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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2000 to 1: A Space Felony (Going Back)

Source: Charity Bundle
Price: Name Your Own
Where To Get It: Itch.io

Ah, I do love a good murder mystery. I love gathering the evidence, presenting it, drawing conclusions… But y’know what I don’t love?

Not-twists. Now, not-twists come in several flavours, but one of the most common ones is a twist that is not foreshadowed in any way, shape, or form.

Every time you present evidence or collect it, this, err… Gentleman repeats your testimony on the case.

Why is this relevant? Well, we’ll get to that. First, let’s get another thing clear: This is an alright game of its genre, with relatively few statements to untangle, a fair amount of evidence to poke at, has simple controls, a nice accessibility feature in the form of the option of glowing evidence points (with obvious interactions being obvious), and can be solved in less than an hour, if you’re so inclined or already know how to solve it. Since you’re in a spacesuit, you can rotate and the like, so some motion sick folks might dislike it, and, as far as I’m aware, there’s no windowed mode or resolution changes (BOO), but this is a lesser complaint.

It even has an interesting variation on the deaths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which it is very obviously based (C’mon, folks, at least say it’s an homage in the game, not a tongue in cheek “This totes isn’t based on a work by a handsome and talented writer.” The latter half being a claim I dispute anyway. I won’t spoil them, but rather than the relatively simple deaths of 2001, they’re more malevolent. Although one of them is a bit iffy. MAL, old buddy, you can see through the entire ship, how would you not know about that one?

Spacer, do you know what Clemenceau once said about AI?

So, aesthetically, it works well with its low poly style. It even has some tongue in cheek references, like the helmet of one of the crew being held in their arm, as they copy the pose of T. J. Kong from Dr. Strangelove. The music pays homage to the use of classical music in 2001, the writing is mostly solid…

Except for the not-twist. For the obvious reason that this isn’t foreshadowed, you’ll play through the game and… Wait, what? Only by doing something slightly different will this ending change. And, honestly, it’s a bit of a crap ending.

So, if you’re fine with a crap ending, preferring to focus on the gathering of evidence, the asking about evidence, and the presenting thereof, well, this is a solid short game. But if not-twists piss you off as much as they do me, then I can’t really recommend it.

The Mad Welshman eagerly awaits our AI overlords. Except not, because they’ll be capitalist bastards.

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Subnautica: Below Zero (Review)

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

Earlier Reviews: Early Access 1, Early Access 2.

At first, it was hard to put into words why I was less satisfied with the finished Below Zero, despite the cool things it added, the new creatures, the weirder world, and our visitor to the world getting into Big Trouble. It’s not unsatisfying, and I would err on the side of “It’s pretty damn good”, but something bugged me.

And then I remembered the earlier draft of the story. The one I gushed about way back when.

Ah. That’s part of it.

Yes, you’re right. I definitely count two pairs of appendages that could beat the hell out of me, old lady.

See, way back when, Robin was cheery, enthusiastic. She loved the world from the get go, and Sam was the serious one, the one who covered your ass, somewhat, as things started moving. But now… Well, it’s a different Robin. A Robin who was previously Sam, come to find, uhhh… The Sam who was previously Robin.

Woman of colour as the protag, and the game doesn’t make a fuss about it? This is good, and I’d honestly like to live in a world where drawing attention to this as good wasn’t a thing I felt the need to do. But right from the get go, their zest for the world, that pep, something that I definitely resonated with… Well, it was gone. Replaced by a no-nonsense protag who, honestly, I’d have preferred way up in the sky, watching over you, adding practicality to your wonder.

Still, the rest of the game is good. I won’t say excellent, because it has less landmarks, and is therefore harder to navigate around, and a lot of the early game relies on the oxygen plants dotted around the deeper areas (I personally assume Robin just sticks her face in there and huffs it up like a bong with her rebreather) to both create tension and segments where you need them to go to certain important places. The land remains mostly a sidenote, and the sea remains, as it should be, a big focus.

It gets prettier the further down you go. And then you forget about your oxygen gauge because it’s pretty, and you sigh with your last breath.

And, lack of landmarks aside, what a sea it is. Green tinted vine caves, where thieving sea-monkeys, bombfish, their nests, and an ancient alien signal reside. The “smokestacks”, where thermal vents, giant mantis-shrimp (complete with punching action), and the first of the Big Boys resides. The forests of creepvine remain entrancing (and confusing), the coral chasm is a place of beauty, and the frozen underside of a glacier is a dangerous place where the smallest things can and will hurt you reside.

Guess where an important early game plotpoint resides? Nah, I’m kidding. It’s actually in a cave in the coral chasm.

Anyway, aesthetically, the game remains as on point as its predecessor. Underwater is beautiful, the UX remains pretty much unchanged, the neofuturist look of everything gives our intrusion a sterile feel, just as it did in the last game, and yes, the dystopian messaging of how Alterra is colonialist and crapitalist as fuck remains, although nowhere near as obvious at the beginning as it was in the earlier story version.

Yes. Alan the Alien. I fail to see why this is strange, Robin the Human-But-Not-Bird.

Overall, I’d still say that if you love the idea of survival and crafting in an alien ocean world appeals, or you enjoyed the original Subnautica, that Below Zero is worth it.

But when, like me, you remember the bright eyed and bushy tailed Robin who was thrust into WTF and somehow still remained optimistic? Well, you don’t enjoy it as much.

Still not leaving the world. Don’t wanna, can’t make me.

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Abyss of the Sacrifice (Going Back)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £30.99 (Soundtrack £3.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

The game has the following CWs: Mentions of suicide, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, parental abuse, and human experimentation.

Hrm. Hrm, and other thoughtful noises.

The characters have, at times, a seriously rocky relationship. And there’s good reasons, plural.

Abyss of the Escape is a visual novel/escape room game, in which five girls are trapped, seemingly alone, in the ruins of FOUNDATION, an underground home for humanity after the surface basically got fucked. And shit’s not going well for them, not helped by certain things along the way, and the secrets and traumas each person has. It’s interesting, dark stuff.

It’s such a shame then, that it’s timeline implementation is awkward, and many of its puzzles are obtuse, some downright frustrating in their lack of information. I had to rely on hints for a fair few puzzles, and a few, in particular, I would not have found the solutions to without either pixel hunting, or looking the solution up. All I will say about that, if you play it, is that two numbers you haven’t lit up are hidden inside another, single digit number. It must also be said that some of the puzzles feel out of place for the situation.

Huh, big barrier in the garbage room? What purpose did that serve, except to arbitrarily separate the two characters involved for a dual viewpoint puzzle? Making tea? Good Doctor, I understand that you don’t want to let your daughter near your best tea, but an entire puzzle about tea making is only going to interest the tea fanatics. Who will then get turned off by the puzzle lock on the crucial ingredient. Although the last puzzle of that scene did fit the character of the Doctor.

I kicked myself after realising the solution. And this is an early puzzle.

And these two faults kind of taint the whole experience, which is a shame, because there’s some legitimately good writing in there, including the main twist. The rather heavily foreshadowed main twist.

Aesthetically, it works. Clear UX, some good illustrations, solid music, some good VA, and overall, as noted, good writing, because a good twist is foreshadowed, but even heavy foreshadowing works if it doesn’t quite make sense until the twist.

But yes, the awkward implementation of the timeline, some obtuse and sometimes arbitrary puzzles, they bring the game from legitimately good and interesting, to a cautious recommendation with heavy qualifications.

See this? THESE HELP PEOPLE GET INTO YOUR GAME IF IT’S A TADGE BIG.

Timelines, VN devs. I’ll stress this and stress this until it sinks in. Timelines. They make our lives easier.

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Saviours of Sapphire Wings (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £44.99 (Both this and Stranger of Sword City, £9.99 for each of the two soundtracks)
Where To Get It: Steam

On the one hand, this is a twofer with another step based RPG, Stranger of Sword City Revisited, but… Both games are big enough that it would just not be fair to review them together.

I’m not exactly happy that this is the closest we get to nonbinary, but… I took it.

Saviors of Sapphire Wings is a step based, first person JRPG, which is to say, y’all walk one step at a time through areas, dungeons, whatnot, have random encounters with monsters, some not-so-random encounters, and, of course, bosses. Levelling’s pretty slow, so if you want a game that can be consumed in bite sized chunks while still giving a feeling of progress, this… Isn’t it. You will grind, and you won’t be fighting bosses until you’re good and ready. That potential turnoff for folks out of the way, let’s get on with the meat and potatoes.

After all, there’s another reason that it wouldn’t be fair to review this with its companion: The two have major differences between them. In Saviors of Sapphire Wings, you are the reincarnation of the greatest knight of the round table (of this world), who fell in the final battle with the demon lord. Whoops.

He’s a big, slow, and BLOODY CREEPY boy…

But you’re reincarnated now, and, over the course of the early game, recruit two new members. A priestess and a warrior. More will join your ranks, but bonds of trust must be built up, by talking to them and counselling wisely, feeding them, and winning battles with them, a bond of blood. The more powerful that bond, the more powerful they will become. And, naturally, y’know… Demon Lord, gotta be pretty damn powerful to get up to that level from nothing.

So there’s less character creation in Sapphire Wings, although this is definitely not to say none. But there are no character switching shenanigans, the people you join with are set in stone. But honestly, they provide such a nice balance this early on, it’s not a hassle. Stat increases are still relatively minimal, skills largely fixed… But it simplifies things, allowing you to concentrate on enemies.

Some enemies will feel very familiar because, uhhh… They are. Does this make it worse? Nah, it means if you’re playing both games, you know relatively what to expect. The big ol’ scythebugs are weak to fire, these enemies are weak to wind, most mob type characters can summon other mob type characters, which is something to consider when you’re low on HP or trying to grind… It works.

We have the classiest of rides…

Aesthetically… Yup, artwork’s pretty good, music’s good, sound is okay, everything’s clear, we’re all good, great character artwork… It works, and this is good.

Like with Sword City, there’s a lot I could mention. A lot. But I will say that the story is good, you’re getting Sword City along with this (also reviewed this month), and if you know and are cool with the time demands a JRPG like this wants, then yes, this is a solid choice.

I am not the heroic type. But I do admit, slaughtering the real monsters is a satisfying experience.

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