Mystic Pillars (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £5.19
Where To Get It: Steam

Counting games, such as games from the Mancala family, are quite interesting. Often seen as games representative of sowing and harvest, a common objective is to lay seeds from one pool, to another set as far away as the number of seeds you have away, dropping a single seed in each hole along the way, and then capture seeds from the next pool over. It’s a game of strategy. And it fits, because Mystic Pillars is a puzzle game where there is a great drought, caused by a spirit who has summoned pillars blocking the river.

He gets a little friendlier. But yes, he is both the storyteller… And the antagonist.

And while you don’t precisely do it like Mancala style games (Ali Guli Mane, or Chenne Mane is the cited inspiration), the general principle to the puzzle is similar: You’re taking from one pillar of seeds to another, and if you go 1 space away, you place 1 seed from the first to the second, if you move 2 spaces, 2 seeds… There are up to 10 spaces on each pillar, and so… You have a logic puzzle.

And, as with any good puzzle game, when I understood the solution of a difficult puzzle, I had that “Ahaaaaa!” moment, that pleasure of figuring it all out. That, alone, would be a recommendation.

But it also engages me with its story. A story of a traveller, seeking to return the flow of the river in the kingdom of Zampi, while a tricksy spirit tells you how it came to pass that the kingdom fell in the first place. I enjoyed it, as I did the clear, beautiful aesthetic of the game. As I did how the move limit is exactly what you need, no more, no less. And how there’s no pressure to solve, even though many of the puzzles are, within only a few experiments, solvable fairly easily.

When you get that “AHA” moment, it’s pretty sweet.

It’s not a long game, by any means. But it’s an enjoyable one, with a story I had fun reading, puzzles that gave my little grey cells a pleasing workout, and, as another game that does what it says on the tin… If you like puzzles, this one may well be a pleasant pick for you.

The Mad Welshman is more of a fan of Sennet. But he still appreciates this game.

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Hidden Through Time (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £5.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Hidden object games, when they’re purely hidden object games, are normally extremely my jam, not least because they seem like a bit of a lost art.

Only a gem, and a feather left. Ohhh, Horus is gonna be annoyed if I don’t find his feather…

Hidden Through Time, while it definitely has its good points… Also misses the point enough times that although I’ve completed it, I find myself with mixed feelings. And some eyestrain.

Let’s get the obvious, glaring flaw out of the way right now: There are a fair few objects and people… Who are more than 75% obscured, or hidden in colour identical (or nearly identical) areas. Yes, developers. You want people to have a hardish time, explore your lovingly crafted scenes to find those objects… But if it’s more than 25% obscured, especially if, for example, it’s a thin god-damn thing to start with (Hi, nearly every instance of the mace I saw!), it’s going to irritate people when they find it, even if it is the only instance of the object around. The mace, as the most irritating example I remember, could have been put out in the open. There’s enough visual confusion that it would still be missed on a cursory pass, believe me. Otherwise, that full view of the object in the hints, regardless of what clue you give? Useless to me, or any other player. I got those through sheer bloody mindedness. And no, the outlines don’t actually help with the smaller items. In the case of the smallest items, it makes them harder to identify.

AAAAARGH, NO, PLEASE DON’T. IT’S TINY ENOUGH AS IS!

Rant over. Now let’s get on with nice things. Aesthetically, it’s quite nice. The clue boxes themselves are clear, there’s a nice, simplistic style, which, with the exception of the small, fiddly objects, works for it… And there’s a fairly easy to learn editor, allowing you to set your own objectives and clues, and for others to play those online, nice! It is somewhat irritating that some objects you’d consider rather common, like skeletons (Let’s face it, skeletons in games are really common) are restricted to the age they’re first found in, but that’s, honestly, a minor niggle in the face of things. Music wise, it doesn’t wear out its welcome, although it’s not really memorable stuff.

Scenario wise, I do somewhat like the story mode’s stories, for the most part. The stone age stuff is very reminiscent of both the Flintstones and old children’s puzzle books, which would also sometimes have things like “What if a zoo, but stone age?” , or little touches like the builders in the egyptian setting leaving their tools back at the workplace, or dropping them, or accidentally breaking the pillar they’ve built… These are nice touches, and they definitely helped bring things back from irritation with the negative aspects of the design, to the more positive end of things.

Mmm, well do I remember the tribal moshpit. Rock banging solo went on forever, though!

So, overall, Hidden Through Time is flawed, but it’s still a game that doesn’t outstay its welcome, that allows replayability through creation, has at least an accessible UX (Alas, a lack of colourblindness support, and the aforementioned eyestrain inducement of finding the tinier, skinnier things loses this one accessibility points), and is, overall, a hidden object game to definitely try. You’ll find out pretty quickly if this one’s a turn-off for you.

The Mad Welshman has found everything. Except his mind.

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Voxelgram (Going Back)

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

Voxelgram is an interesting beast. A 3D Nonagram, or Picross game, where the objective is to take the clues of row, column, and… Other row? Yes, that works… Anyway, to take the contextual clues on the relevant axes of “(maybe a gap) Number (gap of at least 1) Number, etcetera”, until you have a shape that, when coloured, creates an object or scene. In this case, it’s all objects, but this is the general idea.

A fine example of a relatively simple puzzle.

But it differs in a few aspects beyond the obvious “In 3D.” Aspects that work, but may at first annoy. And they work precisely because the puzzles are designed around them. For example, that explanation of the clue format? Untrue in this case. Instead, it’s “Number [number of gaps].” It doesn’t specify the gap length, just as a normal Picross puzzle doesn’t… It simply rephrases the format in a way that makes it a little more difficult to decipher, needing more clues to be placed. Similarly, instead of the usual “maybe, yes, no” options, there’s marking blocks and deleting blocks (the yes and no), and… Putting blocks on other blocks, effectively a means of erasing mistakes. And again, this pretty much works because you’re not marking blocks as wrong or right: You’re deleting them.

This proved to be one of the more difficult puzzles I came across.

And finally, there’s the layering system. You can rotate the puzzle fairly easily, and, since the puzzle clues are written on the cubes themselves, rotating doesn’t make things awkward. What takes a tiny bit of getting used to, however, is switching between layers. It’ll always pick the frontmost side, and when you change sides, the entire slice resets before you go through the layers from that direction. Just like every mechanical change in the game, it makes sense in the context, but takes a little getting used to.

Aesthetically, it’s visually clear, with only the gap number being a little small (but only a little), the dioramas look nice when they’re done, and the solemn piano music (with the occasional small choir) gives it this odd, melancholy vibe. This is an unfinished world. Why don’t you finish it?

So it’s interesting. It doesn’t have a lot, but it does a fair bit with it. So, do I have any gripes?

ARGH! Until a friend helped me out, this one enraged me.

Well, yes. The puzzles vary quite widely in difficulty. There are a few real posers early on, and then… A diorama or two later, it’s a series of easy puzzles, every clue leading very clearly to its conclusion. Which, honestly, feels odd to say considering this is the ideal state of a puzzle of this nature, but it feels oddly… Unsatisfying.

Does this mean I don’t recommend it? Well, no, I do recommend it. Because it makes for a relatively relaxing time, Picross puzzle wise. And there’s at least one less than obvious quality of life feature: For all that it looks like you can go outside of a row or column if you unwisely mouse over another part of the puzzle, it doesn’t actually let you. Makes life easier when deleting blocks. And finally, a word of caution that may apply only to me… Every time I did the tutorial, it erased my progress when I restarted the game. An odd bug, but a minor one where the solution is, essentially, to do the tutorial for the achievement, quit, then start with the diorama puzzles, and never touch the tutorial again.

3D Picross is an interesting deal. And I hope we see more of it, over time.

5 4 3… The Mad Welshman didn’t want to make a puzzle… He just wanted to say out loud a row or column from a Picross puzzle. He doesn’t need a reason.

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Murder By Numbers (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.99 (Soundtrack £6.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

Murder By Numbers is a great Picross Murder Mystery Visual Novel… In which, oddly enough, the Picross is the weakest part. Not terrible, by any means… But it is missing some quality of life stuff that somewhat baffles. But let’s talk about the good, first, since, as mentioned, the Picross part isn’t awful.

This is, er… It’s… I’ll get back to you… (It’s a phone receiver. But the coloured version is only somewhat clearer)

The good is… A lot of the rest. Let me start by saying that this is the first game in a long while I’ve encountered who actually understands what makes a good Saturday Morning style theme. And the rest of the music is great, slipping into its mood, and, just as importantly, humorously cutting off a triumphant theme when whoops… Moment ruined. It’s a little touch, but it’s a good one.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic. Big, clear icons, with the eye being led to the two less obtrusive ones. Large sans serif fonts. White borders around the characters, adding a note of differentation between the styles of the foreground and background, that helps cut down on any minor style dissonance… It’s good work, being both visually appealing and clear.

Becky. Being a badass.

And the writing. For example, I hated Becky at first. She’s a diva with a temper, and she seems oblivious to the feelings of those around her as she storms and lashes about. But she gets nuance. I started to empathise. The characters each get their spotlight, potential motives for characters dying becomes clear, and the murderers… Well, I can perfectly understand why comparisons to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney have been made. When the killer loses it… They lose it. And it’s your guide to when you’re on the right track, although the clues do connect the dots well, even toward the red herring paths you’re meant to go down, before the real culprit is found. Nice touch, that, and it shows the developers know their murder mysteries, because I couldn’t find wasted foreshadowing or hinting. What I’m getting at is, it’s well written, and I love that.

That… Yes, case in point.

So… The Picross element. If this were great, it would be the cherry on the cake, considering it was a core advertising element. And it isn’t, to make this clear, bad, although snobs of this genre of the puzzle like myself may feel uncomfortable with it. And it is, apart from finished sprites that sometimes seem less than clear, mostly to do with little things we’ve come to expect. Like being held within a row or column if we’re moving down that column. Or a restart puzzle button in easy reach. Or maybes being turned into either crosses or pixels, instead of just being erased. Little things that merely make it… Alright, verging on good. Thankfully, they’re things that are fixable, for the most part. And they do, to be fair, ease you in. Although in the later cases, it can merely look like they’re easing you in, instead posing you a devious one in less space than you’d think you can be devious. Save before you investigate, and after each puzzle. You’ll thank yourself later.

The characters get so expressive! Also… NEEEEEERD!

It is a shame that a core element isn’t great, but, as noted, these are fixable problems, and the rest of the game is otherwise great. As such, it gets a recommendation, with the caveat that, until the aforementioned Picross Problems (heh) are sorted, folks like me who play a lot of such games are going to be grinding their teeth.

The Mad Welshman played the theme tune no less than thirty times in a row while writing this.

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Picto Quest (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £5.79
Where To Get It: Steam

Nonagrams, or Picross, as they are often called, are a favourite puzzle type of mine. Their solve methods, the hemming and hawing about placement, the desire to not fuck up, because who knows what interesting pixellated picture might result!

So, at first, I was a little wary of PictoQuest, because it promised to be a Picross RPG, and… How? How would that work? Well, as it turns out, I still don’t really have an answer, because while PictoQuest has RPG stylings… It’s essentially Picross puzzles, most timed, with some abilities, a limited inventory system for those abilities, and a lick of paint over it. The closest it really comes is in boss battles, where the bosses have the ability to affect the board.

I mean, you collect pixel-art, Moonface. Why would you not want to discuss why this is such a cool artform with a lot more nuance and variation than the average joe on the street appreciates?

Now, I’m going to make it clear that this isn’t a bad thing, although the bosses affecting the board may not be to your taste. The monsters look very pretty, the chests and shop look very pretty, the world, and having fast travel between areas… That’s nice. Aesthetically, it’s clear, it’s cool, I like it, from the cutesy visuals to the enemy designs to the music. Mechanically… Well, it’s honestly hard as hell to screw up Picross, although there are some minor gripes I’ll get to. And the purchasable abilities do help when there’s a monster involved, as the ice blast essentially freezes their attack timer for a few seconds, perhaps giving you time to wallop them but good by completing a row or column, or, in the case of the fire powerup, reveal the contents of a row and a column, briefly. So they’re nice, but… Not really sure if it’s an RPG per se… Well, it does have grinding earlier levels for coin to buy abilities, so… I guess that’s somewhat RPGish…

Poor rock man. He’s only defended by a 10×10 grid.

Anyway, that aside, it looks good, it sounds good, it’s PICROSS, so what can I gripe about? Well, slightly sticky controls and an awkward means of accessing your inventory, for a start. Draw a line across a row or column, and, if you’re too quick, it might not register it all. It might not register the first tile if it’s feeling finicky, as it does sometimes, and the inventory… Well, you can only access it in battle, with I and then clicking on whatever doohickey you’re going to use, and there’s consequently no way to drop items that I’ve seen.

Finally, there’s my personal bane: Single save. As I’m writing, I’m preparing to stream this, and I’m grimacing, because there’s already spoilers, and once I’ve completed those 100 puzzles (plus some change), well… What then?

Clearly, this is a giraffe. There’s no other possible interpretation…

These are, overall though, not enough gripes to really not recommend it. It’s a Picross game, it’s got a good aesthetic, it does have some thought needing to be put in beyond the puzzles (attacking an enemy also knocks back their attack timer, and, y’know, bosses), and it’s fun. Good enough for me!

The Mad Welshman doesn’t have a lot to say today. He’s not feeling too well.

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