Game reviews

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Fran_Bow_1

Fran Bow has been committed to a mental hospital. It’s 1944. Her parents are dead. She misses her cat terribly. She suffering serious side effects from her medication. But at least she seems to be doing better than the other children in the hospital. Or is she? How reliable a narrator is Fran Bow?

I don’t want to say too much about Fran or her unfolding predicament, because the real value of this indie adventure game is its darkening mystery. But Fran stands out for being an Alice in Wonderland without the self-aware “oh, I’m so dark and edgy” of many latter-day Alices in their wonderlands (you’ll find an amusing Alice in Wonderland easter egg late in the game).

Although the main character is a ten-year-old girl, this is an adult game. If Fran Bow was a movie, it would be rated R for gratuitous gore and extreme images. It’s more Silent Hill than, say, Double Fine. The story doesn’t shy away from Fran being a girl either. One of the adult characters you meet will give you the inventory item you need if you “sit on his knee” or “give him a kiss”. These aren’t options, of course. Fran knows it’s skeevy and she’s having none of it. But it serves as a creepy reminder that a story about a ten-year-old girl can have different kinds of peril than a story about a ten-year-old boy. Let’s move on. The game certainly does.

After the jump, child’s play Continue reading →

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Elysium_review

Part of Trajan is a pretty cool “points salad”. You pick some bit of the board and take tiles or move pieces. Your Roman legions are conquering the Germanic barbarians or your workers are building a Roman something-or-other or you’re vying with other players in the Roman Senate or collecting gladiators for the Roman bread and circuses. Each of these things gets you points. It’s very stately and boardgamey and Roman. You feel like you’re wearing a toga.

But there’s a price to pay in Trajan, a classic — I would say “infamous” — boardgame by Stefan Feld. Before you sample from the points salad, you have to scooch some colored doo-dads around a series of bowls. It’s called a mancala. Mancalas are an ancient African tribal thing that uses dried beans and gourds. It’s not very Roman. Why is this the price of entry for taking my turn as a Roman dude doing Roman stuff? Why did Stefan Feld put this between me and the rest of Trajan?

The mancala all but consumes Trajan. It’s not my turn yet, but like everyone else playing the game, I have my head down studying the bowls. Let’s see, if I move the pink bean two bowls over, then next turn I can move four beans three bowls over which will let me, no, no, that’s not quite right because then I’ll jump the bowl with the two beans I need to later on do the thing I need to do. I mean, really, fuck these beans. Sorry for saying that. But it has to be said. Fuck these beans.

Elysium, which is twice the game Trajan will ever be, is much less complicated but every bit as bad.

After the jump, damnable columny Continue reading →

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Conflicks_review

There are three stages of Conflicks: Revolutionary Space Battles. The first is before you’ve even played, when you see the game’s intro, which you can watch here. The wacky combination of European history, but in space; the Industrial Revolution, but with chickens; and that awesome artwork means I want to play whatever this game is. The second stage is finding out what this game is. A real-time strategy game with…an Angry Birds interface? If there’s one thing crazier than that intro, it’s space combat based on flicking your ships around the screen without even the benefit of an iPad.

After the jump, you’re on your way to the third stage of Conflicks. Continue reading →

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Cosmonautica_1

Better games than Cosmonautica have struggled with how to make commutes interesting. Flying across the reaches of empty space, which is pretty much what spaceships do, isn’t really a good thing to make a game about. Because what are you going to do when you’re not having a space battle? The same thing you do on a car trip? Listen to podcasts or books on tape? Chat with your buddy? Play “I Spy” with your kids? Zone out? Zone out is the answer provided by most games about flying through space.

Unfortunately, Cosmonautica doesn’t have a good answer, so zone out it is. Hit the fast forward button and wait. It didn’t seem like it was going to be that way when you first started Cosmonautica. You thought you would have a role to play when you first watched your crew scurry about in that precious cutaway view of your ship. Maybe you’d have to coordinate your crew the way your coordinate sims. But no such luck. They take care of themselves entirely. You’re just a spectator in a game where there’s nothing interesting to see. Just zone out until you get to the next space station.

After the jump, we’re still not there yet. Continue reading →

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Rise_of_Cthulhu_review_main

Fifteen minute games that aren’t silly or overly simple for two players. Why is that such a rare category? It seems like an ideal way to showcase interesting gameplay concepts. My current favorite is Cold War: CIA vs KGB, which is a series of quick rounds of Blackjack But With Special Powers, situated inside a metagame of agent-based bluffing to win control of classic Cold War countries like Nicaragua, Cuba, and Vietnam. Hey, look, it’s Afghanistan! The more things change…

Rise of Cthulhu, a fifteen minute game that isn’t silly or overly simple for two players, isn’t quite as hearty as Cold War. It’s certainly not as polished (Cold War has been reprinted by Fantasy Flight, and this year they even published a Star Wars version called Star Wars: Empire vs. Rebellion). But it does a great job showcasing an interesting gameplay concept. Namely, the orderly arrangement of sets of cards, with just enough chaos shuffled in the mix to earn its Lovecraftian theme.

After the jump, madness, I tell you! Continue reading →

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Gathering_Sky_review

Gathering Sky is an arthouse game/relaxation exercise/mildly interactive animated short about birds riding wind rails over painted landscapes and then something else. You can play parts of it with zero hands. Watch those birds flock. Chill to that cool cello. Here comes the the singer aah-aah’ing and ooh-ooh’ing, so you know you’re about to enter a new palette.

It was probably made at some indie jam games conference thing and then published on Steam so guys like me could wax poetic about it. But I’m not going to take the bait. Instead, I’m going to make a dopey list.

After the jump, ten things no one will ever say about Gathering Sky. Continue reading →

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Toy_Soldiers_War_Chest_1

One of the surest ways to kill a franchise is to make a crappy sequel. Just ask The Matrix, The Godfather, Star Wars for the last ten years, the Batman games on the PC, and maybe To Kill a Mockingbird. I won’t know that last one until everyone else at my stupid library is done reading it and my turn comes up.

You can also ask Toy Soldiers, the ebullient tribute to shooting things that are running at you. We have a word for this. Tower defense. Unfortunately, it’s become a dirty word. Tower defense has become synonymous with throwaway indie games and free-to-play boondoggles squatting on wide swathes of wasteland in Steam and the Apple Store. But before it was a dirty word, Toy Soldiers was a best case example of tower defense because it was more than mere tower defense. It was lively action with a dollop of strategy. It was cute graphics nestled in dioramas adorned with miniature toys. It was brimming with personality, including the World War I flavor of the original game and the 80s Cold War action movie cheese of the later follow-ups. It was lots of replayability and wonderful splitscreen local multiplayer. It was varied weapons and crazy power-ups and daunting boss fights.

And now Toy Soldiers has a license to kill. Ubisoft has secured the Hasbro license, so Toy Stories: War Chest is a delirious mash-up of He-Man, GI Joe, Star Bright (is that even a real thing?), and Assassin’s Creed. The Kaiser is still around, too. And there’s a random fantasy dude with dragons and dice. What could possibly go wrong?

After the jump, what could possibly wrong. Continue reading →

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Extra_Extra_review

My favorite thing about Extra Extra is that I can’t think of any other boardgames about running a newspaper in the olden days. That’s redundant, isn’t it? I mean, when else would you run a newspaper? There’s something so endearingly quaint about a worker placement game set in time when people got their news from something made out of paper. It’s every bit as charming as Agricola’s pumpkin patches, piglet pens, and duck ponds. When a game is this cute, who cares if it’s just a worker placement game?

After the jump, read all about it! Continue reading →

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VV_4

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who recognized the brilliance of Sacred 2 and those who don’t like to think when they’re playing an action RPG. In Sacred 2’s German variation on the Diablo formula, you assembled intricate character builds. You might have had to actually read a manual and take notes to know what you were doing (keep in mind this was back in 2008). Then your Teutonic clockwork assemblage roamed around an open world, maybe following the main quest marker but maybe not. It didn’t really matter. All that mattered was leveling up. Sacred 2 was an action RPG for gearheads. Later, Path of Exile from New Zealand would come along to re-fill the niche with its Antipodean clockwork.

Victor Vran, another German take on the Diablo formula, is actually Bulgarian, but close enough. There’s enough wide-ranging intricacy in Victor Vran to warm the clockwork cockles of a Sacred 2 fan’s heart. But Victor Vran lives very comfortably in a post-Diablo III world. Whereas Sacred 2 was fussy and elaborate, Victor Vran is accessible and splashy, brimming with personality and broad variety. “Dumbed down” you might say if you’re impatient with people who don’t like to think when they’re playing an action RPG. “Also for them” if you aren’t.

After the jump, a cerebral action RPG for dummies. Continue reading →

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Guild_of_Dungeoneering_review

I love the idea of Guild of Dungeoneering. As developer Gambrinous explains on their site, it’s an exploration game where “you lay out the dungeon but can’t control the hero”. A turn-based rogue-like in the same vein as free will RTS Majesty? Someone out there has my number. Yes, please!

And from the moment I booted it up, I’ve been chronically infected with the earworm soundtrack (“This is the guild of Dungeoneering…something something never fearing!”) and won over by the precious pencil-on-graph-paper aesthetic. The clever gameplay got its hook into me quickly enough. Dungeon spelunking as deck-building, with sleek card-based battles and longer term unlockables. Imagine Card Hunter minus the grinding and drawn-out tactical battles, but cuter and with that soundtrack I can’t stop humming. Come for the presentation, stay for the slick gameplay.

So, after the jump, what could go wrong? Continue reading →

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Marco_Polo_review_1

From the moment I started playing Voyages of Marco Polo, I knew I would like it. And the more I play — I’ve played at least 20 games in the short period of time it’s been out — the more it climbs its way into my favorite games of all time. Today, it may very well be among the top five. It does about a dozen things I look for in a boardgame and it does them all spectacularly well. How do I love thee, Voyages of Marco Polo? Let me count the ways.

After the jump, look out, China! Here I come! Continue reading →

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Splendor_review

I first heard about Splendor in connection to its Spiel des Jahres nomination last year. “I got this new game called Splendor,” my friend told me, displaying a box that promised adventures in jewelry. “It’s up for the Spiel des Jahres!”

So we played it exactly once and were slightly dismayed to discover a little math puzzle. We shouldn’t have been surprised, since “spiel des jahres” is German or Portuguese or something for “boardgame themes are pointless exercises in appeasing people with no imagination, but we’ll barely attempt them to disguise the fact that we’re just making math puzzles”. I am paraphrasing, since I don’t actually know German or Portuguese. The shorter translation is “Eurogame”. Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, and Ticket to Ride — all games I’ve owned, played, and no longer own — have all won top Spiel des Jahres honors.

After the jump, so why am I playing an iPad port of Splendor? Continue reading →

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Arkham_Knight_review_1

As a videogame power fantasy, Arkham Knight is a heady brew. It makes me feel powerful, it makes me feel smart, and it adoringly invokes a pop culture icon and multi-billion dollar franchise that even the stuffiest of non-comic book readers can groove to. We live in a post-Dark Knight world where the Nolan brothers — who, for all I know, are drawing from some Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman thing I’ve never read — have represented the Batman/Joker dynamic as a dialectic straight out of Greek tragedy. Never mind this silly “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight” nonsense, plucked from a vat of colorful acid. This is Apollo and Dionysus. It is order and entropy, superego and id, lawful neutral and chaotic neutral. Forget mere good and evil. That stuff is easy. This is what D&D nerds in junior high school parsed when it took everyone else until they were gathered together in college dorms. Take it where you can get it. Gary Gygax, Jim Morrison, Nietzsche, Bob Kane.

After the jump, a videogame that goes beyond good and evil. Continue reading →

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Homeland

“Tom’s the terrorist,” Tony declares loudly, slapping the table and leaning back in his chair as if he’s just issued a legally binding decree and there’s nothing more to be said. “He’s totally the fucking terrorist,” he says anyway.

“Why would you say that? I’m suggesting something that’s perfectly reasonable because you can’t possibly know the intel cards that have been played. Maybe you’re the terrorist.”

I mean, he’s right. I am the terrorist. But there’s no way he could know that, is there?

After the jump, a royal playboy and an affluent politico can’t get me out of this mess. Continue reading →

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witcher3_1_0

This image is the essence of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It’s all about giving sad people news they really didn’t want to hear. CD Projekt RED’s open-world RPG includes monster hunting, murder investigations, gang warfare, sailing, a collectible card game tournament, horse racing, and a search for a missing daughter, but this is what’s going to stick with you. The sometimes heartbreaking, almost always less-than-positive news you give people and the moments right afterwards. Someone has to do it, and it’s fallen on your shoulders to be the bearer of dark tidings.

After the jump, you’ll have to make the best of a bad situation. Continue reading →

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