Christmas Steam Games (2016)

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
Visual Novel

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
RPG

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.

LiEat
RPG

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.

Betrayer
First-Person Shooter/Horror

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
Roguelike/Visual Novel

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?

21 Comments

  1. Act says:

    I got Sunless Sea after reading this post in the queue, and it’s interesting. From a story perspective, it really doesn’t stand on its own from the browser game, which is odd, since a simple “The Backstory” blurb at the beginning would have fixed this. I also found it to be too text-heavy, oddly. It could have used some pruning of non-vital info to make it the “who, what, why” of each quest clearer; I felt it was focused on atmosphere to the detriment of story in the texts. There was way too much scene-setting and not enough meat, and as a result I ended up skimming a lot.

    I also thought it fell just on the wrong side of the ‘smart resource-management’ vs. ‘punishing player no matter how well they manage’ line, even in the lategame. I’ve been playing the same captain for a long time now and I can cross the map with little trouble, and I still think it’s a little absurd just how slowly you move around the map and how quickly resources are eaten up. It really just needs to be a tick in the other direction — a 0 instead of say, -10% — but it felt noticeably mechanical instead of part of the world, to me.

    It’s also weird, because while I don’t really find it fun, I also do…? Mr. Act was like, “Is this game good?” and I was like, “…uh???” I find it monotonous, but I also can’t stop playing it for some reason. Maybe the same completionist desire that has kept me playing MMOs long after I got anything out of them… but that doesn’t feel generous enough, because I am actually still enjoying it. I think.

    Overall I think my feelings toward it are generally positive, but I’m not sure I’d actively rec it to people unless they were into this type of game very specifically.

    1. I felt it was focused on atmosphere to the detriment of story in the texts. There was way too much scene-setting and not enough meat, and as a result I ended up skimming a lot.

      Spoilers: Fallen London is even worse. I ragequit after I finally finished a massive game-spanning quest that had been in development for 7 years only to discover the ending was just more atmospheric nonsense that made no sense unless you cross-referenced it with a dozen other tidbits spread across premium content storylines and Sunless Sea and even then it was really lackluster.

      That’s why I like Sunless Sea. I never felt there was any pretention of long-spanning plot in the first place here, and if you go into it knowing that the writers are just atmosphere guys, you won’t be as disappointed when it never really goes anywhere. Can’t betray your expectations if you don’t have any!

      yes I am still bitter about that quest why do you ask

      Also agreed on the resource management aspect — the only times I’ve died have been because of story events. It’s very impressive how much work they put into the desperation states, but you’ll basically never run into them unless you’re actively trying. Possibly you just accumulate money too fast, at which point staying provisioned becomes trivial even at the overpriced island shops. And yeah, the movement speed is really slow.

      I still like it, though. It’s kind of… relaxing? Just planning out my route and sailing around. The music helps, I think.

      1. Act says:

        Spoilers: Fallen London is even worse.

        I was checking out FL because I was curious about backstory, and apparently you don’t get that there either…? At what point is everyone supposed to find out what the setting is? Was there some other previous seed work that explained everything?

        I still like it, though. It’s kind of… relaxing? Just planning out my route and sailing around

        Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. It’s satisfying to complete a quest but doesn’t require a lot of emotional energy, so it’s easy to just keep playing.

        1. illhousen says:

          I was checking out FL because I was curious about backstory, and apparently you don’t get that there either…?

          From what I understand, the conceit here is that you don’t get a backstory in any one place, it’s just kinda scattered across various quests, off-hand references in various otherwise unrelated descriptions, etc.

          It’s kinda successful in creating a sense of a bigger world that lives its own life, but also it’s really frustrating if you just want to learn this stuff without investing years of RL time into it.

          1. Act says:

            Ugh that’s such bad writing.

            The whole reason the advice always given for sci-fi/fantasy setting is to have a fish-out-of-water character is because it lets you actually explain the setting to the audience. In movies the cliche tends to be the ‘loveable down-on-his-luck loser gets pulled into a Big Plot’ while in video games the cliche is amnesia in the protag, but no matter how you do it a game that doesn’t give you a way to access information about it is a badly designed one.

            Elder Scrolls is the quintessential example here — it manages to be a massive world but still start you off in a place that lets you access basic setting info if you want it… or run off in your own direction if you don’t.

            Unless you’re going for some kind of hyperexperimental story experience where not having info is a huge part of the construction (eg, Who Fears Death), this is a bad convention to buck.

            1. Heatth says:

              Unless you’re going for some kind of hyperexperimental story experience where not having info is a huge part of the construction

              I think this is what they were going for. But, yeah, ultimately I just couldn’t keep interest, so I eventually quit both Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Which is a pity, I wanted to like them.

              Reply
            2. Act says:

              Well, the thing about those setups is either a) you eventually get the info or b) it’s not necessary to stay involved in the story. Neither of those seem true here, which is the real problem. They tried to have their cake and eat it too, and it seems to have goen predictably.

              Reply
          2. Bonus: the most important info is scattered across premium content stories!

            That’s what frustrates me about this more than anything else. The premise is designed to hook people who want concrete, satisfying stories, but all the free portions give you are questions while the answers are all hidden behind a paywall.

        2. The backstory is explained in the blurb where you sign up and on user profile pages, but it’s very brief — I don’t think it even mentions the Masters or the Bazaar, just that London was “stolen by bats.” (You later learn in-game that the Masters are bat monsters and this is apparently common knowledge, which makes the whole thing seem like a weird in-universe in-joke.) You can also learn a lot of stuff from the snippets that appear in the sidebar, but those are random and there’s no indication they’re important. Eventually you do learn stuff about Queen Victoria and why she sold the city as well as how the previous cities fell, but that’s mid- to late-game content. You really do just have to accept going in that it’s a perpetually in medias res experience rather than a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

          1. Act says:

            The whole browser game kind of seems like a clusterfuck. Like, they had ideas and wanted to roleplay with those ideas but had no clue how to create a cohesive game experience from them.

            1. That is probably accurate, yes. Apparently they also went bankrupt a few years in and had to lay off most of their writers, so there’s a very noticeable shift in focus and writing style past a certain point.

              Like I said, they’re really atmosphere guys. When it comes to actually delivering complete and satisfying stories, they just can’t seem to do it.

              Reply
  2. illhousen says:

    If you liked Sunless Sea, you may want to check out A House of Many Doors. From what I gather, the dev team has contacts with the guys behind Sunless Sea and the game was partially funded by them.

    The conceit is rather similar: you play as a captain of a mechanical centipede train traversing the eponymous House, which is composed out of chunks of various worlds. The gameplay is divided between roguelike travel and VN-style short stories, quests and encounters, so pretty close to SS from what I understand.

    The setting is imaginative and surreal while still having a distinct style, which I liked.

    I did feel that it was a bit too punishing at the beginning, but then I found out I could make money by being a reporter, which simplified stuff and allowed me to progress reasonably painlessly. The quest results are not based on luck but on your stats, and you see your chances before you attempt anything, so that sounds like an improvement.

    The game is not without its flaws, mind. I don’t like combat much, and the controls there are not really intuitive. One of the stats also determines how many Apprehensions you get in each instance when you get them, and you spend Apprehensions to rise your stats, which is just not a good design.

    Still, I enjoyed the game even though resource management is generally not my cup of tea.

    1. Act says:

      Seems like it’s basically a fangame of Sunles Sea. Hmm.

      1. illhousen says:

        Seems that way, yea. I didn’t actually play Sunless Sea, and I’ve abandoned Fallen London because I have only so much patience for games that never end, so I can’t really directly compare the two, but the devs make no secret that the game was directly inspired by SS.

    2. Sounds cool, I will check it out sometime maybe.

  3. informash says:
    It’s bad enough trying to figure out what the Dawn Machine even is, let alone what its motives are. I guess it’s supposed to be an Eldritch Abomination kinda thing, where something is so absurdly powerful and alien you have to be wary even if it seems benevolent?
    1. I looked it up and apparently according to a premium content story in Fallen London it’s an artificial Judgment that gained sentience and now wants to destroy all the other Judgments and become undisputed master of all reality. Okay then. Couldn’t have told us that in the game where letting it take over is a major mechanic, Failbetter? (This is another problem I have with them: they’ll ask us to make choices we don’t know the meaning of because backstory is for premium content backers, so we have no emotional context for the choices we make.)

      1. informash says:
        That’s a real problem with Sunless Sea and Fallen London both – the games play their cards very close to their chest. I don’t think there’s even any single story that explains the bit with the Judgements, let alone the Dawn Machine. Just various mini-snippets of information. That’s definitely one of the more frustrating features of these games.
  4. SpoonyViking says:

    Well, at least the bots have infiltrated a different post this time.

    1. Act says:

      The Telepath bot has become my nemesis. I cannot figure out a) why it likes that post and b) how to stop it. I keep IP blocking it and it just comes back with a different IP. At this point I don’t even think it’s a bot anymore, just some person who hates me and the Telepath RPG.

  5. Cosmogone says:
    >>Although… why is the Dawn Machine bad, again?

    Well, she actually isn’t; it’s just that her representatives are a specific kind of jovial assholes which doesn’t create a good impression. The issue is rather that the Dawn Machine is utterly alien in the Neath and, unless her followers really know what they’re doing (and they probably don’t), will utterly fuck up local ecosystem without even accomplishing it’s intended purpose.

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