-listening to conversations through keyholes, not letting a single footstep be heard.

The focus of Thief is to use stealth in order to overcome a number of challenges, with violence often left as a last resort. I’m all about that. “The stealthier, the better” would make an excellent bumper sticker. Early on, I ran into the same problem that turned me off of Dishonored, in that once you are spotted, there is little chance of survival, which only makes me want to do perfect stealth runs, with no room for error. That said, I don’t think Thief plays or looks all that great; it’s sluggish and murky, with nothing distinctive-looking about it. So far, the coolest move, in my mind, Garrett can do is distinguish candles to darken a room, and I’m eagerly awaiting popping an Achievement somehow related to doing this.

Heads up: there’s also a lot of pressing X. You hit this button to pick up loot, of which there’s a ton. I think there was over 70 pieces to grab in the first chapter alone, and this loot translate into money, which you can later then spend on skill tree upgrades, weapons, and miscellaneous items. however, when it comes to desks and drawers, plan to press X a bunch and be disappointed when you find nothing. Also, I think I had a similar gripe with Batman: Arkham Asylum, but mashing a button to open a window or grate is beyond tedious, there only to pad out what little gameplay already exists.

I’d really like to see Thief become backwards-compatible on the Xbox One, but not because it is some much treasured entry in the series and fans are eagerly looking to play it right now. It’s more out of laziness. The further forward I go with my new current console, the less interested I am in switching on the 360, changing inputs on my TV, and plugging a controller into the system. Yes, I’m the same dude who is still working away at Final Fantasy IX, a PlayStation 1 RPG of old on my still-kicking PlayStation 2, but that’s on a different television in my bedroom. Okay, I have to get back now to looting dead bodies and hanging cat portraits on my settlement’s structures…oh wait, wrong game.

This Dragon Quest also requires keys to open doors

dragon quest armor games impressions capture

All right, a slice of honesty here: I didn’t play Dragon Quest the other day in what one might consider…a legal manner. I gave it a fair shake through browser-based emulation that I will not link to here. That said, while performing a Google search for this possibility, I stumbled across another game called Dragon Quest, playable over at the Armor Games website. Here, I’ll happily link to it. To me, it is a big and bold move to name your game the same title as that of a beloved franchise some nearly 30 years in the making. Either it’s a quick grab for knowledgeable gamers’ attention–hey, it worked on me–or there’s a specific and unchangeable detail to the plot that requires such titling.

Here’s the gist: in this Dragon Quest, one must explore a deadly castle on a mission to get back a stolen best friend who was kidnapped by a dragon. I mean, if that stolen friend was named Princess Gwaelin and change the dragon to the Dragonlord, then we’re one in the same with that other mega-popular Dragon Quest. Still, this isn’t an RPG where you have to select the stairs menu option to go up or down staircases, but both titles do have a fixation on finding keys to open locked doors. In fact, that’s the only way you’ll save your stolen friend here, as well as dodge that dragon’s attacks in three separate boss battles.

I’m going to use quotation marks to highlight the descriptive text the creator of this Dragon Quest wrote when describing his or her creation. Basically, there are over 20 levels of “insane physics puzzles” that you need to solve using the “twitch reflexes of a platforming game.” I take issue with both of these claims. Insane is a descriptor better saved for puzzles like late-game Portal or Fez or Silent Hill‘s poetry riddles, not figuring out how to smush the skeleton to get a key to pop out; there’s only one way to do it in each level, and the solution is visually telegraphed based on whatever new elements are added each time. As for the twitch reflexes, you move no faster than Mario without the run button, with none of the momentum. You can jump and change direction in midair, which helps once or twice, but otherwise there is no need to keep your finger hovering over the keyboard for the swiftest of key presses.

For a soldier decked out in shiny armor and wielding a sword, the hero of Dragon Quest is quite the pacifist. He never directly kills a skeleton with his blade, often using the environment around him and the skeletons’ dim wits to do away with them. You use the sword to hit switches or cut ropes mainly. When it comes to battling the dragon, which you do thrice, the soldier must avoid the dragon’s fireballs and attacks, using them against him to deal damage. I’m not here to say I need man on dragon violence to satisfy me and my dark desires, but thought it was an unusual observation nonetheless. I wonder if it was a conscious choice or something that happened due to the nature of the puzzle mechanics.

In the end, Dragon Quest is a mediocre way to kill fifteen minutes and mildly flex your brain muscles, but it probably should’ve been called something more like Door Key Quest or The Mighty Quest to Smush All Skeletons. Here’s hoping that the next time I’m talking about Dragon Quest on this blog of mine, it’s related more to that Enix joint, even if I have to admit to being killed again and again by red slimes. I’m okay with violence against them.

Cthulhu Saves the World with an old-school parody RPG

Cthulhu saves the world screen gd impressions

A copy of Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII: The Beginning have sat untouched, uninstalled in a folder on my laptop’s desktop, for a good long while now. I mean, the former came out in July 2011, and I guess I ended up getting a copy of it through some bundle promotion that I can no longer recall, but all I did was download it, not ever sure when it would be a good time to kickstart an old-school RPG adventure. Turns out, any time is good, and so I’ve been tinkering away at this pixelated 2D journey through labyrinthine dungeons brimming with treasure chests, a limited number of random encounters, and the moodiest soundtrack, with hard swings from cult-like chamber songs to a peppy, relaxing tune when exploring a village.

Now, technically, the game’s name on the title screen is as follows: Cthulhu Saves the World: Super Hyper Enhanced Championship Edition Alpha Diamond DX Plus Alpha FES HD – Premium Enhanced Game of the Year Collector’s Edition (without Avatars!). Oh boy. Quite a mouthful. We’ll just stick with the abbreviated title to save precious space, plus I have no idea how one even goes about abbreviating such a thing.

So, what’s the deal in Cthulhu Saves the World? Why would the lord of insanity want to save the world? Well, truthfully, Cthulhu was all set to plunge the world into madness and destruction, but his powers were suddenly sealed away by a mysterious sorcerer. Alas, the only way for Cthulhu to break the curse is to become…a true hero. Sometimes to save something, you have to destroy it at the same time. Everyone loves a good anti-hero in these days of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White and just about everyone from Game of Thrones.

I’d like to tell you that, as a writer, I’ve long delved into the works and demented mindset of H.P. Lovecraft, but the truth is, I really only became aware of the material due to the Munchkin Cthulhu card game from Steve Jackson Games many years ago. Still, I understand it on a surface level, and the game here seems to only demand you understand that Cthulhu is a monster forced to take on a heroic quest. At least so far. I haven’t really come across other cosmic entities yet.

Cthulhu Saves the World is a throwback to traditional 16-bit RPGs of yesterday, like Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy. You wander around towns full of houses and shops, buy potions, armor, and new weapons, and then traverse across an overworld to your next destination. That said, the battle system is a bit more unique here than your standard turn-based form, and this is what makes both playing the game and grinding for higher levels enjoyable. To start, enemies become 10% stronger for every turn they live through, feeding off of Cthulhu’s madness. This means you want to kill them as quickly as possible, as you’ll also regain more magic points the sooner the battle ends.

Here’s one of my favorite elements of Cthulhu Saves the World: random encounters are limited. When you arrive at a new zone, you can pop over to your status menu and see how many random encounters you will have to endure before they just stop popping up altogether. Praise the Great Old One! This means you can only grind for so long, though you can also start a battle if you want via a menu command. It’s both a nice and strange feeling to wipe an area clear of random fights, which makes going back for missed treasure chests less of a pain. When you level up, you have the option to pick between multiple spells or upgrades, and I’m focusing so far on Cthulhu doing big damage and Umi handling healing and attacking all enemies at once with her Flood spell.

I’m not terribly far into Cthulhu Saves the World, somewhere in Chapter 2, with both characters in my party–Cthulhu and Umi–at level 10. Like I mentioned at the top of this post, it’s a game I’ve been tinkering with over the last few months, playing it in short spouts, but always making progress. Its humor and engaging turn-based battles make it a joy to play, and, as always with old-school RPGs, I’m eager to see the next town and purchase better gear. That’s how you know you are getting somewhere, when a shop has more expensive items.

It is only through Motocross Madness that the soul is revealed

motocross madness early impressions

Trials Evolution is a game I both love and hate, one with extremely hard swings, where one minute I’m leaping off a ramp high in the sky across a gorgeous vista and doing sick backflips and the next grumbling curse word after curse word as I try to get up an extremely steep hill and hit the next checkpoint. It’s really been my only toe-dip into the videogaming world of dirt bike racing–I guess since Excitebike–and its focus on hyper sensitive controls really means that only the driven and dedicated will continue on. Alas, I have not; think the last time I touched it was last fall, and even then it was only for goofing around in the user-created levels, which are, nine times out of nine, absolutely bonkers.

Well, I got the itch to gas a bike up a steep ramp and do silly tricks, and so I turned to Motocross Madness. No, no, not that Motocross Madness, the one from 1998. This is Microsoft’s Avatar-spearheaded take on arcade style and open sandbox motorbiking, and it was given out for free this month to Gold accounts, along with Dishonored, which I continue to be terrible at. More on that somewhere down the line…

To be honest, I’m enjoying Motocross Madness. A lot. While there may not be a ton of variety in the courses, there’s certainly variety to the things you can do in them. First, you can partake in a standard race via Career mode, aiming for that first place gold medal each time. Rivals mode has you competing against developer avatar ghosts. There’s a Trick mode that tests your aerial button-pressing skills and rewards you with new trick combos. Lastly, and probably my favorite part of Motocross Madness, is Exploration mode, which lets you hop off the track’s main path and explore every corner of the environment for gold coins and collectibles, all at your own leisurely pace. The courses are spread across three differently themed worlds, though I’ve only gotten to bike around Egypt and Australia for now; Iceland is still to come.

Unlike Trials Evolution, the racing here is much looser and more forgiving, meaning you can spill a few times and still stay in the lead or, with enough time, catch back up with everybody. I appreciate this greatly. If that’s not the case, then you probably need to lightly grind for some more coins and upgrade your bike a bit, which is easily done via Exploration mode or playing an older race again. The physics are not entirely arcade-ish, as landing after a jump or trick does require you to maintain some balance or skid out, and you eventually are able to ride behind another biker and coast within their wake, which is silly fun.

Much like with Doritos Crash Course 2 and, maybe, World Series of Poker: Full House Pro, seeing your Avatar in action is a blast. It’s a shame that the game encourages you to cover up my silly, bearded face with riding helmets, but sometimes you need to do that to look super stylish. While the outfits are cosmetics, you can make stat changes to your bike, purchasing new engine parts, tires, and brakes, and you will occasionally need to up a bike to perform better in a higher-tiered race. The cartoony graphics all around work well, though there’s some strange pop-in after each race is finished, when your Avatar hops of his or her bike and greets the crowd of cheering fans.

For another monthly freebie, Motocross Madness is a great addition to anyone’s digital collection on the Xbox 360. Perhaps a bit small in scope, but still brimming with things to do. You can also race competitively online though, if y’all know me like I hope y’all would know me by now, I’ve made no attempts to try this as of yet. Personally, I end up spending most of my time in Exploration mode, staring at coins and skulls in the sky and trying to figure how best to get ’em. It’s certainly more enjoyable than hitting restart every few seconds on a tough-as-nails track in Trials Evolution.