The Deadly Tower of Monsters

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Make your way to the top of a monster-infested space tower.

PC Release: January 19, 2016

By Ian Coppock

There’s a certain type of movie that thrives on being terrible. These include corny slapstick films like FDR: American Badass! and most every film that SyFy has ever produced. Even though these movies have slapdash production values, ludicrous plots, and terrible acting, something about the garishness of that formula keeps audiences coming back for more. It’s the tried-and-true idea of a movie being so bad that it’s actually good. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a video game homage to those movies, so grab some popcorn and a licensed Sharknado beverage; this game’s a doozy.

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If ever there was a video game that attempted to transplant B-movie camp from the big screen, it’s The Deadly Tower of Monsters. Created by ACE Team, the fine Chilean folks behind such hits as Zeno Clash and Rock of AgesThe Deadly Tower of Monsters is an isometric adventure game that lovingly challenges players’ suspension of disbelief. The game is portrayed as being a movie also called The Deadly Tower of Monsters, with fictional director Dan Smith providing DVD commentary that guides (and amuses) players.

The story of The Deadly Tower of Monsters stars—brace yourself—Dick Starspeed, intergalactic space explorer extraordinaire! Starspeed (or “Master Dick” as he’s known by his faithful robot sidekick Robot) crash-lands on a hostile alien planet full of dinosaurs, aliens, evil bug-men, and all kinds of other weird stuff. He teams up with the lovely Scarlet Nova to help take down her father, an evil space emperor, and free the planet from his tyrannical grasp. All they have to do is ascend the titular Deadly Tower of Monsters! Dun dun dunnn!

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Shoestring budget. Literally.

Players can pick between Dick, Robot, and Scarlet (those sound like naughty code words) for their ascent up the Tower of Monsters. Each character has his or her own skills that can be upgraded over the course of the game. Some characters can plant mines and others can teleport short distances. The world of The Deadly Tower of Monsters is also rife with ray guns, energy swords, and other useful killing implements. Using all of them is as simple as mousing over an enemy and clicking.

True to B-movie form, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is overrun with kooky critters. Indeed, it’s worth wondering if there’s an enemy type that this game doesn’t have; stop-motion dinosaurs? Check. Flea/human hybrids? Check. Giant mechanical lizards? Check. UFOs? Triple check. The enemy variety in The Deadly Tower of Monsters is both a loving tribute to the golden era of B-movies and a great way to ensure gameplay variety. Few other games can offer players the chance to battle vacuum pugs.

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Oh look, it’s not-King-Kong!

The Deadly Tower of Monsters’ art is an eclectic mishmash of styles that one might expect to find in an early 70’s sci-fi flick. Players start their adventure in the jungles at the foot of the tower but quickly go on to explore gaudily colored space palaces and, of course, the token pool of lava. Each environment is drowning in a riot of bright colors that would look too random if that wasn’t the motif that The Deadly Tower of Monsters wasn’t going for. The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ textures could stand to be a little sharper but its attention to object placement is excellent.

The game features other art elements tying the game to the B-movie films it emulates. Flying creatures are suspended by puppeteers’ strings, and the stop-motion dinosaurs are actually stop motion. Characters wear and use The Jetsons-esque space equipment complete with pew-pew sound effects. These and other design elements comprise a constant reminder of where The Deadly Tower of Monsters gets its ideas from and help the game stand out in the isometric adventure genre.

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Ohhhhh mah God.

Apart from The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ visual design, the other element informing the game’s campy atmosphere is its fast-paced music. The game has that corny series of fast-paced horns that all great terrible movies have, mixed together with some old-school electronic sounds and an over-dramatic drum kit. The music speeds up during combat and slows down when characters are just trying to make their way up the tower, but no matter its tempo, it succeeds in bringing a small smile (or an eyeroll) to players’ faces.

The characters’ voice acting is the piece de resistance of The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ sound design. Dick Starspeed sounds like the stereotypical space hero douchebag, channeling an Ed Sullivan-like tone in his observations of the world and condescension toward his allies. Scarlet Nova sounds similarly typical of the era, with a few ironic observations about how female protagonists were always relegated to tier two in the 70’s B-movie era. Robot just sounds really depressed, which is weird. Being stuck on a planet full of toy dinosaurs and ray guns is hardly cause for sadness.

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It’s the dream team.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ plot is just as derivative of those old movies’ narratives as one might expect. The objective of the game is simply to climb the tower, dethrone the evil space emperor, and complete a few other objectives as they crop up. The protagonists remain firmly in their niches as they go up against a mwhaha’ing space tyrant and his mad scientist sidekick, both of whom are also unapologetic call-outs to B-movie sci-fi. The dialogue is a lighthearted mix of heroic speeches about standing up to tyranny and little jokes that mostly center on Dick Starspeed’s clueless-ness.

The best writing to be found in The Deadly Tower of Monsters comes from its fictional director, Dan Smith. As previously stated, Smith comes into the studio to record DVD commentary over this “movie”, providing inadvertent tutorials and hints for players as they ascend the tower. Smith spends most of his time, though, demonstrating hilarious ineptitude about cinema and satirizing movie-making conventions of the 1970’s, which make for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. As an example, Smith will often tell a humorous story about how a monster in the game came about as a movie character, only for his assistant to point out that putting a dwarf into a trash can and calling it a robot probably violates OSHA regulations. “Regulations?” Smith might say. “What are those?”

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I wasn’t kidding about the little person in a trash can.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ shoutout to campy sci-fi is spot-on, but the title’s actual gameplay could stand to be more exciting. It’s isometric gameplay at its most basic: equip a weapon and an ability, mouse over an enemy, repeat until enemy is dead. The game doesn’t take creative liberties with this setup, preferring to wrap pedestrian gameplay inside an otherwise engaging world. What’s more, the three characters aren’t all that different. Sometimes one or the other will be needed to get past a certain part of the tower, but they’re otherwise functionally identical.

Luckily, The Deadly Tower of Monsters runs well, and it has a decent options menu for adjusting potential performance issues. The game looks great but isn’t packing millions of polygons in each character model, so it shouldn’t force rigs to chug. A few players have commented that they get low framerates when running The Deadly Tower of Monsters, but ACE Team was proactive in immediately setting up a guide to navigate that issue. Making sure the game is running on the GPU should solve the problem.

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I also wasn’t kidding about the vacuum pugs.

Players should pick up The Deadly Tower of Monsters not for its gameplay, but because it lovingly satirizes the best and worst of so-good-it’s-bad movies. The game’s humor and writing are spot-on, even if the gameplay is a little stale. The world is a riot of random design elements held together only by the ironic mentions of how random they are, which makes the game’s world all the more alive. Give The Deadly Tower of Monsters a go and that mean old space emperor a run for his money. Or just listen to a crazy director rail against safety laws. Whichever works.

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You can buy The Deadly Tower of Monsters here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Spec Ops: The Line

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Discover what happened to your fellow soldiers in a ruined city.

PC Release: June 25, 2012

By Ian Coppock

There’s no shortage of video games that turn war into fun… but there are only a few titles that criticize warfare and romanticized notions of it. Most of these latter games take the form of autobiographical walking simulators. Others are games with elements of psychological horror, like NevermindSpec Ops: The Line is also against romanticizing warfare, but few would guess that from its cover art of bros with rifles. That’s the beauty of Spec Ops: The Line: it’s an anti-war game disguised as a war game.

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Before old-school shooter fans ask, the answer is no. Spec Ops: The Line has nothing to do with the Spec Ops games released in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The game was developed by Yager as a reboot of the Spec Ops franchise, and was the first Spec Ops game released in over a decade. The game does emphasize controlling a small number of soldiers who are up against an overwhelming enemy force, but that and the name Spec Ops are about all that this game has in common with older titles in the series. Apologies to the 90’s shooter junkies out there.

Spec Ops: The Line starts six months after a freak sandstorm consumes the city of Dubai, killing thousands of people and burying one of the Middle East’s most opulent cities in under miles of sand. The U.S. military sends an aid convoy to the city shortly after the sandstorm, but the entire regiment mysteriously disappears. Now, six months later, someone is sending a signal from inside the sand-drowned city, and it’s up to Delta Force Capt. Martin Walker to find out who.

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That is… wow.

Voiced by the immortal Nolan North, Walker serves as the game’s playable protagonist and is accompanied into the ruins of Dubai by two squadmates: a wiscracking sniper and a big-hearted demolitions expert. The team’s objective is simple: follow the radio signal into Dubai and see if anyone is still alive. Freak sandstorms have a funny way of killing lots of people, but someone had to survive to set up that signal.

The team enters Dubai and finds the American soldiers from that aforementioned aid convoy, but they immediately shoot Walker and his comrades on sight. With no way out of Dubai, the trio shifts tactics from search-and-rescue to run-and-hide as they’re relentlessly hunted across the ruins by their countrymen. To make matters even more confusing, Walker notices that the surviving Emiratis have been whipped into a resistance force… by CIA operatives. What in Sam hell is going on in this city? Walker’s not sure, but he knows that John Konrad, the Americans’ commander and his former mentor, must know.

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Stop shooting, I eat apple pie and watch football just like you guys!

With no other option, Walker makes finding Konrad a priority. That objective is the driving force in Spec Ops: The Line as the team works its way through Dubai and kills hostile American soldiers. American troops being the bad guys is a jarring subversion of tropes common in other shooters, especially Call of Duty. On the surface, Spec Ops: The Line‘s setting suggests that jihadis are the primary enemy, but Walker and his team encounter an insidious new brand of antagonism in what are supposed to be allies.

Spec Ops: The Line also explores how a situation like this might fracture a military team’s unity in real life. Walker’s teammates are vocal about their opposition to killing fellow soldiers from the get-go, and argue more and more about the mission as they get further into Dubai. Most military shooters portray their protagonists as being rock-set in their convictions, but in Spec Ops: The Line, those convictions begin to falter.

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Whose idea was it to hide in here, anyway?

Spec Ops: The Line is criminally underrated as a war story and as a feat of storytelling in video gaming. The game’s narrative takes a premise common to military games and twists it into a psychologically exhausting trip to hell. By Yager’s own admission, Spec Ops: The Line draws heavy inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about a Belgian pioneer exploring a progressively darker, harsher Congo. Likewise, Walker’s journey into Dubai is a horrifying odyssey into the depravity of the human mind.

Exactly how depraved is for new players to find out for themselves, but suffice it to say that Spec Ops: The Line gets graphic in portraying the horrors of war. The game avoids shows of military strength and unity in favor of warfare’s most brutal excesses. Walker and his comrades see some horrible stuff on their visit to Dubai… the type of stuff left out of the notions of romanticized warfare that Spec Ops wants to turn upside down. Just as a heads-up, the game includes a few torture scenes that are not fit for wobbly stomachs.

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For the cause?

Even though Spec Ops: The Line‘s dialogue writing is nothing amazing, the game’s character development is quite powerful. The trio begin their journey confident in their intentions and those of their home country, but doubts start to trickle in before long. Walker himself can’t quite believe that Konrad would condone some of the things he sees in the city, and has a progressively harder time maintaining order over his team. To top it all off, players will be faced with a few gut-wrenching choices to which there are no easy moral answers. Nolan North does a good job characterizing the doubtful soldier; his and the rest of the cast’s voice acting help these dilemmas hit even harder.

In some ways, Spec Ops: The Line could almost be classified as a psychological horror game, and not just because of its liberal use of gore. That pit of unease that the game starts players off on stays in their stomachs for the game’s entire 6-8 hour duration. The game is also commendable for portraying the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that most video game characters shrug off with ease but is a very, very real problem for men and women returning home from war. Spec Ops: The Line‘s attention to the dehumanizing effect war can have on people makes it stand out in its genre.

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No other game studies war as loss like Spec Ops does.

So wait; if Spec Ops: The Line is such a pioneering tour de force about the nature of war, why isn’t it a better-known game? Well, unfortunately, though Spec Ops: The Line has a great war story, its gameplay is much more generic. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t go for gameplay the same way it goes for story, resulting in some of the most pedestrian third-person shooting of the genre. The game neatly borrows health regeneration, cover-based shooting, and NPC squad commands from games like Gears of War and Mass Effect.

Spec Ops: The Line‘s gunplay is similarly conventional, giving players all the usual military hardware and challenging them only to keep shooting until the bad guy is dead. The game throws a paltry selection of foes at the player, ranging only between crazy dudes with knives, ye olde infantrymen, and eight-foot-tall thugs wearing kevlar. None of these elements are bad, but some might say they’re boring. Spec Ops‘ one gameplay novelty is the ability to bury enemies in sand, and as luck would have it, enemies in this game spend a lot of time standing near sand-filled skyscrapers.

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Seriously, how many games have had this exact screenshot taken?

Spec Ops: The Line‘s artwork and graphical sophistication could also have stood more work. Make no mistake, the vistas of Dubai are absolutely stunning… but the game’s character models and in-game objects are decidedly more smudgy. Character animations are stiff and more akin to those of robots than human beings. To put it most concisely, Spec Ops: The Line looks more like a game that came out in 2007 than it does a 2012 title, at least in terms of visual fidelity. For all its blurry textures and polygonal objects, though, the game does do well with lighting setups and sound design.

Perhaps Spec Ops: The Line‘s visual team poured most of their effort into the game’s stunning weather effects. Sandstorms can whip up at any time and they roar through Dubai with impressive force. Sandstorms aren’t just for looks, though; players caught out in the open have to navigate carefully and take cover often to avoid being an easy target for foes. The sandstorms do a great job of reinforcing Spec Ops: The Line‘s postapocalyptic atmosphere, and that sense of unpredictability that comes with trying to shoot one’s way through hostile weather.

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The next man who jokes about sand in his shorts will do so with a lead bullet in his back.

Spec Ops: The Line is full of sand, but the game runs well on modern rigs and low-to-mid-range gaming laptops. The options menu, as always, could stand to be bigger, but it does give players ample control over any potential performance issues. Spec Ops: The Line shouldn’t punch PCs the way its story might punch players, especially now that the game is a half-decade old. The game has a completely dead multiplayer mode, which is useless information for prospective buyers but a great way to make this paragraph longer.

Even though Spec Ops: The Line‘s gameplay doesn’t stand out, its storytelling and acute attention to the realities of war make it one of the best shooters of the decade. It strays away from the “us vs. them” trope endemic to virtually every other shooter out there in favor of portraying the psychological effects warfare can have on soldiers. It’s a darkly beautiful journey that cuts through the romanticized veneer of combat to expose the horrors lurking just beneath the surface. That’s why everyone should play it.

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You can buy Spec Ops: The Line here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Secret Ponchos

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Gun down enemy outlaws in frantic Wild West duels.

PC Release: October 13, 2015

By Ian Coppock

High noon. A remote western town. The sheriff’s run off with the rancher’s wife, leaving the locals cowering in fear. A solitary tumbleweed gently bounces across the heart of town; a town where two outlaws stand face-to-face, eye-to-eye, ready to draw and shoot at the slightest provocation. Only one person will be leaving town alive… but who? The jury’s out on that one, but Secret Ponchos gives players the chance to see if they could survive that encounter.

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Secret Ponchos is an isometric multiplayer shooter made by Switchblade Monkeys, a developer whose name would be perfect for the band. To hear the dev tell it, Secret Ponchos seeks to be the Spaghetti Western of video games, putting players in a highly stylized Wild West universe rife with bright colors and even brighter splashes of violence. Players choose from one of 10 deadly desperados and decide who’s king (or queen) of the Wild West in the most Wild West way possible: a hail of bullets.

Duels in Secret Ponchos can be played by two teams of up to three players. Whichever person or team can reach three victories first wins (and gets dibs on the post-duel guac). Each character carries two unique weapons into battle that define his or her style. The gunslinger Kid Red takes to the field with two revolvers and dynamite, while the originally named Killer keeps things simple with a revolver and a hunting knife. Other characters wield everything from bullfighting swords to Gatling guns.

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Apparently the Scotsman from Samurai Jack makes a cameo.

After picking a character, it’s time to face down the opponent in a good ol’ fashioned high-paced hoedown. Characters have infinite ammo on their guns but oftentimes have to contend with much more finite magazines, so be prepared to reload frequently. When ammo does run dry, players can avoid the enemy by rolling out of the way or taking cover behind a conveniently placed water trough. Secret Ponchos is a pretty forgiving game, giving players plenty of health and superhuman resistance to bullets.

Given that the first team to reach three victories wins the game, most matches in Secret Ponchos are short but intense. Players have to manage their health, keep their weapon reloaded, and keep out of range. Each weapon in Secret Ponchos has a different range, so players who prefer sharpshooting from a distance or getting up-close and personal should plan accordingly. At no point during any of this is the name “Secret Ponchos” actually explained. If the game’s gunslingers try to keep what they’re packing a secret, they don’t do a very good job.

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Disparos!

Although the matches in Secret Ponchos are pretty fun, the first-to-three mode is the only multiplayer mode the game comes packaged with. The game omits including other modes that would’ve been great for the Wild West setting, like performing a heist or bounty hunting other players. Secret Ponchos does come with an offline arcade mode for players who are more interested in  battling bots than humans, but the setup in that mode is the same as in multiplayer.

Why would anyone choose bots over multiplayer? Because, unfortunately, Secret Ponchos‘ community is deader than a deep-fried gopher. It enjoyed a glorious few months of activity when it first hit Steam in 2015, but despite the dev’s best efforts, Secret Ponchos‘ player base couldn’t be resuscitated. It’s a real shame; the game is quite good, and Switchblade Monkeys added a ton of free stuff to it over the course of 2016: more maps, more skins, more characters, and more Wild West.

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This here’s a stickup!

The other reason that Secret Ponchos‘ dead community is a shame is that the game is gorgeous. It more than delivers on its Steam store page’s promise of a pretty, stylized rendition of the Old West. The characters look like something off of the cover of a Gorillaz album, with cartoonish, exaggerated features and gaudy costumes. On top of that, the characters are well-animated. No smudgy textures, no poor anti-aliasing that can make game objects look serrated… none of that is going down in this Wild West.

Secret Ponchos‘ environments benefit from a similar blend of bright colors and stylized visuals. The map selection in the game isn’t huge, but it does succeed in delivering about a dozen diverse environments. Players can duke it out in an old gold mine, along a railroad, or outside the old saloon, to name a few examples. In addition to boasting varied level design, all of these locations are replete with in-game objects and pretty details to help make the world come alive. Secret Ponchos‘ options menu isn’t great, but its performance on PC is.

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“Stylized Murder.” Another name for the band.

Secret Ponchos also does well for itself in the sound design department. Guns kick off with enough force to shake the crows off a cow skull. Characters’ boots crunch through dirt and creak on wood with believable grittiness. Secret Ponchos‘ music isn’t too shabby either, though its low guitars and faster-paced combat music wouldn’t stand out from a lineup of songs from other Wild West media.

All of Secret Ponchos‘ art largely succeeds in imitating the Spaghetti Westerns that inspired it. Films like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars didn’t have gaunt poncho-wearing ghosts running around, but they also didn’t shy away from using bright colors in their footage and on promotional artwork. The Spaghetti Western motif of a desolate town being fought over by two gangs is certainly brought to bear in Secret Ponchos. There is an irony in Secret Ponchos borrowing from a genre that itself recklessly took elements and sometimes entire narrative frameworks from other movies. Maybe that clandestine thievery is why the game’s called Secret Ponchos.

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Fighting for guacamole > fighting for the South.

Secret Ponchos is a good game, but there’s not much point in buying a multiplayer game whose community has ceased to exist. At this point it’s probably too late for Switchblade Monkeys to resurrect an army of gunslingers for its game, but the studio might have a few options. Lowering the price of the title or doing some kind of soft re-launch might do the trick. Going free-to-play is also an option, but that risks alienating veteran players who bought the game at its full $14.99 price. A hypothetical Secret Ponchos 2 might help bring this game’s gameplay back to the scene… but not Secret Ponchos itself.

The other part of the issue is that Secret Ponchos‘ community started chipping away in early 2016. It’s now July of 2017. Any of the options listed above would probably only have a small impact at best. The rapid decline of Secret Ponchos‘ community is a bit strange considering how fun its gameplay is, but it’s not uncommon for multiplayer titles on PC to go the way of the dodo astonishingly quickly. Apparently we PC gamers have short attention spans.

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Last stand, boys!

Secret Ponchos may very well have taken its last ride into the sunset, but it’s a fun little game for friends to pick up and play together. Like traveling through the Wild West, buying Secret Ponchos is done safest in groups. At the very least, Secret Ponchos is a noteworthy mention for its stylish adaptation of isometric gunplay in the Wild West setting. It’s looking doubtful at this point that the game’s community will ever make a roaring return, but that doesn’t mean that this Wild West legend has to vanish from history.

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You can buy Secret Ponchos here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Transistor

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Reclaim your voice and your home from a mysterious enemy.

PC Release: May 21, 2014

By Ian Coppock

On the surface, a game about a woman who kills evil robots with a sword that’s bigger than she is might sound like a Final Fantasy fanfic or the fever dream of a Square Enix executive, but Transistor is neither of those things. Released by Supergiant Games three years after its debut title, BastionTransistor is a game that preserves its predecessor’s themes and storytelling style in a whole new world. It’s a rare thing for a studio to maintain that kind of consistency, but it’s only one of the things that makes Transistor special.

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Like BastionTransistor is an isometric adventure game that lets players take down bad guys with a variety of stylish weapons and moves. It also embodies its predecessor’s penchant for focusing on raw emotion in its storytelling rather than mere exposition. Transistor has its own narrative and visual identity though, shedding Bastion‘s fairy apocalypse world in favor of cyberpunk art deco. Transistor also goes deeper than a new aesthetic and toys with a few conventions of adventure gaming.

Transistor is set in the gorgeous city of Cloudbank and begins when a soulful singer named Red is attacked by forces unknown. Red only survives the attempt on her life because a mysterious man stepped in to take the blow meant for her. Heartbroken, Red takes up the glowing sword—the titular Transistor—used to end the man’s life and decides to set off after the people who tried to kill her. The Transistor contains the consciousness of the slain man, who serves as Red’s guide.

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Red’s tale has tragic beginnings.

Red quickly realizes that assassination attempts are the least of her problems. A mysterious army of robots called the Process begins teleporting into Cloudbank and deleting chunks of the city from existence. They serve as the bulk of Transistor‘s enemies and stand between Red and her search for the truth. Red takes these foes on as well, all while determined to know what, if anything, their appearance has to do with the attempt on her life.

Transistor allows players to take these foes on with a variety of melee and ranged attacks. Red can clobber foes with the Transistor or use ranged attacks like laser beams. Players can do this in real time or in Turn() mode, which pauses the game and lets Red stack up however many attacks her energy bar will allow. Turn() allows Red to attack much faster and deal greater damage, so taking the time to plan out attacks does way more than just pause the game.

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Giant swords work wonders against robotic would-be muggers.

As Red travels deeper into Cloudbank, she can find new abilities and absorb them into the Transistor. These include attacks like the aforementioned laser beams and defensive moves like dodging out of the way.  Killing enemies grants experience points, which can be used to unlock new perks that make Red’s moves stronger. Red can also find tools called Limiters() which, like the idols in Bastion, make the game more difficult but allow her to gain more experience points.

A novel change Transistor makes to the isometric RPG formula is the ability to tack abilities onto other abilities. In other words, Red can take the techniques she learns and use them as main abilities, or install them on other powers to create something entirely new. Players can use a laser beam attack and Red’s dodge roll as separate moves, or they can tack dodge roll onto the laser beam to make the laser beam ricochet off of enemies. It’s a cool system that allows for a wide range of playstyle customization.

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For my next attack, I will combine spaghetti… WITH MEATBALLS!!!

Beating up foes with a laser-shooting sword is well and good, but Transistor fumbles on managing these abilities behind the scenes. The game’s combat and ability menus are a jumbled mess that fail to adequately explain how abilities work or even how to combine them. Transistor gives players its terms (Functions() and Limiters()) without much of an explanation and seemingly expects players to know how to combine them well. It’s also difficult to switch over to other menu functions like reading about characters in Cloudbank.

At least the Turn() user interface is easy to understand. It’s easy for players to pause the game and plan out Red’s attacks and moves… certainly much easier than actually planning those things behind the scenes. Though Transistor can be played in real time, using the Turn() function does grant a significant strategic advantage. Players looking for a challenge can have a go at the game without using that function. Gamers who dislike turn-based combat (ahem) needn’t worry that Turn() is anything like that, as it doesn’t allow enemies to plan out counter-attacks.

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Right now my only move is run run run awaaaay…

Transistor‘s gameplay is only a little smoother than Bastion‘s, but this game might have substantially better artwork. Transistor continues Supergiant Games’ proud tradition of stunningly beautiful artwork, with delicate paintings in the background and sharply rendered foregrounds. Cloudbank bursts with color and detail; each district Red visits has a distinct visual identity and atmosphere. These districts are jam-packed with thousands of delicately drawn objects and surfaces, leaving players with no shortage of things to gawk at. Transistor‘s character animations are an improvement over those of Bastion‘s, being more smoothly animated ‘n such.

Transistor also benefits handsomely from the use of strong contrast. Whether it’s the red-and-white colors of the Process or the cityscape of Cloudbank, all of the game’s environments stand out thanks to these bright, powerful colors being placed right next to each other. It helps lend the game another layer of visual novelty on top of its cyberpunk-deco style. Come to think of it, Transistor‘s use of contrast goes beyond color, fusing elements of old and new design together into single novelties. All of these styles blend together without the resultant visual design feeling random.

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New York and L.A. ain’t got nothin’ on Cloudbank.

Even better than Transistor‘s visual design is its soundtrack, which is a must-have even for gamers who don’t typically purchase the OST. The game’s score is a stylish selection of tunes that alternate between slow lounge sounds when Red’s just out exploring and jazzier music during combat and adventuring. Most songs are accompanied by the smooth, gorgeous voice of Ashley Lynn Barrett, who returned after also working on Bastion‘s soundtrack to record both singing and hums.

Like BastionTransistor‘s world is also full of rich sound effects that help it come alive. Logan Cunningham returned from voicing the narrator in Bastion to do the same again in Transistor, but the two voices sound quite different. The former was an acid-tongued old man; the latter is an earnest younger guy who cares deeply about Red. That each performance sounds so different is a testament to Cunningham’s skill. Transistor‘s other vocal performers, particularly Sunkrish Bala, are also excellent.

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CHRISTMAS LIGHTS ATTACK!

Transistor‘s story packs the same vague storytelling and show-don’t-tell style of Bastion, but its narrative is quite a bit darker than even that fairy apocalypse. Maybe it has something to do with being set during an apocalyptic event instead of immediately after it. Red’s race through Cloudbank begins with questions about why someone tried to kill her, but that goal quickly turns into saving the entire city from being swallowed by the Process. The game’s writing is quite good; Red doesn’t talk, but the Transistor provides plenty of concisely written observations about what’s happening around them.

Like Bastion, Transistor also chooses to leave out most of the details about its world in place of subtle implications. What is Cloudbank? Why is the Process attacking it? Most of these questions can only be answered by paying close attention to the tone of the dialogue instead of actual words, much like Half-Life 2 did with much of its own exposition. Players who don’t pick up on or ignore tone might feel a bit cheated of this information by the end of Transistor, but the game’s main narrative still packs enough emotional weight to leave them smitten by the time the curtains fall.

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A (stylish) search for answers.

With the exception of its poorly laid out ability menus, Transistor succeeds in both being a gorgeous adventure game and lovingly improving upon everything that Bastion brought to the table. It runs well, has a good options menu, and it wraps a dark tale of love and loss in one of gaming’s most beautiful aesthetics. Everyone should try Transistor, especially with Supergiant’s next project, Pyre, hitting storefronts in just a few weeks. Transistor manages to preserve the enthusiasm that made Bastion a great game while establishing its own magical identity that’s just as worthy of exploration.

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You can buy Transistor here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Quantum Conundrum

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Manipulate time, gravity, and other forces to save your crazy uncle.

PC Release: June 21, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Puzzle-platformers seem to have vanished from the gaming scene in recent years. Even the indie scene in this genre is coming up short on producing titles that aren’t blatant Portal clones. Exceptions to that rule exist, but the prestige that puzzle-platformers enjoyed with the advent of Portal and Portal 2 seemed to die down alarmingly quickly. Faced with the lack of newer such games, it’s time to take a trip back to just a few years ago, when titles like Quantum Conundrum were all the rage.

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Directed by Kim Swift (one of the minds behind Portal), Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle game developed by the now-defunct Airtight Games. Quantum Conundrum challenges players to solve simple physics puzzles by altering the properties of in-game items, like making them lighter or heavier. All of this is made possible thanks to a handy-dandy Infinity Gauntlet—ahem—power glove that the player gets shortly after Quantum Conundrum starts.

Players assume the role of a nameless boy who arrives to the mansion of Professor Quadwrangle, an eccentric inventor who cares much more about his crazy inventions than being this child’s uncle. Quadwrangle’s in the middle of an experiment when his nephew gets to his manor and becomes trapped in an alternate dimension when it goes horribly wrong. He charges the boy with acquiring the aforementioned reality-bending glove and using it to rescue him from the alternate dimension… and maybe also restoring power to the mansion while he’s at it.

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Oh great, an alien raccoon.

Players can use the power glove to put Quadwrangle Manor in other dimensions, which changes the properties of various in-game objects. That safe over there is way too heavy to carry in this dimension, but switching over to the dimension where everything’s made of fluff should make it light as a cotton ball. Pick it up, set it on the button, switch back to normal dimension, puzzle solved. As players progress through Quantum Conundrum, they get more functions added to the glove, like the ability to make objects much heavier or even slow down time.

How appropriate that Quantum Conundrum‘s puzzles become more elaborate as players gain more glove functions, requiring them to switch between multiple dimensions in one puzzle and sometimes rather quickly. Quantum Conundrum does a good job at gradually leveling its difficulty, but not soon enough to preclude the game feeling relatively easy. Anyone looking for a challenge on the level of, say, Portal Stories: Mel should click out of this review ASAP. Thanks for reading though.

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IT’S SO FLUFFY!!

On second thought, just because Quantum Conundrum isn’t all that difficult doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments of fun. Despite most puzzles being straightforward, Quantum Conundrum does manage to elicit that feeling of triumph when players fly through a puzzle’s gates. The game also demonstrates decent creativity in its design, particularly in levels where players have to calculate how an object’s properties clash against environmental hazards. Sending a block through a laser or in front of a fan in the fluffy dimension is a no-go, but it should be invincible in heavy dimension.

Of course, knowing the limits of each dimension is one of the ways that players can have an easy time with Quantum Conundrum. Despite the game’s best efforts, most puzzles make it pretty evident which dimensions need to be activated in what order to succeed. Alternatively, some puzzles are less puzzles than they are first-person platforming challenges. First-person platforming in general is a mixed bag, and in Quantum Conundrum it can feel like a cheap distraction from the more logic-driven challenges.

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Now THIS is what I call couch surfing!

Quantum Conundrum also stumbles in the level design department. While the actual puzzles are designed well enough, the game’s environments are the same brightly colored mansion halls over and over again. Players can expect to explore endless sitting rooms and corridors with little variety to break this monotony up. Yeah, Portal‘s test chambers were all stark white cubes, but players could still slip into other, less pristine corners of the facility later on. Quantum Conundrum provides no such variety; though its environments are cute and brightly colored, that’s all they ever are.

Visually, the game could’ve done with some texture sharpening and better anti-aliasing before being released. Close-up inspections of in-game objects are not recommended, as their surfaces tend to be fairly smudgy. With Quantum Conundrum‘s relative lack of AA, its objects’ edges tend to be smudgy as well. The game’s options menu may promise that its AA and object detail are turned all the way up, but they’re not (not that the options menu is all that amazing either).

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How many safes does this dude have?

Quantum Conundrum‘s design choices start to feel less like the work of an amateur and more like appeals to children when examining the game’s sound design. The game’s soundtrack is a bubbly little medley of cute electronic sounds and contemplative snare drums, none of which would sound out of place in a Pixar short. Quantum Conundrum‘s sound effects are similarly cutesy in their design; bright noises like buttons being pressed are loud, while harsh sounds like glass breaking are muted.

Quantum Conundrum‘s sole voice acting performance comes from John mother-flipping de Lancie, who took to voicing Professor Quadwrangle with the same glib snark and obsession with control over time and space that he did playing Q in Deep Space Nine. Though the character of Quadwrangle provokes some laughs with his Sheldon Cooper-esque lack of empathy, most of the jokes in this game are puns and random little one-liners. Quantum Conundrum‘s best writing by far is on its death screens, where the game points out things that the boy will never get to experience in adulthood (like putting the empty milk jug back in the fridge).

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Oh look, a portrait of Quadwrangle with 80’s hair, that’s funny…

Between Quadwrangle’s non-sequitur puns and the bulk of Quantum Conundrum‘s humor being off-screen, it’s not hard to see that the game’s narrative takes a hard backseat to pure puzzle-platforming. That wouldn’t necessarily be a mark against the game if that puzzle-platforming wasn’t so simplistic. The story of Quantum Conundrum can be summed up as a boy physics-puzzling his way through three sectors of a house while his uncle muses about space raccoons and time travel. Not exactly a compelling package… though that premise would make an amazing script for a stoner comedy.

The final problem with Quantum Conundrum is that the game is not well optimized for PC. Players need a top-of-the-line monster rig for this game to run close to 60 FPS without stuttering. That’s a statement that bears repeating: players need a top-of-the-line monster rig to run a five-year-old puzzle-platformer. What causes this game to chug so hard on PC is anyone’s guess, especially since its graphics are basic and its system demands low (at least on paper).

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I’m not rewiring all of that.

Quantum Conundrum doesn’t do anything blatantly offensive; it’s just kind of there. It has okay puzzle design, okay writing, okay visual design, and okay gameplay. It’s an alright little puzzler that can provide a few hours of mild entertainment but falls far short of being a game-changer for that genre. Couple these mid-tier accomplishments with bad PC optimization, and the result is a true conundrum indeed… one that players are probably best off avoiding. If the age of Portal produced any other puzzle-platformers worth getting excited over, Quantum Conundrum is not one of them.

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You can buy Quantum Conundrum here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

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Hunt down the Wild West’s deadliest desperados.

PC Release: May 22, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Anyone who lives in the western United States knows that legends of the Wild West are a dime a dozen. Most of them are probably fake or heavily embellished, but that’s what makes them fun; particularly the recurring motif of one man riding through the desert to take down an army of bad guys. That trope can probably be traced back to Bass Reeves, who took down more than 3,000 criminals and would go on to inspire The Lone Ranger. Reeves’ story and the trope it spawned can also be traced to the world of video games and to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a first-person arcade shooter set in the Wild West and can be considered a soft reboot of the Call of Juarez franchise. After the dismal reception Call of Juarez: The Cartel faced, developer Techland decided to take their gunslinging series back to the Wild West setting from whence it came, contriving a new story and characters along the way. Gunslinger is a standalone that has only the faintest references to earlier Call of Juarez games, and it’s probably better for it.

Anyway, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger tells the life and times of Silas Greaves, a grizzled bounty hunter who has spent decades cutting bloody swaths through the Wild West. The game begins when an aged Greaves arrives to a small saloon in Kansas and begins regaling its patrons with tales of his bounty hunting exploits as a young man. Those exploits form the missions of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.

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Before McCree got his chest plate.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is set up like an arcade shooter. As Silas Greaves, it’s up to players to progress through a linear Wild West vista full of bad guys and shoot them up in as points-accruing a manner as possible. Gunslinger is generous with its points, giving players bonuses for any kill that isn’t a shot through the heart (headshot enthusiasts take note). Even shooting a guy who’s running away from the battle garners extra points, as does blowing them up with a nearby gunpowder barrel.

Players can spend these points improving one of three skill sets: long-range combat (rifles’n’such), mid-range combat (pistols galore) and getting all up close and personal (holy s*** that is a shotgun). Players can cash in points on everything from being able to slow down time while scoping to having a thicker hide for close-quarters combat. Gunslinger does a great job at making all three styles flow well. Players can also wield whichever weapon they want regardless of skill set, though the skill set can make all the difference. If all else fails, Silas can usually grab a nearby stick of dynamite.

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Do I pick intestine-shredding buckshot or insta-lobotomy sharpshooting?

Gunslinger‘s gunslinging is some of the most fun arcade shooting to be had in recent years. The game gets flashy with its first-person shooting as only arcade shooters can, focusing on stylized kills instead of gritty realism. Stripping the gunplay down to basic arcade shooting is what makes it work, and making players feel like a Wild West gunslinger is what makes it fun. Gunslinger aptly balances between providing a challenge for inveterate shooter fans and the fun of being able to line up a row of headshots like old whiskey bottles.

In addition to killing foes with style, Silas can regenerate health by taking cover away from the fight (in keeping with a lot of FPS games these days). Racking up enough kills allows players to slow time and pick off enemies with surgical precision. Silas can also build up luck, which allows players to slow time once more and dodge incoming bullets. Realistic? No. Fun? Oh yes. Even if the arrangements of enemies are almost painfully linear, shooting them with gusto is endlessly entertaining.

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Line ’em up!

The final piece of Silas’s crusade through the Wild West is dueling famous outlaws. Most missions end in a steely eyed showdown between Silas and the now-former leader of all the bandits the player just killed. Some of these encounters are conventional boss fights, where Silas has to take down the enemy’s health bar while remaining out of range. Other encounters, though, are video game recreations of the old high noon showdowns so endemic to the legends of the Wild West.

Duels are the most complex of Gunslinger‘s gameplay features. Players have to keep an eye on their opponent’s stance and how close their hand is to their gun… while also monitoring how close Silas’ hand is to his firearm. Players have to maintain their focus on the other person’s position; the more focus Silas has, the more likely he is to draw quickly. Players get a slap on the hand for shooting first (something George Lucas should know plenty about) and a bonus for killing the other guy even if he draws first.

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Alright Ole S****y Teeth, the gig is up. Tell me where the gold is, gal-durnit!

Gunslinger doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an arcade shooter but this leaves the game vulnerable to arcade shooters’ greatest flaw: repetition. Even as the backgrounds of Silas’s missions change, the pattern of killing a bunch of outlaws in a clearing, walking for a bit, and then killing a bunch of outlaws in the next clearing becomes wearily predictable. It’s not un-fun by any means, but it may preclude being able to enjoy the game in long sittings.

Players who buy Gunslinger on PC might experience a few other problems, particularly texture pop-in. The occasional crash is also not unheard of, and neither issue can be readily addressed in the game’s B-rate options menu. Gunslinger is four years old though, so it should run adequately on most machines these days. Just don’t get hopping mad if the game suddenly dies; at the very least, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s roster of bugs is still nothing compared to Techland’s other games, especially Dead Island.

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These dudes are about to get the crash of their lives.

Texture pop-in doesn’t do much to dispel Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s beauty. The entire game is a vividly colored western landscape from start to finish, replete with dusty browns and autumn golds. The production is layered with just a touch of cel shading, which helps its bright colors and sharply textured in-game objects stand out all the more. It’s an enrapturing production that remains consistent across all of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s various environments.

What are those environments, one might ask? Throughout Silas’s journey, players can expect to traverse locales ranging from a dusty old town to labyrinthine gold mines. Gunslinger includes the usual suspects for a western game like big canyons and precarious train tresses but also includes buggy swamps, snowy mountains, and other less iconic environments that hurt no less for beauty. These levels tend to all have similar mission design despite their disparate settings, but the environmental variety does help stymie that aforementioned feeling of repetition.

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is beautiful.

The story that all of this game design informs is nothing that hasn’t been told a thousand times in other Wild West stories. Somebody betrayed the protagonist a long time ago and now he’s out for revenge, taking down every last bandit standing between him and his vengeance. Though the tale of Silas Greaves does nothing to subvert the trope of the vengeful gunslinger, it does benefit from decent writing, excellent voice acting, and bombastic sound design that captures every detail down to the dry squeak of Silas’s old leather gloves.

One exception Call of Juarez: Gunslinger makes in its adherence to Wild West tropes is exploration of the unreliable narrator. As Silas tells his tale, he makes some outlandish and incredible claims about his story that don’t quite add up. These inconsistencies occur during gameplay as random environmental shifts. Some of these shifts feel gratuitous, like when players fight their way through a mine only for Silas to remember that he actually took the stairs, but it’s fun to see a video game toy with implementing a faulty memory as a game mechanic instead of just a plot point.

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That right there is the face of a man who can’t remember whether he left the stove on.

Even if Call of Juarez: Gunslinger wasn’t a criminally underrated arcade shooter or a colorful jaunt through an old man’s memories, it serves as a tourney through some of the greatest legends of the Wild West. Silas encounters (or claims to encounter) such famous faces as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy in his adventures throughout the west, making Gunslinger a beautiful tour of Wild West legends as much as a fun first-person shooter. Players into one or either of those things should pick up a copy of Gunslinger and make their own mark on the Old West.

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You can buy Call of Juarez: Gunslinger here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.