Where to Get It: Steam
At first, I had mixed impressions. A beautiful piano piece on the one hand, not making it clear the drawers are the menu, and the key the options on the other.
The piano remains good. And the opening crawl… Don’t let it put you off. Yes, it’s all text, but being that fits. Toma has no good pictures for this. Why should she, when she feels off, isolated, and feeling like her core, her identity, was stolen via the simple fact her aunt named her baby with Toma’s mother’s desired name for her daughter. And it’s affected her self esteem, to the point where she, a beautiful young lady (and she is) feels plain, weird, uncomfortable to be around.
A kinetic novel (where one doesn’t choose, but simply experiences the story), it revolves around two people, both young: Toma and Emmeline, and the fateful meeting they have in a graveyard. And it’s an emotional ride, where I found myself tearing up at one phrase early on:
“Every person has a story, and there is not enough space on a single tombstone to say it.”
But the story is told, and I teared up several times. That, in and of itself, says a lot. I sometimes tear up at the weirdest things (Like the SST arrange of Space Harrier, of all things. No idea why), but I don’t often do it overall…
But Toma’s story, and Emmeline’s struck a chord. They both loved a girl, and, in the end, they both got the relationships they wanted, and resolved, at least partly, the histories that plagued them.
You’d think that was a massive spoiler, but no. The details matter. The very British nature of the game matters, the small things matter. Just like a light brush of the hand, or a stammered set of words.
The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns is free, is hella gay, and it made me almost cry. If you want that experience, and don’t mind it being a kinetic novel… Go give it a go.
Oh, and the gallery is in the book, and the music box’s function is obvious.
And so we close our tale, the biscuits and milk all eaten, the night drawing in. Sweet dreams, one and all…
Price: £49.99 (Plus artbook £3.99, and some item DLC, ho-hum)
Where To Get It: Steam
Step based RPGs (A first person style of RPG where you move in discrete steps, hence the name) are, when done well, a delight. When they have an interesting world, some interesting gimmicks, good balance, and well written characters, I’m happy.
So it was pretty pleasing to come across Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. Which has all of these, and a little more.
The general idea, at least at the start (There are, of course, twists. Big ones) is that an asshole witch is looking for a gateway to the land of the dead, found in a dungeon complex, deadly to humans because of its Miasma (a supernatural fog), inside a well in a small town. Ah, okay, not a protagonist you can sympathise with, huh?
Well… It’s a little more complicated than that. But still… The story gets interesting quick (Although there is some content warning worthy stuff, like an encounter where a priestess presumably forcibly gets it on with the witch protagonist (played for laughs, but I winced), and, naturally, death. Lots of death, for reasons which become clear as you play.
As to the game? Well, the simplest way I could put it is “It’s one of the closest things to Etrian Odyssey we’re going to get on PC until Atlus puts Etrian Odyssey on PC”, but that would, honestly, be reductive. It’s a step based RPG, with automapping, and, shortly into the game, knowledge of where the enemies are. This is useful, because, in the case of enemies early in the dungeon, once you’ve levelled to the point they’re absolutely no problem at all, it’s best to avoid the tedium (and there are reasons to go back to level 1, although, fair warning, don’t do it early.
However, it’s not always useful, as, for example, there’s an area in one of the first proper dungeons where you’re trapped in an area with several rocky bastards (do not bring fire element attacks to this fight, you will die horribly), with a high ambush rate, and so, unless you know beforehand that it’s there, you’re going to have a nasty surprise.
And death, itself, can be a nasty surprise. After all, your adventurers aren’t the witch and company. They’re puppets, magical dolls imbued with souls of adventurers gone by, and, if they die, or if a special attack to break their parts hits, and does its job (like many status attacks, it doesn’t always), well, their effectiveness is lessened until you get back home, and repair those parts… If you have the resources. Higher level dolls need higher level parts.
I like this. I like the class system. I like the way parts of the game’s mechanics are unveiled slowly, from mapping, to enemy sight and ambushing, to villager quests, better dolls, checkpoints, shops… And I love the aesthetic. Good music, great voice acting, interesting enemy and character designs for this weird, dark world, and a clear UX. My only problem is that sometimes, the path forward is distinctly unclear. Oh, I have to threaten this lady? I have to say no to the statue which turns out to be a bit bonkers? Ah… This was less than clear, game.
But, overall, Labyrinth of Refrain is a solid RPG experience, and I like it quite a lot.
The Mad Welshman does love him some Etrian Odyssey style shenanigans. It’s such a shame that firstly, Etrian Odyssey isn’t on PC, and secondly, experiences like it are a gamble, pleasure wise…
Price: £29.99 (And a whole buttload of DLC, totalling £71.)
Where To Get It: Steam
I loved Darius when I was young. It was a great example of the imaginative boss design of shmups, along with Xenon 2’s bosses. An evil empire that has a design theme of fishes, crabs, and cephalopods for its giant boss ships? Oh. Hell. Yes. It helps that the series has had one hell of a soundtrack, and it’s been alright on the difficulty for a shmup.
So, once again, the Belsar have invaded, with their fish-like ships, and it’s up to the elite Silverhawks to scramble to save the day. Go save the day, hero!
Bam. Plot done. Let’s talk about the game. Like earlier titles in the series, it’s split up into various routes, although, unlike previous entries, there’s a single main route, and side routes. What makes this one interesting is that you can unlock ships from throughout the series (and, with DLC, play ships from other properties, including the jetpack cannon funtimes of the Space Harrier protagonist), and play with those… Although you’ll get a chance to try out most of them in any case, some of which have unique tricks, and all of whom have at least one different element. Each mission is split up into at least two stages, often with multiple boss fights against memorable ships (the same models, such as King Fossil or Mirage Castle, have appeared pretty much throughout the series, so returning players know most of what to expect.)
Missions also have mutators from the base of “All types of powerup, your special weapon charges from killing enemies”, such as limited or no drops, or your special weapon automatically charging (You’d think this was a godsend, but no, the challenge usually matches that mutator.) Beating each stage earns you a proportion of the score as points to purchase ships (Ships from later in the series, such as the Murukamo, require a lot of points, so if you really, really want to play those early, expect to grind the earlier missions a lot), and to spend on, if you choose to use a custom ship, powering them up for the mission (just using them is free, but if the mission has a no-powerup mutator, you really want to power them up appropriately, or better, than the preset ship you’re given)
When it comes to soundtrack, it’s great. The music, as mentioned, has been strong through most of the series, and this one is no exception. Visually, it works well, ships with powerups being denoted with strong, saturated colours, and foreground elements you could conceivably smash your ship against more saturated and brighter than the background, as it should be. The UX is clear, the sound is good (although, fair warning, if you’re using one of the older ships, it uses similar sound effects to the games they’re from, and changes the soundtrack in some places. They’re still powerful, so, er… Don’t discount them, even if chiptunes and beepy pew-pews aren’t your thing.)
It does get difficult somewhat early, due to some of the bosses having revenge bullets, a boatload of health, and some nasty attacks, but it plays very smoothly for what it is (a port of a PSP game), it’s a good shmup with a great soundtrack… My only critique is that there’s no english language version of the special guidebook you can get as DLC. I’d love to read that. Ship DLC is pretty cheap individually, and there’s certainly enough playtime that you won’t feel the need to play with those until you’ve finished the main game. Oh, and let’s not forget that it has both Arcade and Story modes (The mission route mode I’ve spent most of this review talking about), remote play, and Chronicle Mode, an interesting mode where there are 3000+ worlds on a “cabinet” that you share with other players online.
So… It comes highly recommended as a shmup which, while it gets bullet helly fairly quickly, is interesting, cool, and with a great soundtrack!
The Mad Welshman loves the inventive shooters, with the interesting boss designs. Don’t give me boring old “Ships, but big.” Give me things that make me say “Omigod, this is a thing I want to share!”