It’s like Christmas in July! Here are thoughts on some of the games from 2016’s Christmas Steam sale.
Inside: To the Moon, Helen’s Mysterious Castle, LiEat, Betrayer, Sunless Sea.
To the Moon
I’m not entirely sure how to judge this; it falls pretty squarely into “not my thing”. The story is an aggressively mundane romance, and… that’s about it. I can get into mundane stories sometimes, but this one’s conceit of only seeing the main character through fragmented memories and huge timeskips made me feel really detached. I think the game intends you to feel a connection to John after seeing his life story, but even at the end of it I didn’t feel like I had any good idea of his personality or motivations. The whole thing felt really empty. Maybe it would have worked better if it wasn’t told back-to-front, I don’t know. The story itself doesn’t do much. It’s sort of a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl? Also the wife is autistic, but they do that annoying thing where they refuse to actually name it and only refer to it as “that condition”, because mental illness is a dirty thing we can never talk directly about.
There is also a framing story. Do you enjoy the duo of the wacky irresponsible man and the frigid fun-hating woman who has to clean up after him? Well I hope you do because the banter does. Not. End. They worked well enough as minor framing story protagonists, but then the DLC tries to give them super serious backstories and make them the focus of a metaplot that seems to be leading in a very cliche direction. I don’t know for certain, though, because it abruptly ends on a crazy mysterious cliffhanger with no context and I’m not falling for that one again.
If you’re not bothered by those things, though, you’ll probably enjoy this. Artistically, the game is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen SNES-style games show expressiveness with sprites instead of portraits, and I’m starting to think I might actually prefer that; the artists worked very well with what they had, and it kept me focused on the scene itself instead of staring at the message box the whole time.
Helen’s Mysterious Castle
I honestly have no idea what this game was trying to do. The backstory is superficially similar to Undertale’s, but I don’t know if that was intentional or not. The plot is very bland and mostly consists of you bumbling through obligatory event flags because you don’t have anything else to do. The whole thing feels very amateurish — the tone is all over the place, very few points logically follow from one another, and there’s lots of random stuff that doesn’t fit. Like, the monsters are sapient and peaceful and are only attacking you because they think you’re bad (even though you look identical to the castle’s huge population of human-like monsters because ???) but it’s okay that you mow them down for exp because at the end of the game they all come back and it turns out none of them actually died? Or something??? It might have just been translated poorly — there are lots of typos and the dialogue is very stilted, so the translators clearly didn’t do a good job.
The gameplay is very similar to Red Syndrome: all fights are one-on-one and all attacks require a certain amount of time to activate. The key is to time your moves so that you defend when the enemy attacks and attack when the enemy has their guard down. It’s an okay system in theory, but I don’t think it scales well. By the midpoint I definitely felt like the battles had gotten very repetitive, which isn’t helped by the cramped environments that make it difficult to avoid encounters. After you get enough equipment, all that really changes are the numbers.
This is another game that probably would have worked better as a novel. The gameplay is virtually nonexistent; battles are extremely easy and typically end almost as soon as they begin, and the plot is completely linear. The art is pretty, but extremely busy, which sometimes makes it hard to tell what’s supposed to be important about a given scene.
I got a similar feel here to the Arum universe games — there’s the strong impression that there is a huge, fully-developed world outside of the immediate plot and that we’re only seeing a small sliver of it. This works in some regards, but did make me feel really lost at times, and a lot of exposition is required to get the player up to speed. The main problem is that it’s a very extreme fantasy setting with tons of bizarre creatures and magic rules, so you can’t really assume anything the game doesn’t explicitly tell you. It sometimes felt like I was supposed to know more than I did, like I stepped into a series midway through.
The salient point is that there are creatures called “dragons” even though they look totally human who are born from the wishes of humans, which give them each a unique magical power. The main character is a traveling con artist who created a dragon that detects and eats lies. The story consists of three episodic adventures where they investigate various mysteries that tie into the theme of lying, before finally addressing the protagonist’s own backstory and web of lies in the final episode. I felt the story was pretty weak and disorganized at first, but I think it really came together in the end. It ends up coming down rather hard on a LYING IS ALWAYS BAD ALWAYS conclusion, but I appreciated that the overall tone was quite optimistic. There are semi-antagonistic figures in each episode, but they all have good reasons for doing what they do; the real enemies are the lies that spiral out of control and end up hurting everyone.
If you do play this yourself, a note about the episodes: you pick what episode you play by clicking on it in the launcher file that pops up initially. Since RPGMaker does not normally use the mouse this is very unclear. I accidentally clicked on episode 2 first, which may have contributed to my overall confusion.
The premise of this game is that you are shipwrecked in the Americas during the colonial era, and quickly discover things have gone very wrong: Spaniards have overtaken all the English settlements, but they seem to have been cursed to behave like mad beasts. You gain the ability to travel into the spirit world and must talk to the ghosts of the departed to piece together what happened.
Unfortunately, I never finished it to discover the answer, because the gameplay is awful. Enemies can chew through your entire health bar in seconds and you often have to fight massive swarms of them at once. Most of the game is an extremely tedious slog of encountering an enemy mob, dying horribly, continuing to throw yourself at them until you eventually get lucky, then repeating for the next mob. Maybe I’m just really bad at FPS, but I genuinely do not think it’s possible to fight more than, like, three enemies at once — they just surround you and you cannot dodge their attacks long enough to take down all of them. Because of course this is colonial times so all the guns are single-shot and have painfully long reload times, so if you ever miss, you’re screwed. I think the idea is to stealthily snipe all the enemies off instead of engaging them directly, but sometimes that’s just flat-out impossible, and if you make the slightest error you aggro the whole mob, die, and have to do it all over again. (It’s also really not clear how good the enemies’ vision is; I’ve had them spot me when I was hiding in a sniper nest but not notice me when I was like five feet to their side.) Also from the mid-game onwards there’s one enemy type that’s really hard to ambush (they usually ambush you) and appear in swarms that will not die. The fact that you’re always in wide-open natural areas also severely restricts your strategy; there are no choke points, there’s minimal cover, you can’t run away, and you’re likely to get spotted by enemies you can’t even see. FPS is normally not my thing but I actually do like stealth-sniping, and this couldn’t even do that right.
The story didn’t seem that impressive either; I trudged through four areas (which I’m told is half the game) and I felt no closer to figuring out the mystery. The wraith stories are all just extremely predictable “and then I did a horrible thing to cover up some other horrible thing” scenarios, and they all seem to be Englishmen so they don’t tell you anything about what happened to the Spaniards. And for a colonial story, the Native Americans are conspicuously absent; I only found one native ghost, and they didn’t even say anything, they just showed me how they were killed. Wikipedia’s plot summary tells me that the the natives are ultimately just a minor prop for all the Europeans’ stories and the curse was done by a European. Really disappointing. How hard is it to make a horror game about the horrible things the colonists actually did?
Sunless Sea is a spinoff of Fallen London, a noir/cosmic horror mashup browser game. Queen Victoria made a deal with the devil to save her husband’s life in exchange for handing London into the possession of eldritch abominations, who took the city into a weird, magical dimension under the earth. There’s a heavy focus on stories and the writing is quite good. Some parts are genuine horror, but overall the game prefers to take itself less seriously, and most of it is poking fun at the strange setup — London may have been stolen by monsters, but life still goes on.
You play as a sailor, or “zailor”, who travels the strange ocean surrounding the fallen London for fun and profit. This is where the roguelike aspect comes in: it’s very easy to die at sea, and the map locations shuffle around for every new captain. I thought the game was good at not being too punishing with this, as you get the option to retain at least something from your previous captain, and there are many storylines that only allow you to try out one branch per captain, encouraging you to start over and try new things. The game is also good at discouraging you from getting into a rut; many trade routes that appear mundane are actually part of a greater storyline and can potentially change or even dry up entirely, preventing you from over-relying on familiar circuits.
I’d say my biggest complaint is that it takes a while to become really competitive; your starting ship stands no chance of beating anything but the easiest foes, so exploring farther waters is really touch-and-go until you can afford a decent fighting ship, which takes a while. The luck-based mechanisms of the story choices can also be annoying; there are a few storylines where you can get a disastrous outcome just by bad luck, and there isn’t always an indication that there is an alternate outcome, let alone your chances. (The Genial Magician’s questline is a bad offender here.) Some aspects, like Supremacy, also have unclear effects, and the developers apparently forgot to make Stone’s curse do anything, which is really egregious.
Despite that, the game is very fun overall. Exploring new areas is exciting, and the stories on each island are delightfully varied and creative. You can broker a peace between a republic of rats and a kingdom of guinea pigs. Yes, really! The game is also very good on diversity; the writers seem to have collectively decided to handwave the prejudices of the time to say that anyone can be a sailor, and the writing actually reinforces this by using female pronouns even when referring to nameless background characters. The game is vast and expansive, and I felt it was a lot more coherent and enjoyable than Fallen London itself. Roguelike mechanics work really well with branching storylines, it seems like.
Although… why is the Dawn Machine bad, again?