Christmas Steam Games 2020: QuickMehs

Most of these weren’t bad so much as “This should have been a novel or indie film.”

Inside: Pinstripe, TIMEFrame, Mages of Mystralia.

Puzzle Platformer

I found this one utterly unremarkable. You play as an ex-minister who journeys through Hell to rescue his daughter from a demon. The game’s description is at least up-front about the fact they’re dead and literally in Hell, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with it. There’s a lot of weird creepiness that never really goes anywhere, and the final reveal of what the main character did to deserve Hell is pretty obvious and incredibly underwhelming. I am also just… uncomfortable with the trope of “It’s okay everyone’s dead because they get to go to Heaven in the end.”

Walking Sim

A time-loop game where you explore a civilization in the last moments before its destruction via meteorite. Time is slowed down for you, so you can walk the full breadth of the area as you watch the meteor slowly fall towards you. It’s an interesting concept, but I don’t feel it did anything to justify being a game. There is no real environmental storytelling or puzzle-solving you need to do; you just need to poke a few very obvious landmarks, each of which will give you a tiny bit of lore, and then you’re done. The area between the landmarks is incredibly empty and trekking through it felt pointless. The lore you do get is very sparse and doesn’t give me a sense that the civilization was particularly unusual, interesting, or worth preserving. There are apparently multiple factions who all have different ideas on how to avert the cataclysm but none of them work despite having 30 years advance warning, and also it sounds like they would have been fine if they had just moved away from the general area? Is this supposed to be a commentary on climate change or something? I dunno.

Mages of Mystralia
Action Adventure

You play as an apprentice mage who must fight monsters to save the world from evil. The main selling point of the game is that you construct your own spells out of basic functions to fight enemies and solve puzzles. For example, the initial “fireball” spell is just a stationary mine, but by adding a “move” rune, you can make it a flying fireball. From there, you can add a “homing” rune to make it seek out enemies, and a “duplication” rune to fire a spread shot of three fireballs at once. You can even chain multiple spells together using conditionals, such as executing a powerful short-range spell when your ranged missile hits an object.

The game is also hard as nails. Even routine encounters will see you swarmed with monsters who all have immense durability. I don’t know if I’m just making bad spells, but even when I try to spec for AoE I frequently get overwhelmed. Checkpoints are pretty sparse, so it’s very easy to lose progress when an encounter suddenly goes south. I found it more frustrating than challenging, and I recommend playing on easy mode.

The spell-crafting mechanic is neat, but quite backloaded. The game gives you new runes only at a trickle, and many of them are locked behind difficult puzzles and optional challenges. Unfortunately, a lot of the runes had no real use outside of puzzles — it’s pretty easy to make some effective combat spells with the early runes, and later runes don’t provide much practical improvement. You can do fancy stuff like making your clones spit fireballs, but why would you when direct damage is so much more efficient? I would have liked to see the “puzzle” aspect extend more to enemies, with more variety in enemy behavior beyond just “resists a different element”. You can get through most of the game with a nested-function spell that cycles through all elements without really having to bother with anything else.

Plotwise, the game perpetuates the worst messages about oppression and authoritarianism. Mages used to rule the world, but one of them went mad with power, so the people rebelled, killed him, and outlawed mages. The problem is that magic is an innate trait, so we end up with a Dragon Age situation where people are illegal just for existing. The game opens with the protagonist getting chased from her village after accidentally burning down her cottage, at which point an old mage pops up out of nowhere, condescends to her a bunch, and declares that he’s training her now. Shockingly, he isn’t evil; the game apparently does not expect us to find anything suspicious about this. The protagonist is somehow capable of returning to her hometown without issue as long as she doesn’t use magic, at which point everyone microaggresses her about how terrible mages are but they guess that she’s one of the good ones. But this supposed intense hostility to mages never does more than inconvenience the protagonist, and she never stands up for herself. It’s a totally bizarre depiction of oppression completely removed from any real-world problems.

Oh, also you murder goblins by the hundreds, even after learning that they’re sapient and some talk to you. But the game makes a point of showing that you only knock out the human magefinders sent to hunt you down, because murder is wrong when you do it to humans.

Furthermore, the ending is a complete non-resolution sequel hook. Like, literally, it sets up what looks like the final boss and then it just ends. Stop selling incomplete products, gamedevs.

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