Archeo: Shinar (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.29
Where To Get It: Steam

Let’s get one thing noted right now, because I know this is going to turn folks off: Archeo – Shinar is a game with the theme of 1920s archaeology, which, as fans of history may know, was colonialist as hell. The game embraces that as a thematic element, so you are not playing some philanthropist, but an asshole, employing assholes, exploiting land, meddling in ways that distort history, and the like. So be warned.

Yes, they are massive assholes.

Fortunately, it… Honestly isn’t the most engaging of games on its own. Essentially, it’s a 30 turn game, with two main segments: Planning and Management, and Expeditions. The planning phase is the meat of the game, but the expeditions are what mainly earn you the points, events, and interest of the game, with the expeditions being… Well, what your planning went toward, with some added risk management thrown in. Do you use the person good at Archeology now, or do you save him for a potential check down the line that might be much harder (or use another skill which you weren’t warned about, because he’s a really good everyman.) Succeed more than you fail, and you win reputation and money for your shameless plundering (earning artefacts you can sell on the black market for big successes, and phobias, debuffs for your explorers, on essentially chance.) Fail, and you get recompensed a small amount… Probably smaller than what you spent on it.

Oh look, it’s our old “buddy” Frans! He’s going to get a phobia in just a second, and he deserves it

Meanwhile, the management is where most things happen. Do you try and sell your story to one of the papers? Who do you hire? How do you train them? Do you make them take more risks, or play it much more cautiously? What do you bring along? And what land do you bid on, to exploit for bonuses down the line? In all of this, reputation is important. Build up a good rapport with one paper, you can use it to slander the other explorer(s). Get good land, and exploit it well, get nice things. Take a risky play on the black market that pans out? Free money, awwh yiss!

Thing is, a lot of this is, effectively, a black box, even on Easy. You know what things do, and you know what the majority of checks are going to be on an expedition, but a lot of it boils down to taking a chance. And, for me, at least, it didn’t really feel enjoyable. It looks good, with a simplified style that fits the period it’s representing, some nice music, and a mostly clear UX with good tooltipping, but its humour fell flat for me, its embracing of its theme (historically accurate though it may be) didn’t sit well with me, and playing it… Well, it didn’t feel like I really knew what I was doing, even though I was staying afloat, and had a hotseat to fall back on to learn the game.

Yes, there is also a lootbox joke. SIGH.

And that, in the end, is what killed my engagement with it. Still, maybe others will find enjoyment, and that’s about the best I can personally say.

The Mad Welshman despises the bullshit the UK, among others has perpetuated over its history, not only in archaeology, but folklore, culture… A fair bit more than that, let’s say, in understated British fashion.

Become a Patron!

The Church In The Darkness (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (OST+ BTS £7.19)
Where to Get It: Steam

I can’t really lie, but when I looked at Church In The Darkness, I was… Wary. A game about cults, especially American ones, can be… A widely variable experience, in terms of narrative quality. Often, cults are enemies, generic or otherwise. Sometimes interesting things are done with them. And, at worst, they can be games with an odd poltical slant while the company in question vehemently denies there’s any politics… Despite the fact there clearly is.

They get across well that this is a cult of charisma as much as… Well, it varies, but it pretends to be socialist, every time.

But, I’m happy to say, there are interesting things about The Church In The Darkness, even if I unfortunately couldn’t tell you everything at the time of review. After all, the cult in this game can have multiple possible actual motives. But I can tell you how it presents this cult, and how it plays, without either hitting spoiler territory, or ignoring its themes.

First, let’s begin with it being the late 1977s. Conservatives were in power (Specifically, Gerald Ford, but Watergate only having been three years previously was still in people’s minds), and were pushing back at rights movements and welfare programs alike. Vietnam had only ended two years previously, which, even today, has left its psychological scars on people. And, while there were fights for women’s rights, and the blaxploitation film movement, it was mostly a time of rising conservatism, and a bigoted focus on “Traditional Values.” And this could be argued to be one of the points from which conservatives pushed harder for using “Socialism” as a dogwhistle for everything progressive they hated in America.

…Which is why folks of colour in the game, mirroring the real world, and their exclusion… That’s appreciated.

Enter… The Collective Justice Mission, a radical (by 1970s standards) group, charismatic leaders and all, who’ve relocated to South America to found what they consider their ideal society, under a regime they think will support them. And enter you, Vic, a man asked to find your friend’s nephew, Alex, and try to get him away from this group. Now… Enter nuance. Enter narrative and choices.

Overall, the game is a stealth game. Vision cones, distraction tactics, going loud, going silent, going nonlethal, and procuring on site. It’s visually clear, the voice work is great, and has a few stars like Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie, playing Rebecca (Cult Leader 1) and Isaac (Cult Leader 2) respectively. The controls and play are easily understood, and it’s actively recommended you try it on easy until you’re comfortable with the idea of extra handicaps. But this, honestly, isn’t the most interesting part of it to me. And I feel that was the intention.

What was interesting, to me, was the discoveries, and the narrative. I did say it was nuanced, and I stand by that. Alex is latino. Other characters are folks of colour. Rebecaa and Isaac are… Well, they’re white, and, since their motives can differ from playthrough to playthrough, you don’t notice, at first, what kind of radicals they both are. Because, for the early game at least, they’re emphasising that this is their home, their paradise in which they’ll show America that they are wrong, and that they are right. And they’ll mention injustices, historically accurate ones, from gripes to serious matters.

It’s a big community, and… Well, there’s a lot to rummage through. Sometimes to the point of padding.

And the people walking around, the wooden huts, the rural life… At first, it all seems so bright and cozy, with the exception of, you know, people shooting you when you’re detected, then locking you in an increasingly difficult to escape situation each time, with one of the cult leaders telling you that your imperialist ways won’t stop them, that no-one can stop them. And they are convincing, full of fire and brimstone when it comes to enemies, sweet and caring (at first) for their devotees. When you find Alex, no matter who you were sent to consult who is at least neutral to your presence, he’ll tell you that the cult, genuinely helped him, emotionally and physically, out of a bad situation, and he’ll even be confused by the fact his family is looking for him, considering they had previously ostracised him.

But, the more you explore, the longer it goes on, and… You start noticing there’s trouble in paradise. Alex may tell you that food is scarce, and others who let you talk to them may also tell you troubling things (Or they’ll deny that there is a problem, because the cult had, seemingly, genuinely done good things for some of its members.) But this is a cult with guns, and firing ranges. Sometimes (often) you’ll come across corporal punishments and shaming, from a public haranguing session, all the way to people being stoned and locked in cages. There are relatively few farms, relatively few people fishing.

Such as this… Or caged people… Or… Well, there’s quite a few sights that let you know that something is definitely badly wrong…

And, over time, the tone of the respective cult leaders… Changes. In the playthrough where I’d gotten the furthest (Yes, you can, once you’ve found Alex, just book it, but I didn’t take that option once), Isaac started sounding more tired, talking like a divorced husband trying not to let the children know how bad the fights had gotten, while Rebecca… Her fire and brimstone tone got louder, talking about her allies in the South American military, and more emphasis on not being stopped. Even the documents, scattered around, show that this paradise is rotten to the core, unbeknownst to its members who form the peel.

But even when I met Isaac, snuck into his home base (notably, separated from Rebecca’s), he was loudly denouncing me as an enemy, someone who would murder him, kill his great dream… Even as I just… Stood there. Hell, I don’t think I even had a gun, at that point. And this was jarring, until I realised… Oh. Yeah. To him, I’m the Great Satan, aren’t I? No matter what I do, I want to take away one of his flock, and see what’s really going on, and that’s anathema to him. Well, shit.

…And then it outright tells you what you’ve already worked out (to an extent.)

Now, in the interest of balance, I will say this is probably one I want to come back to, not just because I find the narrative as presented so far interesting and pretty well presented, but because I want to see if it stays that way. It isn’t the easiest to sneak around, and I have to do a lot of sneaking around, with the rare villagers’ clothing not being as big a help as you’d think. Which, again, makes mechanical sense, as everyone here knows each other. Clothes or no, get close enough, and they’ll recognise you as an outsider, as other.

But, overall, I feel it goes interesting places, and I do want to explore its multiple motivations, its multiple potential endings. And that’s a good sign.

The Mad Welshman believes in giving interesting narrative its fair due. And there’s… A lot to unpack here.

Become a Patron!

Astrologaster (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the 16th Century. Such a wondrous age, full of poets, of doctors finally starting to learn what the heck they’re on about, and, of course, the Plague. It is a wondrous age to which our dear leaders wish us to return, in the hope that perhaps the Empire might also coincidentally rise again.

Ah, the British Empire, such a place of tolerance and… Oh. Yeah, it was kind of an exploitative hateful shitpile. I almost forgot. ALMOST.

Speaking of quacks… Astrologaster is a comedic tragedy, in the form of speechcraft and song (Often Madrigals) about a “Doctor” who used Astrology as his form of diagnosis, one Simon Forman. And, to be fair, he is a fitting subject, for he was tangenitally involved with… Well, a lot of London life of the period. The game takes liberties, but it does so to introduce quite a few other major players of the period, such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle, the Dean of Rochester, Thomas Blague (and his wife Alice), and Emilia Lanier, a poet, and suspected to have been the Dark Lady of William Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-154.

Yes, knowing this period of history helps with some of the jokes. But by no means all, for nearly everyone is mercilessly riffed on, excepting some folks whose lives… Really didn’t deserve that much mockery. In any case, a fair warning, the game does end rather suddenly, and the reason for this is that the good “Doctor” ended… Rather suddenly. But the aim is, through astrology (Or, more accurately, through a cunning combination of actually divining what’s wrong, and telling people what they want to hear), to diagnose folks’ complaints.

Ah, Dean Blague… Maybe one day you’ll make a sound investme-AHAHAHA I CAN’T FINISH THAT SENTENCE.

It’s very clear, in the sense that you know what’s what, even if the diagnoses are sometimes… Difficult, and the picturebook aesthetic works well. Where it really shines, though, is the aforementioned voice acting and singing. Jo Ashe does an excellent job of playing concerned wife Emma Sharpe (how do her older husbands keep dying on her?), for example, and the songs about Thomas Blague are wonderful examples of a new musical art form I would like to call “Getting owned by the Church Chorus.”

It’s… Honestly kind of hard to write about the charm of Astrologaster without either going on a history lecture, spoiling the results of some choices, or both, but… History buffs will get several laughs (and knowing nods), most folks will have a charming experience and quite a few laughs, and, overall… Yup, I like Astrologaster.

Astrologaster: Latest winner of the “NOT WHILE I’M [splutter] DRINKING COFFEE!” award.

I cannot really Madrigal, but Iamb good with that Pentameter. Honest.

Become a Patron!

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99 (£19.96 w/soundtrack, Soundtrack £7.19)
Where To Get It: Steam

History often ignores the smaller stories. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t tell some of them, but they can often get missed, in the grand tides of nations, governments, and movements. And yet, stories are one of the main ways in which we shape our lives, and those of others. Here’s the Engine that was Naughty. Here’s the story of how tragedy turned to comedy with old Uncle Jimmy. Here’s the story of how This Person Is Weird, Stay Away. Not that all stories are trustworthy, of course, it’s as much the teller as the tale. And stories, passed around, grow in the telling.

Hoo boy… This hand has a story attached to it, y’know… Which is why I got a baaaad feelin’ , son…

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is, in one sense, the story of the Skeletal Hobo, and his Service to the Devil-As-Wolf. In another, it’s a collection of vignettes, short stories that paint a picture of life in America’s Great Depression. In a third, it’s a story… About stories, and how much we want to hear them.

To describe it mechanically, amusingly, strips some of the mystique away: You walk, often slowly, sometimes quicker if you whistle, across America. Travelling from place to place, collecting and telling stories. Sometimes, you influence them a little, by taking part in them, and along the way, you hear the bigger stories, hunting down characters to tell them the stories you’ve heard, to share enough of a connection that they open up to you, and finish their own stories. Hear all the stories, spread enough of them around, and you’re done.

The pace of the game is sometimes slow between stories, although recent patches have improved this somewhat with better rail and bus travel the further you get, and the mementoes from completed stories allow you to fast travel. Some have said this slow pace is a detraction from the game, but honestly? I like it somewhat slow. It fits the mood of the character, where whistling a merry tune quite literally speeds your travel somewhat. Nonetheless, the option is there, and it adds a little extra choice for those who want to play through quickly, rather than savouring, remembering, and thinking over the stories as you walk.

Some of the stories may seem tall tales, it’s true… But hey, you lived ’em, so you know best, right?

…What was the deal with that white deer? Was there anything I could have done? Ohhh, that poor vet, come home with no reward save the cold road, and what reward is that? The kids these days, and that woman, I do hope she’s alright, and not dead like the tales suggest… Maybe I should swing back that way, see what’s up with that, when I have a spare moment from this grave and onerous task? Ah well, the road lies ahead, and it isn’t gonna get any shorter from me thinking about it.

Time to hunt down the next tale, be it tall or short…

As y’can see, friend, got a ways to go for the next tale to gather. Hand me that flask, and let’s sing a lil’ tune as we go, eh?

The Mad Welshman would like to note that the game’s editor, Laura Michet, has written a detailed post-mortem of the game, available here. It’s an interesting read.

Become a Patron!

Shadowhand (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the noble highwaypeople, secretly nobles or derring doers! Oh, wait, no, that wasn’t quite the way it went, generally speaking. But there is a vast literary tradition of the noble turned criminal for Good Deeds, and this, generally speaking, is what Shadowhand is about. Also Solitaire.

See? Corruption. ‘Sright there, and we’re gonna fight it, as Lady Cornelia Darkmoor, aka… SHADOWHAND.

Shadowhand is an odd mix, and one I’ve only seen occasionally in the past: A solitaire game, with RPG progression, inventory, and special abilities, and, because RPGs do, generally speaking, need a story, a story about a noblewoman who, at first, dons a highwayman’s costume to find her maidservant, but then gets drawn into deep intrigue, fraternising with the criminal element, mystical ladies in caravans, and grave-robbing, to name but a few moments.

However, enjoyment of the game will really, really depend on how much you like Solitaire, that card game of trying desperately to beat random chance by putting a card 1 higher or lower than the card you have drawn into the deck until there are either no cards left in the layout (Go you, you won!) , or no cards left in the deck (Aw, boo, you lost!) Because it is very much the core mechanic here. There are elements that make it easier, harder, or more interesting in those aforementioned RPG elements, like Luck, a double edged stat that presents a percentage chance of any move you make getting rid of a second, random card that you could have picked, but it remains a little bit chancy that any layout is solvable.

That’s less of an issue with combat, as combat is effectively “Try to get chains while preventing your opponent getting chains, so you can wallop them harder than they wallop you.” A thing which becomes more of an issue when the hit-points and defense keep going up, the weapon damage keeps going up, and when a chain really hits, it hits… Either way. Attacking ends a turn, but that, also, becomes a consideration when items that give extra turns, or punish you with bleeding for taking your turn come into play.

This, er… Fine gentleman managed to get me to hit the retry button something like 4 times. This was near the end of the second.

So… There’s depth to this whole Solitaire shebang, but it’s depth that becomes rather frustrating early on. Yes, okay, I can infinitely retry pretty much any segment of a chapter until I ace it. But, the further I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been hitting that retry button (and, occasionally, taking advantage of the bit I’m thankful for, being able to change my equipment before I actually start each combat, search, or gimmick level.)

You might be thinking, at this point, “Wow, he really doesn’t like this!” Not… Exactly. What I’m trying to get across here is that, yes, it’s a solitaire game with depth, some nice, relatively static visuals (Combat has short animations, and cards have short animations, but character dialogue is the static image of a character and textbox we know and love from Visual Novels and the like), some okay music (It fits the theme, it doesn’t get in the way, but it’s not terribly memorable, either), and a story (Which we’ll come back to in a second), but Solitaire, however it’s dressed up, given depth, or the like, remains a game that frustrates the hell out of even those of us who enjoy Solitaire from time to time.

Which, finally, brings us to the story, such as it is. It is not, strictly speaking, a bad story in the broad strokes. In fact, it’s one we’ve heard a few times: A noble accidentally ends up a highwayperson, finds some corruption (In this case, her family fortune is being embezzled in some larger scheme), and decides to lead a dual life in order to halt this corruption. It’s mainly that, as sometimes happens, the story takes a backseat to the game, and the tone of the story thus suffers. Oh no, dark deeds are afoot in the graveyard, and our heroine must find a treasure map by graverobbing, while also defeating Thug, Other Thug, and the boss of the area, mean ol’ gravekeeper Doug Hole! This is kind of a shame, as, like I said, the broad strokes are the bones of a good yarn. But it’s a yarn that doesn’t flow, tonewise or in terms of pacing, and that makes me kind of sad.

Never let it be said that Lady Shadowhand doesn’t take advantage of the finest of the Regency Roguery line!

Overall, as I’ve pretty much been saying the whole time, it really depends on how much you like Solitaire, whether you like this or not. If you accept Solitaire’s flaws for what they are, then you have a perfectly fine Solitaire game that adds depth to the basic formula, wraps a story around it, and has some interesting additions. Myself, I’m not that big a fan, so I only see myself coming occasionally back to this.

The Mad Welshman would like you to step down from the carriage gently and hand over your valuables. He also thanks you for your custom.

Become a Patron!