Christmas Steam Games 2020: QuickRecs

It’s that time several months past that time of the year again!

Inside: Ittle Dew, Mini Ghost, Papers Please, Pyre, Out There Somewhere, Toki Tori 2, Antichamber.

Ittle Dew
Action Adventure

I actually played the second Ittle Dew game before this one, two years ago. I decided to pick up the first one to see how it compares.

This is definitely a much rougher game than the second, but it still has a lot of the same charm. The game is overall much smaller in scope, revolving around one large dungeon that you repeatedly revisit over the course of the game as you get tools in other areas, but the main dungeon itself still has a similar nonlinear feel as Ittle Dew 2, with multiple routes through it and even the ability to finish with only two of the three tools if you’re very skilled. It was a lot of fun to see where the series began and finally get all the references in the second game.

One major shortcoming of the game is its combat. The enemies all have very simple behaviors and stiff movement that makes dealing with them trivial. Even the bosses pose little threat, and require only basic reasoning to figure out. (Tippsie also outright tells you how to beat them, in case it wasn’t easy enough already.) While I disliked quite how far the scale swung towards action in the sequel, I can now understand why the developers were motivated to do so. The puzzles were clearly the focus here, and I do think that on the whole they’re better and more complex than in the second game. The hand-drawn art style is also better than the 3D models in the second game, in my opinion, but I always feel that way.

Mini Ghost
Metroidvania

I found this recommended on a few Metroidvania rec lists. It’s apparently a shorter tie-in game to the larger Ghost 1.0, which I immediately bounced from due to the awful voice acting and art style. This one is perfectly nice, though. It’s a bit linear for a Metroidvania, but still quite solid. I think it could have used better signposting — crates that contain upgrades look identical to normal crates, and I initially got stuck for quite a while because I didn’t realize that the room with a giant lava pit contained the boss I needed to beat to progress. (They really should have blocked the way forward until you beat the boss.) But otherwise, it was good fun.

Papers, Please
Puzzle

Finally got around to this one. I generally agree with the consensus and don’t have much to add, I think. You play as a border inspector for Not Soviet Russia who must examine the passports of everyone entering the country to see if they are valid. You’ll occasionally be put into difficult scenarios processing people with sympathetic motives but invalid papers, such as a woman who lost her entire family and just wants to be with her boyfriend on the Russian side. You are timed and are only paid for entrants processed within a set time frame, but your expenses for taking care of your family are severe, and you will likely have to spend several nights going without heat or food. This encourages you to rush and make mistakes. While I normally hate time limits in puzzle games, I thought it was perfect here, and provided a great amount of stress and tension to such a mundane task.

I felt that the pressure drastically fell away around the middle of the game; after a certain point, I never had to go without necessities because I was getting so much money from bribes. You are given the perverse incentive that arresting people gets you more money, but I never had to resort to that. I think there’s an issue that you have no intrinsic motivation to do your job properly in the first place — this is Soviet Russia, so the government is evil and berates you for your performance no matter how well you do, but at the same time their threats don’t have enough teeth to make you fear defying them. You can get two or three infractions with no penalty, and any further infractions only cost you a bit of money. There’s only one big money sink, getting enough money to flee the country if the authorities catch onto you, but it only matters in the neutral route where you help The Resistance a little but not too much, which, who’s playing that way?

Still, the game is an excellent idea, and is a really interesting exploration of games that center around more mundane elements. There’s ironically a lot more tension here than in games about fighting monsters, just because it’s so real; yet at the same time, it’s inspiring to think that we can do things that matter even in our simple, mundane jobs.

Also, I love Jorji.

Pyre
Visual Novel/Action

By the creators of Bastion. No genocide apologia this time, as far as I can tell! The premise of the game is that the nation from which the player characters hail sentences criminals to exile in a strange place called the Downside. (It’s left unclear where exactly it is; it appears to be a physical location, yet is far bigger than any underground cavern could possibly be.) Exiles can regain their freedom through a fantasy sports tournament, and the player controls and directs the team during each match.

The twist is that one of your team members has a more ambitious plan: To reform the nation so that it no longer exiles anyone, because the entire system is clearly broken. I was honestly shocked to see a story with such brazen revolutionary themes. The revolutionary isn’t evil, not even a little bit! I was really pleased to get the ending where the revolution worked out.

The second twist is that you’re on a time limit: You only have a limited number of tournaments before the magic mojo powering the escape route goes into hibernation. It is expressly designed so that you can’t free everyone, and if you lose a liberation match, that’s one fewer teammate you can free. This gave the game real and incredible stakes, especially given the revolution metaplot; in every liberation match it felt like I was fighting not just for the fate of my teammates, but for the world. I ultimately only lost one, but it majorly affected the ending. It also makes every liberation match full of incredibly difficult yet organic choices, because whoever you liberate obviously can’t help you for the rest of the game. You must constantly make the decision between keeping your star player or giving them the freedom they deserve. And, perhaps most impressively of all, throwing the match is presented as its own choice — many of your opponents have sympathetic motives, and the achievement for losing is even called “Mercy Shown”. It was an amazing experience that made the world, the characters, their struggles, and my place in it all feel so wonderfully real. (It’s also an excellent lesson on encouraging players to play past failure, a common lament of developers — here, the story keeps going whether you succeed or fail, and both outcomes are equally interesting.)

The characters themselves are also lovely. None of this would work if your teammates were interchangeable faceless robots, but they’re all wonderfully fleshed-out, with detailed backstories, motivations, and dynamics with the rest of the team. You get to converse with them frequently, and I’m truly impressed by how much branching the writing must have required, as all of them have such heartfelt dialogues depending on which of their friends are freed and in what order. The only ones I wasn’t too thrilled by were Sir Gilman and the Stowaway, as they felt rather cartoonish and one-note. I ultimately chose to free Hedwyn, Jodariel, Pamitha, Ti’zo, and Rukey. (Ti’zo in particular is so adorable, I love him and all the other imps.)

Out There Somewhere
Platformer

A run’n’gun platformer. You play as a space cop who has crash-landed on an alien planet, and must repair his ship to do battle with the criminal he’s tracking down. The central mechanic is that the PC’s gun is actually a teleporter, turning most levels into a Portal-like puzzle of figuring out your route. I found it quite fun, and there are a lot of great wrenches the game throws at you. I was rather annoyed at how many collectibles were missable, though; there are some that require you to come back with a new weapon and some that require you to collect them when you see them, with no indication that’s the case.

Toki Tori 2
Puzzle Platformer/Metroidvania?

This is a really cute, fun, and well-made puzzle platformer. You play as a fat chicken who cannot jump, and must navigate platforms instead by interacting with various animals and objects. It provides great examples of emergent complexity and intuitive tutorials: You have only two basic actions, whistling and stomping, but from those emerge a wealth of complex interactions and behaviors with all your puzzle-solving tools. Because your basic actions are so limited, you can learn all the properties of a new object very quickly, and the game’s levels are masterfully set up to encourage you to stumble on the relevant interactions. More complex interactions you are unlikely to stumble upon yourself are modeled for you through pre-existing setups in the level that let you see how they work before you need to set them up yourself. The “tutorial” is technically very long, but I hardly even registered it as a tutorial, because it was so easy to learn and expand on everything I needed to know.

The other interesting thing about the game is that it’s classed by some as a Metroidvania despite lacking the barriers-and-upgrades mechanic common to the genre. It is instead a Metroidvania of knowledge. It is technically possible to explore the whole game world from the very start (there’s even an achievement for it!), but a new player simply won’t know the puzzle solutions necessary to go off the beaten path. After you learn more, you can revisit previous areas and the new paths will suddenly seem blindingly obvious. It’s a really neat concept that the game pulls off extremely well; I felt the same sprawling sense of exploration and discovery as in most Metroidvanias, and I was still learning new mechanics even into the late game.

If I had one criticism, it would be that several puzzles have some difficult timing windows that are easy to screw up and frustrating to get right. Why can’t you just stay still, frogs!!! But the game is still incredibly enjoyable despite that, with some very fun and clever puzzles. It’s also incredibly cute — I love how the frogs will “talk” if two run into each other, and everything is lovingly animated to give it so much personality.

Antichamber
Puzzle/Metroidvania?

This is basically what I was expecting Disoriented to be. It’s a first-person puzzler that feels like an acid trip. Rooms don’t logically connect up with each other, areas change depending on what direction you look at them from, and illusory floors and walls are everywhere. Crucially, though, unlike Disoriented it fills the space with interesting aesthetics and mechanics. Though the beginning rooms are in stark black and white, the environment ends up a kaleidoscope of shifting colors filled with bizarre and fascinating objects. A lot of puzzle games claim to be “mind-bending”, but this is the first time I’ve felt that was really accurate.

The central mechanic is that you have a “gun” that can absorb and place little cubes scattered throughout the environment; you can use them to wedge doors open, make steps or bridges, and a few other things. Unfortunately, this interacts with 3D really badly, since your cursor can only move in two dimensions. It’s impossible to place a block anywhere but adjacent to another surface, since the cursor will snap to the farthest point it’s directed at. This makes several puzzles much more frustrating than they need to be, especially the ones about using blocks as elevators. First-person platforming is terrible, stop doing it!

The other issue is that — well, remember I just said that in Toki Tori 2, there are no hard barriers, and you’re limited only by your knowledge? That’s not the case here. Your gun gets several upgrades with additional abilities necessary to solve certain puzzles, meaning that it is possible to run into puzzles you literally can’t solve with your current equipment. This is a problem: because puzzles are supposed to be non-obvious anyway, it’s not immediately obvious whether you’re missing the tools you need or if you’re just not looking at it the right way. This leads to the frustrating side of Metroidvanias where you run in circles for ages not certain how to progress.

Despite that, once the game gets rolling it is very fun. The puzzles were genuinely clever and inventive, and though the mechanics are strange they are consistent, and it is possible to learn them over time — crucial for any puzzle game. It gave me the sense of exploring an alien world and slowly piecing together how everything worked.

3 Comments

  1. Actislazyandwontlogin says:
    ‘Papers Please’ seems like a really brazen ripoff of Beholder, but with less interesting gameplay. Weird.

    Also, everything Supergiant did after Bastion is truly amazing. It’s great to see a young developer grow and mature like that! I’ve come to love them.

    1. Beholder was 3 years after Papers Please, so if anything it’s the ripoff. :p I’ve seen a lot of similar games, so I think it’s just a genre at this point.

      1. Actislazyandwontlogin says:
        Lol, well, time is a meaningless void to me at this point anyway

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