Monday, 15 February 2016

4 Games That Have Grabbed Me and Won't Let Go

(This post was originally meant to have been finished two weeks ago; it is entirely the fault of the games I was trying to review that it has taken so long. That be irony that.)

Hello readers. I have something very important to speak to you about for a moment; a dark shadow that hangs over the heads of upwards of 40% of the world's population, costing the country billions of dollars/pounds/kroner/shrunken heads a year. I am of course talking about the horror that is addiction.
That's a lot of shrunken heads.
Well, OK, truth is I had the exams for my Neuropharmacology course (yeah, sounds pretty smart, right?) last week and I feel bad for not posting something what with the impending doom of 8 timed essays in 3 days having been looming ever nearer. As the course is all about drugs, the brain and, in particular, addiction, it got me thinking about my gaming habits. No, I'm not mainlining GTA's into my eyeballs and going on murder sprees or whatever certain news outlets would love to have happen, but I've certainly noticed a glacial change in my gaming habits over the years.
"DEAR GOD, NO! CHANGE IS COMING!" - A Daily Mail writer, presumably
Gone are the days when I would charge through Metal Gear Solid three times in 24 hours (yes, I did that with Guns of the Patriots; on release day no less) or devour Oblivion like a hungry orphan at an all-you-can eat buffet. It feels like in recent times my video game diet has moved away from large, reasonably widely dispersed moments of game-binging and turned to a more consistent, bite-sized affair. I've gravitated towards shorter, one-more-go styles of games like the exceptional Invisible Inc. or Super Meat Boy. On an unrelated note, they also seem to have followed the pattern of becoming increasingly brutally difficult; I blame the corrupting influence of Demon's/Dark Souls absolutely and entirely.
"Remember when you used to have fun playing games?" said the giant dragon before
murder-fucking me with fire.
This switch between having set periods of time for a good old fashioned game to a persistent, transient presence of them is fascinating to me. Is it as a result of a change in my gaming habits to fit around a more...*shudder* living schedule, where I only have small periods of downtime between work, or is it simply mimicking the recent changes in the games industry that have allowed indie developers to unleash their little bundles of addictive hell onto the unsuspecting masses? I dunno.

But the point is that I've recently found myself irreversibly attached to a handful of games like oxymorphazone to an opioid receptor (sorry! It won't get out of my head!). Now, my ongoing obsession with FTL is well documented and nothing new, so that doesn't count, but here's five other games that, due to a perfect mix of pick-up-and-playness, difficulty or just splendid charm, I will likely fail my exams as a result of.

1 - Human Resource Machine - Tomorrow Corporation (PC)

I don't understand computers. Digital things in general are on par with drawing a pentagram on the ground and summoning Baphomet as far as I'm concerned. How someone can write down a bunch of numbers and words and make a program or game is utterly beyond my comprehension; so of course I got this game that's all about learning how to code, go figure.

The basic gist is to get objects from the inbox to the outbox of a floor in a big office building using your adorable little worker drone. Input commands and away she/he goes, picking up little blocks and putting them down. If you've played Tomorrow Corporation's other games (World of Goo, Little Inferno) you'll be glad to know that their trademark weird cuteness is back in bucketloads.

Look at her go, performing mindless data entry!
Things start out easy enough, with you having to sort out zeros or add two numbers together, but very quickly you'll be tasked with multiplications, boolean logic algorithms and other concepts that would be straight up mind-numbing in any other context. Instead, they're adorable and moreish. The sensation of creating and running a working sequence for the first time is borderline orgasmic, and forms that basis of the game's lasting appeal. That feeling of success, of having started with nothing and used the tools at your disposal to work out how to sort numbers in the order of the Fibonacci sequence all on your own, mmft...

Then come the optimisation challenges...

"We heard you were a completionist, so we made you this." - Some sadistic bastard at Tomorrow Corporation
These are optional (I repeat, optional) challenges that test your programming mettle by asking you to complete levels using a limited number of commands or in as few steps as possible. This shit is my kryptonite (see BitTrip below), because it's essentially the game goading you into doing stupid challenges by saying "Go on, bet you can't do this," and I get got by it every bloody time. In the case of this game, it usually means you sit for three hours trying in vain to work out how to shave one extra command off your sequence (see the infuriating photo above); it is agonisingly amazing, and just compounds that sense of achievement when you finally get it. If you're a puzzle fan, or like doing maths for fun (you psycho) then have a bash at this.
Soon you too will learn the horror of zero terminated sums.

2 - Crypt of the Necrodancer - Brace Yourself Games (PC)

Take a roguelike, give it even more adorably cartoon-pixely good looks than your average indie game (that's a tall ask as it is) and then make it Dance Pad compatible. Congratulations, you've just made yourself all of the money ever, because your game is genius. Welcome to the spectacularly vibrant, and surprisingly challenging world of Crypt of the Necrodancer.

Stop to admire the gorgeous design and you will die. It's a cruel world like that.
Jargon time: Crypt of the Necrodancer is a procedurally-generated rhythm-action dungeon-crawler rogue-like hyphen-fest of exploding pixels, shiny loot and red dragons. Those guys can go die.

Fucking twinkle-toes bastard.
Every enemy has a particular pattern of dancing around the level and attacking you, it's your job to work out how to skip around them and deliver righteous funky chip-tune justice without getting knocked off beat. It's a brilliant mix of fast-paced and strategic gameplay that pretty much makes every death entirely your own fault; but like hell you care, cause it's fast, satisfying, and the merchant is an opera singer.

Everything about this game is magical.
Longevity comes from unlocking new characters with unique abilities and buying stronger items by collecting diamonds during each run; the difficulty is that you don't get to keep your diamonds between runs, and to progress you have to complete each of the 4 areas (with an awesome musical boss at the end of each) without dying. Necrodancer asks a lot of you, but makes the whole experience so rich and enjoyable that dying hardly even feels like a failure. Go buy this game.

3 - BitTrip presents... Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien - Gaijin Games (PC)

Bit Trip Runner 2 is a tour de force in perfect game balance: the levels are challengingly long but never too lengthy, the difficulty curve is so gradual (thanks to three expertly tiered difficulty settings) that it might as well be flat, and as a result of these two things, every failure is all on you, buddy. I've not played such a wonderfully hard yet fair game since...I dunno, chess? You hit that flying robot? Well that's cause you jumped instead of ducked. You didn't kick that barrier down because you were too busy jumping on trampolines and blocking Pong pellets while ducking? GROW MORE FINGERS THEN, YA WUSS.
The game isn't unfair, you just haven't developed enough carpal tunnel to unlock the next level yet.
It all comes down to muscle memory really, so if you're not a fan of repeating the same 40-120 second segment of a game, gaining a couple of seconds closer to the finish line each time then you should probably steer clear of Bit Trip. But, once again, like Crypt of the Necrodancer and to a lesser extent Human Resource Machine before it, it's that sense of accomplishment when you finally complete the level you've been stuck on for the past two days that makes this game like digital crack. All of a sudden you go from a bumbling mess of fingers that can't get past the first bloody obstacle to fucking video game Neo, blasting your way through like it ain't no ting. And as is customary, if collecting every piece of gold and getting a bullseye on every level on each of the three difficulties isn't enough for you, then you can up the challenge further by skipping over the mid-level checkpoints for an extra point bonus. There's absolutely nothing to gain from this other than the smug satisfaction of knowing that you didn't need help from no gherkin/burger-faced man.

Fish-people, I'll allow.
All this delicious challenge, along with an onslaught of vibrant, mildly unsettling cartoon visuals, makes this game straight up impossible to stop playing. Here's a few choice live mid-game quotes from my dear lady-friend, Naomi, who, after being introduced to Bit Trip, has since stopped showering and only communicates via peppy chip tune chirps and wails of despair:

On losing a level the 48th time: "NNNNNNGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!"

On losing a level the 49th time: "Flip!"

On spotting Slenderman: "........nope."

The background goings on in this game can get pretty freaky.
On finally winning the level: "OK, just another few levels."

On realising she missed a single piece of gold in the level: "I hate this game."

Bit Trip Runner 2 is wonderful.

4 - Pokemon Picross - Jupiter Corp. (3DS)

Nintendo is evil. Straight up satanic; and Pokemon Picross is their Necronomicon. This game is the culmination of everything awful about both the franchise it draws inspiration from and the company that allowed this monstrosity to occur. What's so awful about this game? It's repetitive, heavy on the hand-holding, and full of more pay-walls than there are circles in hell. But worst of all I CAN'T STOP PLAYING IT!
I see those god-forsaken little dots in my nightmares.
Pokemon Picross is exceptionally simple. You start with an empty grid (see above) and have to fill it in with either little black dots or crosses according to the numbered clues around the outside of the grid. That's it. The game adds a Pokemony element by making each puzzle a Pokemon that you "catch" after competing it, providing you with special abilities depending on the type of the Pokemon in question. For example, electric-type Pokemon slow down the puzzle timer, fire-type fill in a cross of rows and columns at the beginning of the puzzle; all stuff designed to help you finish the puzzle in the fastest time possible or within the parameters of the individual puzzle "Missions", where you can earn Picrites. That's right, I just mentioned a weird-sounding in-game currency; oh, did I omit to say that this is a free-to-play game?

Say hello to my little friends...
Yes, it's true that you can grind the game without having to pay for Picrites, as there are daily challenges that net you 10ish Picrites a day, but Pokemon Picross doesn't mess around when it comes to asking for your hard earned cubes. Here's but a few things that you have to pay for with Picrites:
- Entry to every new area of the game (each containing approx. 8-10 puzzles)
- Buying a new pencil to unlock Mega-evolution levels
- Buying a different pencil to unlock hard versions of all your completed puzzles
- Upgrading the number of available party slots for Pokemon skills
- Upgrading your energy bar
- Instantly refilling your energy bar when it runs out

You will be seeing a lot of this screen.
It's not fucken magic when you need to shell out the bloody things to cross the road.
Then there's the added stuff like timed legendary Pokemon; you come across one every 2 areas or so, but they only turn up one at a time. If you move on too quickly, the game will automatically spawn the legendary in the next locked area (obviously to encourage you to spend some ching-ching) so you have to remember to move yourself back to previous areas before waiting so you can mop up the legendaries you may have missed. Oo, and I've not even got round to mentioning missions and Alt world properly yet.

These are missions.
As you can see, missions are obviously a major source of Picrite revenue and there are 3-4 per level. When I discovered that you could use your hard-earned Picrites to unlock an Alt area with harder puzzles of everything you've already unlocked, I naively thought "Hooray! Twice as many Picrites per area!" But no. All of the Alt world mission give you absolutely fuck all for completing them. 80 Picrites down, you get a good old handful of sand in your face. Fuck you, Nintendo.

At least I got exactly the same puzzles again, but with slightly different clues. Woo!
And yet, and yet. Even though you're limited to playing in 30 minute stints, everything has a countdown timer, and the game is actively trying to fuck you and your money over at every turn, I love this game. I'm happy to play the same levels over and over again cause they're darned good fun, and you can keep trying to beat your last time. This is actually the first ever free to play game that I've actually put real money into, and what with it being a genuinely good and fun game, I don't mind one bit. Give Pokemon Picross a bash. If it's not your thing, no sweat; if it is then you've found yourself a whole new world of great, cheap puzzling that'll keep you coming back for more. Plus, there's like 6 normal Picross games on the Nintendo Store for like 3 quid a piece.

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