Hermitage: Strange Case Files (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Content Warning: The game contains mentions of abuse, bullying, self harm, drugs, and suicide. Although TMW has not managed to fully check the CWs, they assume there are more, but these alone are biggies for a fair few folks.

Well… That’s been one hell of a ride.

Yeah, sometimes all you can really say as an opener is something so simple, because Hermitage: Strange Case Files is an emotional rollercoaster, and, naturally for a horror adventure game with obvious Lovecraft influences, it’s a deeply unsettling experience at times.

Ah, a many angled doggy. Sadly, a bit too eldritch and hostile to be pettable. Sorry, you cannot pet the dog in this game.

Slight, yet important tangent here, because I know something’s going to be said: Yes, Lovecraft was a racist fuck to the point where even his peers went “Whoooooah there, buddy!” Yes, a lot of his work has racism, and indeed, much of the subtext and theming is racist as fuck too. But if you are to judge a later work riffing on the created mythos, not on its own merits, but just as a sentence that starts with “This person liked Lovecraft’s work, ergo, they are -”, you’re doing a disservice to the creator in question.

Okay, that said, let’s go into it. Hermitage: Strange Case Files is a supernatural mystery visual novel, mostly from the perspective of a bookshop owner whose landlord is… Mysterious, and knows more than they’re letting on, his lawyer cum investigator friend, and the various people who are caught up in horrors that said trio help solve. The first chapter is available as a free demo, and oh boy, it’s a doozy. A private school. Bullying. Strange dreams that prove to be real. I would definitely say, if you have a trauma trigger about school bullying, that the descriptions are uncomfortably on point. In each chapter, there are only a few puzzles, the majority of which are to do with sliding clues onto questions to answer them (three per question), with three chances on each, and a bad ending awaiting if, well, you fuck any of them up.

This guy… This cryptic god-damn guy…

So, let’s get the bad out the way: Scarlet text on a dark transparent box, with sometimes dark backgrounds? HAVE. COLOURBLINDNESS. OPTIONS. Some of the questions, perhaps due to the translation from Chinese to English, are worded in such a way that you likely won’t get it the first time, and sometimes, when you click to fast forward text before clicking again to skip the line… Well, it just skips the line before it’s done. Okay. That’s the bad out the way.

The writing is good. It will frustrate some folks to know that it has the feel of a sequel at the beginning, but most things get revealed by the end, don’t worry. It’s descriptive, it’s emotive (oh boy is it emotive), and the characters, even the ones who are introduced for only one chapter, are fleshed out as well as they can be for their screentime. It draws you in, and I honestly didn’t realise the first chapter took almost 2 hours, because, well, there were only five puzzles (technically four), and the writing drew me in.

Please do not do this. No, really, I can’t fucking read this at all.

Aesthetically, apart from the aforementioned accessibility issue, it’s styling… The character designs are sharp, an ink and airbrush style you often see in manhua, with the occasional more painted look, the menus of the game fit the mood and theme of a mystery game well, the locations are nice, and the soundtrack and ambient sound… Mmmm, chef’s kiss, it’s good stuff.

So yes, if you like horror, if the content warnings don’t turn you off, and if you like a nice visual novel to keep you up at night, then Hermitage is a definite recommendation from me.

Have. Colourblindness. Options. This is not a request.

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Deep Sea Valentine (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £3.99 (£3.99 artbook)
Where To Get It: Steam

On the one hand, I love my Good Queer Shit, this is well known. I like gijinkas (human anthropomorphisations of various stuff), and I like games that use engines that aren’t really built for the game. But…

When you’re not talking to people, you’re walking through a smallish world. Considering this is using a visual novel engine, I’m slightly impressed.

…This game tries way too hard. And the result is a little painful.

Okay, maybe more than a little, this thing… I think I heard ten memes in the space of five minutes, and my brain (and teeth) ache a little.

So… Anyway, the game. It’s a visual novel made in Ren’py, simple choices, a choice of sea life gals to smooch on Valentine’s Day, short, to the point… And it has top down walking in it. Top down walking that scrolls somewhat jankily, and… Feels superfluous, honestly. There are set situations you’re faced with, things only opening up (a little) when you get to a certain point, so… Why not go with a more traditional structure, choosing where to go, etcetera?

Cheese. Health Advisory: Do not use this line.

Honestly, that’s mostly dissatisfaction with the jank of the top-down, majority segment of the game. Aesthetically, it be pixels, with hand drawn character art for the conversations, so I’m not complaining about the aesthetics.

The writing, on the other hand… Ohhh boy. See, I was down with “It’s time to pick up women. [pause] Respectfully.” But then, shortly after?… Stans, Stands, Darude’s Sandstorm, lots of cheesy lines… It grated. It grated a whole lot, and the humour seemed forced. I didn’t really feel any attraction to anyone (much less the protag), and…

I… Really wasn’t joking about the Darude Sandstorm thing. SIGH.

As such, I… Really can’t recommend this, unless you’re a masochist, or are as internet poisoned as the two jackass boys who seem to be the nominal antagonists of the story. I like my Good Queer Shit, but this… This ain’t it.

The Mad Welshman would like to be, under the sea, in a cute dolphingirl’s parlour, in a cave… Alas…

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Ambition: A Minuet In Power (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15.99 (Game plus soundtrack £23.18, Soundtrack £7.19)
Where To Get It: Steam

My word, this one is a delight. I mean, I’ve heard some… Interesting things about the developers, nothing you could repeat, mind you, but…

I am joking, I’ve heard nothing. But that’s the most fitting intro I could think of for a game set just before La Revolution, in which scheming is rife, including yours. Who shall you side with, who shall you snub, and what shall you wear, while avoiding poverty because your fiancee ran off to God knows where before you even arrived?

The obligatory Map Screenshot. Look, it’s in my contract…

In any case, this is a life simulation game, in which you’re balancing various stats (it’s a relatively simple one, so it’s favour with factions and characters, money, peril, and exhaustion) while engaging in social situations in a visual novel style format. Read the text, enjoy the expressions, pick the most suitable path for you, and see what ending results (or, you know, aim for a specific one)

At the time of the review, I was, essentially, already on my way to revenge, revolution, and a lesbian romance with an older widow. Perfect path for me, honestly, I love me Dat Good Queer Shit, I dislike the Bourgeoisie, and the noblewoman who snubs you at the beginning of the game is a hateful bitch. I could have curried favour with another lady (a painter for the Queen), some men, the military, the church, but… Naaahhhhh. So, what do I like and dislike about the game, then, now I’ve mentioned this?

I’m not normally one for older women, much less toppy ones. But when they understand me this well? Yes. Yes please, and thank you.

Aesthetically, I love it. Expressive characters, solid writing, clear UX, music that fits both the period and the mood, good tooltips… My only bitch with the UX is that when something is grayed out, this is the time to hit Escape to go back, but it does not, in fact, inform you of this. Oh, and the windowed mode going a bit fucky from time to time. But, overall, it pleases me, very good.

Now, the core gameplay loop and the writing? Oh. God. Yes. The gameplay is simple in all its elements. When you’re not at a party, you get one thing to do a day, like buying a new dress, selling or disseminating that Hot Gossip, engaging in encounters, trysts, furthering one of the stories, some days gives you invitations to parties, where declining hurts your credibility (remember, this is also the word for “Someone believing you”), and accepting sets a day aside for attending said party. When you do, you get two social encounters, picked from a pool. Do well, get nice things, maybe some bad things, like Peril (leading, obviously, to bad things. Do poorly, get more of the latter, and expect your reputation to plummet.

Let me romance this charming partner in crime, god-dammit! Look at that radiant smile, and the willingness to help cover up my crimes!

It’s easy to navigate, which leaves… The writing. The characters are, as mentioned, expressive visually, and it’s the same in terms of writing. Madame Honorade Gazelle (alas, a Bourgeoisie… Maybe I can persuade her otherwise), for example, is a firebrand, teetotal, but passionate, and caring not for your silly conventions. Camille, your maid… Well, I screenshotted one of her exchanges above, she’s most definitely not law abiding when she needs (or wants) to be, and a cheerful and helpful servant. Alas, not romanceable. Maybe that could be in a patch, or a DLC? After all, out of the romance options, only two are gay (out of six), and we could do with a bigger scandal, couldn’t we?

In any case, to folks who like lifesims, visual novels, and intrigue with a historical touch, this is a very good pick. I’m having a lot of fun, and I expect to have more.

Give us Camille if you want to live, developers. The villains and villainesses demand Camille. (We won’t really hurt you. Camile pweaaaasee?)

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Tsugu No Hi (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19 (£4.79 for Evil God Korone)
Where To Get It: Steam

Hrm. “Day of Atonement”, according to the developer. It’s a good title for this series of horror vignettes, and furthermore allows a simple change to make Tsugi No Hi (The Next Day), even if… What are the characters in these vignettes atoning for again?

I thought I’d start with a note that yes, there is a Kizuna Ai Tsugu no Hi story. And a Korone one at the time of publishing.

Well, except for one, maybe two cases? Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, intruding upon something that they never would have realised they were intruding on. It’s honestly one of the things I like about Japanese horror stories like these: It doesn’t feel the need to explain the why or the what. If you happen to know why you’re being targeted by this ghost/youkai/kami/whatever (no, I’m not using these interchangably, I’m just covering the bases), then good, but most of the time… You won’t. Why would you? How would you?

I got pretty far ahead of myself here, so let’s back up a bit. Tsugu No Hi is a series of short adventures that were previously made in Flash, in which, for the majority of games, there are precisely two necessary controls: Left, to go left. Enter to pass onto the next bit of dialogue. You do this a few times, each time being a day, and eventually… Well, you inevitably reach your fate. It’s one of the more literal interpretations of Kinetic Novels I’ve seen, and I like that.

Equally, I like the aesthetic when it’s not trying its best to burst my eardrums or jumpscare me. Photoshopped people, a photocollage for most of the stories, blank spaces where the eyes should be being the norm, normal, ambient sounds, until… Oh… Oh… Things are starting to get weird. A good staple of horror that: The slow realisation of wrongness in reality. The music in the end and the beginning of each story is also good, so… Mmm, do like, and same with ye ambient horror bass.

A brief summary of the series. Despite this sign, you enter. And bad things happen. And you vanish from the world, presumably horribly. No, not even this cat is immune.

Now, let’s get onto problems. So, first up, if kinetic novels are not your thing, this will miss you. You have next to no control, you cannot escape this fate, and, while this is thematically appropriate (after all, you were fucked from the moment whatever is happening started), this is what it is. A dark ghost house ride, jumpscares and all. Some of these hit, adding to the atmosphere, and some, well, they’re silly, shock and nothing more.

Secondly, this is… A pretty direct set of ports. Volume control? Gonna have to go into your mixer while the game’s running, buddy. The small window of the story selection screen is most definitely… A thing, although the windows for the games themselves can be maximised just fine. And thirdly, fans of the originals will find the “The Next Day” transitioning to “The Day of Atonement” (in this translation “The Hexed Day”… Oh ho ho) to be a disappointment. I can’t really speak about the quality of translation, alas, but it seems mostly faithful from what I’ve seen of translators Let’s Playing it.

Sometimes, it’s just… Jumpscare after jumpscare, right at the end. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either when it happens.

Honestly, I like Tsugu No Hi overall, I love the implication of connected incidents in many of the chapters, and I like the general concept, even if the aural and visual assault of the final days is a mixed bag for me, usually a miss when it’s really over the top. But I like the connected stories, even if the connection isn’t obvious. This… Is an extremely cursed place. Spirits abound, people are fucked (and one cat. So, yes, CW: Cat death)…

…I just wish this was more of an update using the assets, rather than most of the originals, jank and all, collected in one place. But hey, if you like janky J-horror, know to turn the volume down in the mixer lest your eardrums suffer, and are fine with jumpscares (either in the sense of enjoying the ARGH! Or just… Being okay with them, like me), this definitely isn’t a bad pick to while away a few hours.

The Mad Welshman has somehow not reached The Day of Atonement. He’s kind of disappointed, actually. He’s always wanted to punch a ghost in the face for trying to claw his own off.

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Scarlet Hollow Episodes 1 and 2 (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15.49 (It’s sort of a season pass deal, episode 1 is £4.79, episode 2 is £5.19)
Where to Get It: Steam

Content Warnings (taken from the official site) Realistic Gore; death; dead, dying and injured animals; children in peril; child death; claustrophobia; emetophobia/vomiting; disturbing imagery and situations

Mystery horror. It’s a difficult thing to write, honestly. You’ve got to get the right balance between a sense of normality and… Something being off, before that something decides to come knocking.

And said somethings can be… Ewwwwww…

And so, Scarlet Hollow begins in a very simple way, well known to horror fans: An estranged family member, going to the family’s run down, decrepit house in a run-down, slowly dying town for their aunt’s funeral.

And it doesn’t fuck around with the “something off”, either. The guy on the bus is loud on the way there, and subtly unstable. The cat (if you can talk to animals, more on that in a sec) is a proud French asshole. There’s a forbidden wing, a seriously tired and frumpy cousin, and yes, you are very much a stranger in a strange land.

And this is before things even kick off.

So, yes, Scarlet Hollow is a visual novel, episodic, and only episodes 1 and 2 are out right now. But buy it once, and when the rest of the episodes come out, bam, they’re yours! And it’s… A really cool experience, gently unsettling until it decides to go all out, lowering and spiking the tension well… And aesthetically, it’s very on point.

Even if you’re haunted by grief and gribbleys… Don’t let your bathroom get this stanky. Seriously.

Inks abound, crosshatching, all that good pen drawing shit I know and love, and solid colour choices, muted when it needs to be, loud when it needs to be. Musically, it’s good, accessibility wise, it’s good, and it’s got… A lot of choice. Just to start off with, pronouns (YESSSS) and two special traits. For my first go through, I picked talking to animals and book smarts, and… Wow, I spent a lot of the first ep sounding like a pompous grad student, while also being dissed by Frou-Frou for butchering their native language. Ehehehe. So… Yeah, that, combined with hidden meters, meant I got a fair bit of choice paralysis, not helped by…

…Curse you, Black Tabby Games… You know about scroll-wheeling in Ren’py, and you cockblocked me. Then I shall have to save a heckuva lot

Why, bless your butterbiscuits, Gretchen, you are the sweetest little Southern Pugge I’ve ever met!

Anyway, yes, queer horror, romance options, complicated relationships… If you like a visual novel with a lot going on, then Scarlet Hollow is really good. Oh, and obviously, if any of the content warnings are triggers for you, stay away, and if they aren’t, keep an eye on the CW page for further warnings that may or may not occur.

No, dating the pug to get adorable doggy “kisses” is not an option. Sorry, go for Purrfect Date or Hatoful Boyfriend for that, and apologies.

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