Monster Sanctuary (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam

For me, Monster Sanctuary is a bit of an odd experience. It is, by no means, a bad game, a metroidvania combined with the monster raising and fighting type games many of us love so much. Its skill trees, balance, and difficulty curve appear pretty solid, and I like its pixel art designs.

So it’s bugging the hell out of me that I’m not terribly enthused with it, and can’t work out why.

Monsters, some tame, some not, protag, got it, I know where I stand!

It’s certainly not the thinnish story, or the obvious gamey unlocks of features based on progression. I’m used to those, and honestly, it’s not that big a deal. You want to be the very best Monster Tamer, bad things are happening, and you work in an organisation, so it’s all good there.

The grind, similarly, isn’t bad. After all, monsters in the line share XP, so if you’re in need of seriously levelling someone up, you can put them as a reserve, beat up some lower level monsters, and don’t put them in the frontlines until they’re needed. And, of course, monsters are the level you catch them at.

It’s some solid visrep of combat, and a clear UX too.

Even the combat is engaging, because it’s this balancing act of factors. Do you put a monster in the very front, where it won’t do as much damage, but it’ll rack up combos for the monsters after it? Do you use a powerful ability, or tone it down and do less damage, because the powerful version outstrips the mana regeneration that monster currently has? Adding to this, you can see the types of monsters in a group (and they are, apart from uniques, always in a group), and plan accordingly, looking at your monster journal for weaknesses, coming up with a plan for the following encounter.

So, the systems fit pretty well together, with multiple elements to play with, multiple different roles, and the fact that even healing will add to a combo helps you keep the flow going with a healer role in the party. Moving around isn’t bad, especially since different monsters have different abilities you can use in the world, from breaking open inaccessible areas, to mobility improvements…

An example of this would be the bird. Poor bird, he has to carry the protag. Can’t do it for too long, but it’s enough.

It’s a solid game. And yet… I had trouble keeping my enthusiasm going, and I don’t particularly know why. There’s still time to work it out. There’s still time to change my mind, or have my mind changed by some update or another. And it’s a solid mix of platformer and turn-based monster taming RPG. It just… Doesn’t really grab me right now.

The Mad Welshman hates not knowing why he doesn’t get on with a thing. Normally he’s much better than that.

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The Inner Friend (Going Back)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, Carl Jung and David Lynch. One an odd student of Sigmund Freud’s, whose theory of the Shadow (the unconscious, unknown part of ourselves, which we both strive against and come to acknowledge) inspired quite a few dream based media. One a film-maker well known for his surrealism, and, of course, Twin Peaks. Which, itself, inspired Stranger Things, and that last part, as well as elements of the soundtrack to the game showing similarities, is why, if you watch a Let’s Play of this game, Stranger Things gets mentioned. It’s the most recent thing someone can point to that it’s “Like.”

YOU! YES, YOU! STAND STILL, LADDIE!

So, The Inner Friend is a puzzle game with horror elements, because what the protagonist (depicted as broken and incomplete) deals with is fears. Traumas in surreal, dream-like form. School, where the teachers can seem like monsters, and the books and educational television shows seem to drain our life. A museum, symbolic of our anxious and self critical nature, our damaged nature for all the world to gawk at, while our damaged self scans and finds wanting… Our damaged self.

Of course, these are just interpretations. That’s the thing about symbolic representations in a surrealist dreamscape… But the facts that they are a dreamscape, and they are the products of someone in pain, trying to comfort their Shadow… To acknowledge them.

Oh, and let’s not forget the horror that is being reminded of Junji Ito’s “The Amigara Fault” in a symbolic unbirthing/rebirthing that happens before every dream dive.

However, part of a dream is not knowing the rules of the dream. So each area, while it has a single puzzle type you repeat a few times, is a different puzzle in each area. And the game does some interesting things. Despite being a linear experience, it gives that dreamlike illusion of nonlinearity by turning you back on yourself, making the path forward be the way you came, and giving you the impression that which lit window you take to the next world, which of the buildings twirling in the void you visit, even matters. All roads lead to the next dream. There is a second cutscene at the end if you collect all of the objects in each dream (Listen for the tinkles. Always listen for the tinkles), but its original ending still interests.

The music is good, the visuals are good, the soundscapes are bewildering (aka good) and, generally speaking, there’s clear hints leading you through what you’re meant to do, which is good. It even does some fun visual tricks in some areas, like the fish-eye lensing in the museum. Less good is that the camera can be a little wilful at times, that I experienced a hang on trying to enter the third dream (I got past it, but it is a bug I encountered), and… Well, not so much less good as an interesting choice is that it frontloads its more difficult puzzles early. By the time of the hospital, what you want to be doing is pretty well communicated.

A cold, sterile place to be displayed, this…

So, would I recommend it overall? Well, I’m a bit jaded on the horror front, so I can’t really say anything did more than somewhat unsettle me, and chase segments merely feel… Well, like chase segments. Try real hard to focus on the objective, don’t look at the gribbley, got it, done. But it definitely unsettles in places, and it is an interesting game, so, overall? Yeah, I’d recommend this. If you’re turned off by short games, yup, it’s pretty short, jog on, but if that isn’t a turnoff, and you find an hour or two of an interesting experience worth more than 30 hours of a bland one, then yes, this is an interesting experience.

The Mad Welshman can’t really say that he’s fully up on his Jungian Psychology. But he does enjoy some David Lynch.

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Lewd Leaf Land: Maple Tea Ecstasy (NSFW Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: $4.20 (Approximately £3.50, with the option to donate.)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

Content Warning: This is an adult only platformer.

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Piko Piko (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

This is, honestly, the first time a metroidvania has bewildered me. Not confused. Not a dislike. Just a sort of mild “Wha- What’s going on?” Part of that is that it throws you into the storyline quite quickly. Part of that is that it’s a colourful assault on the senses at times, especially during boss time… And partly… It’s confusing, and doesn’t currently tutorialise well.

The protagonist is only slightly less confused than I am. Although she does seem the Go with the Flow type.

So yes, this is the story of Piko, a Piko Piko hammer (A plastic whack-a-mole mallet with rubber ends) wielding girl and her fox friend, both students at the Blacksmith Academy, where… Oh no, the Great Blacksmith Hammer has been stolen, the school is in ruins, and Teacher has been framed! Piko and her friend must beat the everloving crap out of people, mostly fellow students, until they can get to the bottom of this!

No, really, that’s the premise behind this indie metroidvania type deal. You are a girl with a surprisingly whallopy plastic hammer, who goes around hammering things, and using her special abilities, to go from boss fight to boss fight, solving hammer and ability based puzzles, and gaining powerups along the way, in their quest to… Basically, find out what’s going on. And it’s here where we get into “Shows promise, needs work” territory. Let’s start with the visual.

In boss fights, whalloping enemies directly on the head is the best way to stun them. But it quickly becomes tough as nails.

On the plus side, it has a windowed mode, the UX is pretty clear, it looks pretty, and only a few enemies are hard to distinguish from the backdrop (mostly the leafy enemies.) On the downside, windowed mode is a little glitchy on the highest windowed resolution it has, not actually resizing the display, and, if you want over 1440 width, you might as well go full screen (or 760 and some change, if you want your window not to be 760 and some change with lots of blackspace.) The sound design is nice, some nice chunky noises, and a fair few cute ones too, and, if you expected character design to be cutesy with a side order of “The hell?” in the case of some of the bosses (Like the german third grader transfer student in a tank), then you’re doing well. Similarly, the maps have enough interest, and locations of interest, to be able to lead you around.

Now, here’s where it gets annoying. The keyboard layout is, in and of itself, not bad. But it’s not signposted. So you won’t know without experimenting that jumping, then holding down and jump, will do a very useful move: A slam. You’d think it would be, for example, down and X (attack on the keyboard), but… No. It’s jump, and, in midair, whether you double jumped or not, down and jump. It wasn’t until a second run through that I even noticed Piko had a jumping special attack on C, because C normally results in your partner throwing a drill.

The characters are also quite expressive.

Oh, and down and C is a slide, which I also didn’t know about. Perhaps you can see why this might be a problem. Options? Not really. Is the hammer slam useful? Yes. But this leads into another thing… The hammer slam is, inarguably, one of your best tools for stunning bosses, letting you get free hits in. It’s also a bitch to land. So… It’s somewhat obtuse, requires experimentation with the controls, and some of its more useful skills, while you have them early on, are hard to use.

Does that make it a bad game? No. Once I got into the swing of things, I beat a few bosses, explored quite a bit, had a lot of fun, and, as mentioned, beat the everloving crap out of lots of cutesy things with my hammer. I even explored the world quite a bit, although there doesn’t appear to be much of a reason to visit many areas (maybe I haven’t gotten far enough.) But it does make it exactly what it is: A work in progress, an Early Access game with some “Mileage May Vary” warning in there. If you’re looking for another pixel metroidvania fix, and don’t mind the game being a work in progress, it’s worth a shot. Otherwise, wait.

The Mad Welshman also has a hammer, but it is not a Piko Piko. It’s a rather large Lucerne, for henchfolk who displease him.

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Kelipot (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the story of Cain and Abel. Two bears, both proud warriors, and one of whom is… No, this is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain definitely tries to kill Abel… It’s just…

Okay, alright, this is one of those procgen not quite metroidvania type deals, where some abilities are kept between runs at a castle, and others are only used or obtained during that run. And yes, the story involves a bear named Abel, whose brother, Cain, appears to have been corrupted by something, something that seems to have corrupted others, as Abel finds out when he and a doggy merchant are thrown into a world between worlds. And wouldn’tcha know it, Abel accidentally has the key to those worlds!

Except he isn’t, but he is, but he isn’t… Look, parallel worlds are confusing, alright?

It’s not a bad premise, all told, and the writing sells that confusion, the questioning and hurt that comes from seeing people you know and love become twisted. It also creates some interesting characters, although some are more fleshed out than others. As in… It’s pretty much Abel and the Merchant who flesh out over time. From what I’ve seen so far, at least. As to the game? Well, there’s a fair bit that I like, and a couple of things I’m… Not so fond of. But hey, Early Access, things are subject to change, including my opinion.

So let’s begin with what I like. The character designs are pretty damn nice. For example, Abel is a soft boy, for being a warrior, and that’s thematically fitting. Yet he still animates well, and while the enemies aren’t pushed back by normal blows, there’s nonetheless strength and speed in the swings. The secondary abilities, the passives… Most of them feel like powerups. The enemies are an interesting mix, and, once I’d learned to spot certain traps, I appreciated the tension in certain layouts. The fact that only some items and abilities stay from run to run is less fun, but there’s some compensation in picking one of the special abilities you earn (by finding in-run abilities you haven’t collected yet) for an extra benefit, such as being able to damage foes by jumping on their heads, having better healing, and that sort of thing.

Individual rooms can be complex, or simple, but they are nearly all populated by things that can, want to, and might just kill you.

I am less appreciative of the keyboard controls. Just, overall. The defaults feel a little confusing, and even with rebinding them to something I’m used to, I have problems. Controller is recommended for this one folks.

And similarly… I’m not exactly having fun with the bosses. Damage in the game is brutal, and bosses can quite easily murder the heck out of you with just a few hits, which, on the one hand, is similar to the enemies… On the other, you have to get through the enemies to reach the boss, and, while I didn’t have a problem with this in, say, Dead Cells, I feel like I’m having more trouble here.

Despite this, do I recommend it, at the present stage? Yes. It’s showing a lot of promise, some solid writing, a good aesthetic, and hell, you might have a much easier time of the bosses than I am.

The Mad Welshman dislikes when he’s having a tough time of it. Just… Overall, to be honest.

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