Our sacred holiday tradition continues! I got so many this year that we get to divide this into recs and pans. Most of these are puzzle games; I suppose those are the ones that go for cheap.
Inside: Hollow Knight, Recursed, Ittle Dew 2, The Dweller, Zasa: An AI Story, NO THING, Quell, Qbik, Reveal the Deep.
I also got Hue, which Act already reviewed. It is wonderful and I second her recommendation.
I loved this! The setting is a post-apocalyptic ruin of a once-great civilization that you must investigate for treasure and secrets. Also, everyone is a bug! I was really impressed with the variety of species on display and the cleverness of their associations — moths have power over fire and light, for instance. The world and presentation is just superb — the areas are all have really consistent themes to them, reinforced by the art, music, and enemy design that all interweave beautifully. I was quite impressed by how it managed to create areas that each epitomized two very different types of skin-crawling horror, equally effective but unsettling in totally opposite ways. The gameplay is a little overwhelming at first, but the combat is wonderfully deep and well-designed, with the Metroidvania aspects applying not just to exploration abilities but combat abilities too. There were many cases where I stumbled across an item that made me say “Oh, that’ll be really helpful against this boss I’m stuck on!” It is, however, very difficult — you must have a processor that can run it like greased lightning, because many fights rely on split-second timing that will be utterly wrecked by any lag. As of this writing I am still stuck on some of the optional bosses while I search for a computer that can run them without unexpectedly stuttering at the least opportune moment. However, it is otherwise very possible to overcome challenges — there were a lot of bosses that initially felt like brick walls, but after studying their patterns, strategies percolated out quickly.
I was also pleased by how many women were in this! I complained in my review of Mownt, which also featured a society of bug-people, how annoyingly prevalent it is for creators to use standard gender stereotypes and male defaultism even in utterly alien fantasy settings. Not so here! There are tons of female bugs in all sorts of roles — in particular, I was pleased to find out that though the backstory largely centers around the male king of the precursor civilization, the queen is also a major character of great significance and intrigue. And through all of it, very little of their appearance is explicitly gendered — a few wear dresses, but otherwise the only identifiers are voice or pronouns. The protagonist is explicitly genderless, also.
And despite the dark tone, everything is so cute! I love the tiny Knight and all their buggy friends. The happy songs the grubs make! The little noises the belflies make before exploding at you! The Grimmchild! It’s great.
A clever puzzle platformer about recursion and other programming meta jokes. The premise is that the entrances to other rooms are items that can, themselves, be picked up and taken into other rooms. This gets really complicated really fast, especially as more mechanics are incorporated. It’s even possible to glitch yourself into an impossible situation, which the game accounts for by taking you to a secret area with a new puzzle!
Probably my only issue is that some of the levels get pretty long, and it’s very easy to get yourself in an unwinnable solution that requires restarting from the beginning. You might want to keep a pen and paper for some of the more complex puzzles so you can remember how everything’s linked up. It otherwise lacks most of the annoying timing or physics puzzles that I sometimes dread in puzzle platformers — everything is very safe and lets you proceed at your own pace.
Ittle Dew 2
This is a very serviceable Zelda-like, with the bonus icing of a female-dominated cast. It is, however, much more focused on combat over puzzles, which I didn’t find to be my thing. Your weapon has very poor range and enemies deal huge amounts of damage, making it hard to avoid dying all the time. The game is fortunately pretty forgiving about this, giving the dungeons lots of shortcuts that let you quickly get back to where you were.
The reason for the weaker puzzles is because it commits to a totally nonlinear design where you can do the dungeons in any order, something that’s very rare for Zelda-likes to pull off successfully. Unfortunately, this means dungeon puzzles can only revolve around one item, so they are necessarily simplistic. For some strange reason, the bosses are also fought in a fixed order instead of being keyed to the dungeon, so they don’t interact with the items at all; they’re just slugfests. This was probably the most disappointing part for me, because one of my favorite parts of Zelda is the way the dungeon bosses teach you how to use your items tactically.
The quality in this felt very back-loaded — the final and secret dungeons do finally feature complex puzzles with item interactions, and the final boss’ gimmick was delightful. But those were the only times I felt the game got to Zelda levels of fun, and they were unfortunately quite short-lived. Interestingly, much of the fanbase seems to feel similarly, and apparently the first Ittle Dew was much more puzzle-focused. So maybe check that out? Overall, though, it is definitely well-designed; if the issues I’ve mentioned don’t sound like downsides to you, I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. (Get the Switch version, though, not PC — it added a huge bonus dungeon with a puzzle focus, which I have not played but have heard is very good.)
The game also has very charming flavor and atmosphere, and managed to have a surprisingly good excuse plot. The story is extremely self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, and really leans into genre conventions and standard player behavior in a way I found very endearing. In particular, I greatly enjoyed the secret dungeon questline and what a loving sendup of fan and gamer culture it was (even though I still cannot beat the ultimate superboss).
A game where you play as an eldritch horror awakened by archaeologists who dug too deep. The puzzle aspect comes through the fact that, as an earth spirit, you can only move through the ground. To kill archaeologists on distant platforms, you have to creatively move boulders to create bridges for yourself. Despite the simplicity of the mechanics, or perhaps even because of it, I found the puzzles quite engaging. There are a few twists in the final levels that shake things up a lot, but I found they made the last levels the easiest — though I didn’t feel they were an anticlimax, as the story at that point supports going at a faster pace. My only complaint is that, as a gravity-based physics platformer, it’s very easy to get yourself into unwinnable states and necessitate a level reset; however, the levels are small enough that this doesn’t waste much of your time.
The story, told through the archaeologists’ notes found after certain levels, was unobjectionable but fairly cliche: the characters spend ages insisting nothing is wrong and everyone’s just being superstitious, even up to the midpoint of the game where you must have killed most of the expedition. One entry appears to attempt to explain this by saying the archaeologists you kill get reanimated again, but that’s never followed up on and I’m still unclear on what exactly it’s supposed to mean. The ending is also very unsatisfying and clearly setting up for a sequel that has not yet appeared.
Though the cast is mostly male, there is at least one female archaeologist in the notes, implying there could be others among the redshirts you kill. So that’s something?
The game is, however, very short — I only got 3 hours out of it, which might be a bit small for $5. Give it a try if it’s on sale, though.
Zasa: An AI Story
A pretty standard 3D puzzler: You connect nodes on a cube to create an image matching a 2D projection. It’s pretty simple, but for $1 it’s a pretty substantial bundle of puzzles.
There is a bit of a story, but the writer was clearly not very familiar with English, so it’s sometimes unclear what’s going on.
Not sure exactly how to categorize this. I didn’t get much out of it, but nor did I actively hate it, so it goes in recs, I suppose. There’s not much to it — the only gameplay mechanic is that you must turn left and right to continue moving along a path, lest you fall off. A voice spits disjointed, vaguely cyberpunky lines at you while you run through trippy surreal imagery. It’s an Art Game, basically. It may work as a zen trancey thing, though I did find the timing challenges stressful, and the levels can get rather long.
This was a nice little puzzle game. It is essentially an ice block puzzle, in adventure game terms: when you move your avatar in one direction, it keeps moving until it hits something. There are a lot of additional mechanics to make for some fairly complex puzzles, and the music and atmosphere is very pleasant and relaxing. It was overall a fun spatial reasoning puzzler. It also has what I think is a nice sort of soft difficulty level: the puzzles tend to be on the easy side generally, but solving them in the minimum number of moves is often much trickier.
A gravity-based puzzler: you play as a block who can eat things and drop off ledges, and you must eat certain blocks to clear a level. The game also adds additional mechanics like pushable blocks and teleporters, quickly making levels quite complex. One feature I found particularly nice is that you can rewind your moves one at a time instead of having to reset the whole level, which helps save a lot of time when it’s so easy to fall into unwinnable situations.
Reveal the Deep
A horror game where you explore a mysterious sunken ship. It has a simple but effective central mechanic: When you turn off your suit’s headlamp, the ship’s own lights will come on, and there are things in the light that weren’t there in the dark. It was overall a nicely atmospheric experience, if a rather straightforward horror story. The only mechanic I’d complain about is having to push blocks while monsters are chasing you — it’s always a tedious slog of pushing the slow-moving block one inch, having to turn back to repel the monsters, then repeating. I don’t know why they couldn’t have let you angle the light backwards or something.
However, do be warned that the launcher is broken and doesn’t work on some operating systems. It doesn’t appear to be executable on Windows 10 at all, and on Mac/Linux you have to open it with Java manually.