Christmas Steam Games (2022)

Here’s the roundup for the remaining Christmas games that didn’t warrant full posts.

Inside: Snake Pass, Environmental Station Alpha, Slime Rancher, Q.U.B.E. 2, Event[0]

Snake Pass
Puzzle Platformer (?)

A “platformer” where you play as a creature who can’t jump: a snake. While most games anthropomorphize snake characters to give them familiar control schemes, this game drills down into imagining what it would be like to control a real snake. The control scheme is deliberately weird and clunky — to the point that, according to Steam statistics, half of all players never even finished the first level! — but that’s what makes it so unique. Controls are similar to how vehicles are usually handled in video games: Instead of being able to freely move in any direction, you can only accelerate forwards and steer on the go. However, the physics of the snake’s body add more depth to this and are amazingly well-done. Climbing across objects requires you to coil around them for support, just like real snakes do, and you have to keep track of how your weight is distributed across such a long body to ensure you don’t lose balance. Also, moving in straight lines is very slow, but you can slither side-to-side to build up speed, which I thought was really neat. The controls initially feel very confusing and even basic tasks require deep concentration, but over time they become second nature. The whole thing is a really clever, inventive, and well-done idea. The game’s tagline is “Think like a snake,” and by the end I definitely was — like all good puzzle games, it encouraged me to expand my way of thinking.

Additionally, I really enjoyed the aesthetics. Environments are very colorful and well-lit, so important objects never feel hidden by the level design. Noodle himself is absolutely adorable, and I especially love the distressed noises he makes when he slips or grips tightly — it’s not only cute characterization, but a genuinely helpful audio cue to help you keep track of his huge body. Unlike in most platformers, I rarely felt frustrated by failures, because Noodle was so silly and charming I couldn’t stay mad at him.

My one criticism is that the game really needed a “skip cutscene” option. Cutscenes are replayed every time you revisit a previous level, which is a real pain in a collect-a-thon platformer where you’re encouraged to return to levels to get stuff you missed. Similarly, while I respect that you have to return to a checkpoint to record collectibles as obtained so you can’t just bypass the puzzle by making a suicide jump off a cliff, checkpoints could have been more frequent; there were many times where I had to re-collect items while redoing a difficult sequence I died on a lot. Something like Celeste‘s mechanic where they get recorded as soon as you touch safe ground would have been a lot smoother.

Environmental Station Alpha

I found this game pretty frustrating. The graphics are very low-res, which makes it difficult to distinguish between background and foreground and what objects are interactive. This is exacerbated by it doing the annoying Metroid thing where there’s no way to tell blocks are breakable until you’ve broken them, so you spend a lot of time flailing around shooting every wall in sight. It also does the Metroid: Zero Mission thing of leading you by the nose with destination markers, defeating the purpose of a Metroidvania.

The game is really linear, actually, to the point it feels like it really wants to just be a linear action platformer instead of a Metroidvania. I spent a lot of time in the early game trying to explore after I got the double jump (mainly because the actual path forward relies on you knowing a mechanic that’s never explained), and was disappointed by how many forceful dead ends the game kept slamming in my face. This happens with almost every powerup; I was constantly trying to revisit previous blockages only to discover another block immediately afterwards. A lot of Metroidvania games do this, but they typically reward you with an optional pickup or shortcut for your trouble; when it doesn’t, it just feels like the game is punishing you for trying to engage with it. Optional pickups in general are incredibly sparse; there are only health upgrades and some collectibles that serve no gameplay purpose until you’ve found them all. There are so many one-way passages, too, none of which are marked on your map, which makes navigating a huge pain. The actual level design seems to be fighting against Metroidvania principles at every turn.

It also committed the ultimate Metroidvania sin of making me look up a guide to progress, though fortunately only at the very end, to find the last mandatory powerup. For some ungodly reason it’s tucked away in a secret passage in the starting area instead of guarded by a boss like every other powerup.

The best part of the game is, weirdly enough, its extremely elaborate postgame, mainly because it’s the only part of the game that actually encourages you to explore freely. It reminded me a lot of Ittle Dew 2‘s secret postgame with how many layers it had (and cipher puzzles, even). It’s just a shame you have to trudge through the main game first.

To round it off, the plot is really dumb. Computer viruses are magic and the station’s security just happens to be tied to a single combat mech so you can disable it with a convenient boss battle. This is literally explained in-universe as an actual feature the characters are aware of. I’m starting to see how these idiots let a single computer virus cripple their entire facility. The postgame plot is completely unrelated and appears to be there just to be weird.

Slime Rancher
Farm Sim/FPS

Farm sims don’t normally grab me, but this one proved amazingly engaging. The premise is you are on an alien planet and must farm the native slime life for their poop, which is extremely valuable. There are many different types of adorable slimes with different dietary and care requirements, so the challenge is in how to hold them all efficiently. The game has a very natural way of balancing this: The in-game market is beholden to supply and demand, so if you sell a bunch of one type of slime all at once, the price crashes. This naturally encourages you to raise as broad a range of slimes as possible, which in turn requires expanding your ranch to accommodate them.

Or you can ignore all that and just explore the planet, because it also has fun exploration gameplay! The planet is big and split into various regions, each with their own climates full of unique slimes and resources. I love wandering around to see what new places and things are around the corner; the environments are colorful and pastel, so they’re always nice to look at. The game is also quite forgiving about running off to explore, as while slimes get hungry, they can’t starve to death, so leaving them unattended for large stretches of time isn’t severely punished.

I do have a few criticisms: The game is stretched out for way longer than it needs to be, with many crucial upgrades gated behind playtime or extremely long grinds. I see no good reason why all the upgrades couldn’t have been available from the start. The NPC sidequests are particularly bad about this: You can only unlock them after significant progress exploring the game world, and only then can you start working the incredibly long grind they involve. I understand that grindiness comes with the territory with these sorts of games, but it still felt excessive. It particularly annoys me that after ages of grinding, you finally get an upgrade that can automate ranch tasks for you, only to be told it needs to be manually charged every day — so no, it’s not actually automation.

Additionally, I think that the actual ranching part could have been developed much more, as it’s very simple currently. The optimal gameplay is to pack slimes into a cube like they’re a can of sardines and regularly chuck food at them. The slimes are somehow completely fine with this, despite them roaming pretty widely in the wild. Additionally, all slimes have a favorite food that makes them poop more, so the optimal strategy is to feed them the exact same type of food forever. It makes the whole thing very repetitive, and after I initially corral a new species I mostly just ignore them unless I need specific poops for something.

More minorly, I also would have liked for the slime designs to be a bit more diverse. The game actually reminded me of an old Flash game I used to play as a kid, Amorphous+, where you killed your way through a hive of slime monsters; I am still genuinely impressed by the diversity of the slimes in that game and how many creative ways it iterated on a simple concept. There is even a slime similar to the tabby slime in this game, but it displays features of an actual cat like a pelt and jaw, which is a cool detail that implies a lot about slimes’ adaptiveness and evolution. Here, nearly all the slimes are just a different texture placed over the same smooth blob. I guess there are advantages to making slimes universally recognizable, but it did feel like a missed opportunity.

Q.U.B.E. 2

The sequel to Q.U.B.E., which I reviewed earlier. The puzzles are more intuitive with less emphasis on timing and positioning, but also simpler. It also has a story now that’s largely just mediocre and poorly-written, to the point I think the game may have been better if it wasn’t present and we just had to infer things from environmental context. I suppose I did like the conclusion that the alien is good and you’re a bad person for trying to kill it… unless it’s supposed to be a secret fakeout and actually the alien is lying to you, I wasn’t clear on that.

Puzzle/Walking Sim

A sci-fi game about investigating a derelict space ship. Its big claim to fame is that the game centers around an AI character who is an actual AI — you communicate with it by typing anything you want into a terminal, and it responds much like a chatbot. Game Maker’s Toolkit did a video on it when it first came out, and unfortunately I don’t think I have much to add. The AI was impressive, but it was still very clunky and I often found its responses confusing. It doesn’t help that there are long sequences where it will just completely ignore your input to play out a scripted scene, which made me very confused whether it was responding to me or not. Overall, an interesting idea, but still a very rough proof-of-concept.

Storywise, I liked that neither the AI nor the tech it wanted to destroy were evil, and humans were the real monsters.

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