Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (Going Back)

Source: Cashmoneys
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.

Madame Dronya, and her Resting Bitch Face.

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.

See that thing on the right? That thing on the right is going to ruin your day if you don’t prepare for lots of them.

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.

Oh, this poor swampy dryad…

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…

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Dariusburst: Chronicle Saviors (Going Back)

Source: Cashmoneys
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.

I would have shown screenshots of mowing down smaller enemies, but with only a few exceptions, that’s relatively quick, even if the waves are placed in such a way you move a lot.

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.)

Including this asshole. Ohhh, I’m sure many Darius players remember Thousand Bullets…

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.)

Oh wait, I did have a wave screenshot!

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!”

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My Magical Demon Lover (NSFW Going Back)

Content Warning: This game is M/M gay pairings, and has BDSM themes and subjects, including bondage, masochism, rough sex. The bad ending for Karn’s route involves murder of the protagonist.

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Lewd Leaf Land: Maple Tea Ecstasy (NSFW Going Back)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: $4 (Approximately £3 at time of writing)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

Content Warning: There is heterosexual sex between a deerman and a tanuki. That’s literally it, and it was good.

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A Brief Chat With Matt Phillips About Tanglewood (Interview)

As long time readers may know, I’m a big fan of learning from the older elements of game development history. So it was a little bit of a pleasure to have a brief chat with one of the creators of Tanglewood, Matt Phillips of Big Evil Corp, to get a glimpse of the kind of things you have to deal with when using a development kit from 1993, on a well known 16-bit system, to make a game in 2018.
TMW: As someone who grew up with older systems, it’s quite nice to see folks still making things for those older systems, what inspired you to go down that route?
 
The kid in me wouldn’t let it go – it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a 9 year old, proud Mega Drive owner. I also had access to a Commodore 64, so I was no stranger to the delights (and frustrations) of programming from an early age, and the dream never faded all the way through to adulthood.
 
TMW: There’s a lot that folks don’t really know about making games for older systems, so I’d like to start by indulging folks’ curiosity on creating a game for an older platform. Knowing that you were going to make Genesis cartridges, what sort of obstacles did you face, in the coding and hardware end?
 
The biggest problem we faced was that none of this old equipment works reliably any more. The devkit is from 1993, and parts fail on a regular basis. It’s quite frustrating when you’ve spent a few hours debugging a problem in the game, only to find out your code wasn’t at fault – it was another problem with the machine! When it works, it works BRILLIANTLY, though. I’ve yet to find a modern alternative that does such a good job.
 
Learning the language was a tough one, since resources for this kind of thing are few and far between these days. Further into development I started finding other 68000 programmers to talk to, and we struggled together to figure out some of the more intricate parts of the Mega Drive, and banded together to figure out optimisation issues.
 
TMW: Similarly, when building a game for an older system, there are limitations. What sort of things did you want to put in, but found wouldn’t really work?
 
The Mega Drive’s Achilles heel is its limited palette – it has 4 palettes of 16 colours, but three of those are reserved for transparency, so only 61 colours can be displayed on screen at any one time. Even worse, there are deeper rules about how those colours can be assigned to pixels, so we had to write a lot of tools to help arrange everything. Thankfully we found the right artists for the job, and they did most of the heavy lifting when it came to arranging colour usage.
 
Another issue is the slow CPU – although it certainly wasn’t at the time, the 68000 was a luxury compared to other consoles. There were a few things I had to cull in order for the game to run smoothly, the one that hurt the most was buoyancy on physics objects. Originally, Fuzzls could float on water, and would have been hilarious, but I had to rip it all out because it was only a gimmick and was very heavy on CPU usage.
 
TMW: Now, one of the hot button issues of the day is the games industry’s preservation (or lack thereof) … What would you, once the game’s reached the end of its sales life, like to do to preserve it for the future?
 
This is something I’ve thought a lot about, and I’d like to be the anti-corporation in all of this and release the game’s source on github on its 1 year anniversary – complete with raw assets. I can’t see sales coming in strong after a year, people would benefit more from studying – and maybe laughing at – the source code.
 
TMW: Well, thank you for talking to us, Matt, and, in conclusion, what sort of advice would you give to aspiring game devs of the future? 
 
Make games. Make a lot of games. Just keep making games. Small games, stupid games, experimental games, ambitious games, games on new platforms, games on obscure platforms, just keep doing it and you’ll end up with such a wide range of skills you’ll be able to walk into any studio. Don’t stick to one genre, engine, tool, or discipline, try it all out.
Tanglewood released on the 14th of August, and you can see my thoughts here.

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