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.

Bastion

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The world has been shattered. Find a way to put it back together.

PC Release: July 20, 2011

By Ian Coppock

A good fairy tale has poignancy bubbling beneath its colorful aesthetic, and Bastion is no exception. When Supergiant Games’ debut title shipped in 2011, it received acclaim for aptly combining colorful illustrations with a surprisingly deep narrative. Traditional fables and fairy tales that accomplish that combination are often remembered long after publication, and Bastion‘s enduring popularity is probably due to it having accomplished that goal as well. What else, if anything, does this beloved game have going for it?

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Bastion is an isometric adventure game set in the magical world of Caelondia. The Kid, Bastion‘s star and player character, wakes up in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event called the Calamity. The once shining and prosperous Caelondia has been shattered into a thousand floating pieces, and the Kid needs to find his way out of the ruins and to safety. No one’s to say what or who caused the Calamity, but before long the Kid stumbles upon the game’s titular Bastion. According to legend, the Bastion has the ability to rewind time… provided that the Kid can find its missing power cores.

The Kid decides to set out in search of the cores so that he can rewind time and undo the Calamity. He’s aided in his quest by Rucks, an old man who also serves as the game’s gravelly voiced narrator, and a handful of other survivors secreted throughout the post-apocalyptic landscape. Finding the cores isn’t as simple as traveling from island to island, though; each level in Bastion is crawling with strange ghouls and legendary beasts. The Kid will have to fight through all of them to snatch the cores and power up the Bastion.

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Ooooooo

Players can engage these foes with a wide variety of melee and ranged weapons found throughout the ruins of Caelondia. The Kid starts the party out with a large hammer and a repeater rifle, but players can also find swords, bows, pistols, and other killing implements later on in the game. Combat in Bastion is pretty simple, just hit or shoot at the enemy until their health expires and they vanish into the ether. It’s usually easy to tease an attack out of an enemy and then counter-strike. The Kid can drink health tonics if he gets too roughed up and black tonics to charge up special attacks.

The Kid has a few other options for rounding out his combat abilities. Players can find chunks of material out in the wilds useful for upgrading weapons and can drink buff-granting alcoholic beverages at the local watering hole. Players who are feeling extra adventurous can activate strange idols that make the game harder but that also grant extra experience points. The Kid can access all of this stuff by using cores to upgrade the Bastion’s facilities and pay for it using crystal fragments dropped by enemies. It’s fun to come back to the Bastion after a hard level’s adventuring and rebuild it piece by piece.

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Oh we’re putting in the distillery. No question.

Bastion‘s gameplay is fun, if a bit simplistic. Despite the game’s admirable variety in level design, the Kid’s penchant for combat remains relatively unexplored beyond just slicing and shooting at foes. The Kid can level up, but the benefits of doing so are limited just to carrying more health potions and picking a few added benefits from each of the Bastion’s buildings. There was definitely some potential for Supergiant to add more depth to the Kid; having class-esque warrior or mage skill trees would’ve been a perfect fit for this fairy apocalypse.

All of that said, Bastion does a good job keeping its levels wild and its enemies unpredictable. The Kid will find a random assortment of enemies, bosses, and environmental hazards in each level, so even if the combat is a bit shallow, the rhythm of in-game battles changes constantly. One level might have its boss fight at the very beginning followed by a slog through smaller foes afterward. Another might end up being a very short level in which the Kid has to run along a falling island. Each level is different, which helps keep players wondering what excitement is around the corner.

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A wild gasbag appeared! It used chili farts! It hurt itself in its confusion!

Varied level design and enemy assortments aren’t all that Bastion‘s world has going for it. The game is one of the most beautifully illustrated titles of the decade. Each level is bursting with color and delicately drawn object details that range from crumbling masonry to thousand-color pockets of wilderness. Bastion is packed with thousands of objects and decorations in its levels, while paintings of forests and valleys make for beautiful backdrops. It’s a beautiful game that renders notions of the apocalypse always being bleak incorrect.

Bastion‘s mastery with color is accompanied by fluid character animations. Though the Kid could stand to move a little faster, his and the other characters’ animations are sound. Enemies are drawn in a similar fashion, looking more like living paintings than anything else. These animations aptly combine with the aforementioned visuals to make Bastion‘s world glow with life. Even if players somehow tire of Bastion‘s gameplay, they won’t be hurting for pretty things to look at.

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(creepy drooling noises)

Bastion doesn’t stop the buck at producing amazing visual art, as its soundtrack is also quite lovely. In many ways the game’s OST is reminiscent of Braid, with lots of quick little violins and thoughtful acoustic guitars. Occasionally the game includes more somber music, particularly toward the end. Bastion also brings high-quality sound design to the table; everything, even the Kid’s footsteps on gravel, were recorded with rich detail. Bastion‘s acute attention to good sound design makes the game come alive that much more (just listening to the Kid sort through booze bottles is relaxing. Clink, clink, clink).

Bastion‘s single voice acting performance comes from Logan Cunningham, who channels a Sam Elliott-esque air in narrating the Kid’s journey. The narrator chips in at a regular clip throughout nearly all of Bastion’s levels, providing backstory on the regions the Kid visits and insights into what the silent protagonist is thinking. Cunningham’s performance is up there with Kevan Brighting’s narration in The Stanley Parable as one of the most masterful game narrator performances in recent years. He’s instantly likable in Bastion as a character who ponders (and dispenses barbed wit) like an old man.

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Tranquil in destruction.

Bastion‘s narrative relies on a time-old, show-don’t-tell setup that prefers to focus on the Kid and his companions; Caelondia already has plenty of screentime through its beautiful visuals. The narrator dispenses details about the Calamity in crisp, concise sound bites that focus on what the world used to be instead of just what it’s become post-disaster. Because the Kid doesn’t talk, the narrator’s guidance through the world of Caelondia is usually the player’s only direct source of information. Players interested in more exposition can learn about characters’ pasts by partaking in combat challenges. Kind of a random way to learn more story, but it’s interesting stuff.

Bastion, like the best old fairy tales mentioned earlier, aptly shifts between warm and dark tones in its storytelling. It delivers humor and heart in all the right places, but as the Kid gets closer to restoring the Bastion, he learns some uncomfortable truths about the Calamity that grind his efforts to a halt. Players have to make some tough choices in finishing the Bastion and deciding what to do with it once the mythical fortress is restored. The game resonates with heartfelt emotions that, much like a good fable, climax with just a touch of somberness.

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How did this happen?

Bastion‘s story is also comparable to a Pixar film in that it can be appreciated by players of all ages. The game’s worth considering for gamers who have children, as it’s relatively simple to pick up and play through together. Bastion has the outer sense of adventure that young gamers love, but its narrative has mature undertones that older players will appreciate. That versatility is surprisingly absent in game media these days, but it underscores Bastion‘s visual and narrative charm.

Bastion‘s limited options menu is less charming than it is, well, limited, but at least the game runs well. Despite not leaving players with that many options in the event of a performance issue, the game’s hand-drawn visuals are not taxing. Bastion runs as well on a monster rig as it does an old Microsoft laptop, and it also pairs well with a gamepad. Between being almost six years old and doing away with attempts at hyper-polygonal realism, Bastion is a safe bet for players who are anxious about performance problems.

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Go forth and be awesome.

Bastion is one of the best isometric adventure games ever made. The game masterfully combines stunning artwork and quality writing with fun gameplay. Even if that gameplay runs the risk of being simplistic, this is compensated for by Bastion‘s varied level and enemy design. This is a game that fans of every genre should buy and try as soon as possible, especially with Supergiant’s latest project, Pyre, just around the corner. Bastion is one of those games whose emotions and world will stick with gamers years after the fact… just like a good fairy tale.

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You can buy Bastion 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.

I Am Alive

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Search for your family amid the ruins of civilization.

PC Release: September 6, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Horror games tend to focus on sci-fi or fantasy instead of realism. Why not? It’s relatively easy to conjure up a terrifying monster or a horde of zombies. To spook up something more realistic, like a human, requires context and attention to detail that many horror games don’t have the patience to lay out. It requires that the player know or fear something about that person that isn’t always an obvious visual detail. I Am Alive is such a game, preferring to focus not on the horror of a bloodthirsty monster, but on the horrors that everyday people can commit in desperate situations.

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If that morose introduction wasn’t enough of a hint, I Am Alive is a survival horror game. The title was made by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio and released in 2011 after spending half a decade in development hell. About a year later, I Am Alive was ported to PC, where it enjoyed a much more lukewarm response than its console counterparts. Though I Am Alive‘s horror is an important component, the game is also a gritty survival challenge. It’s hardly alone in being a post-apocalyptic game, but it’s unique in that it presents a post-apocalyptic world without zombies or mutants.

I Am Alive takes place one year after the Event, an apocalyptic earthquake that destroys countless cities worldwide and brings about the end of civilization. The nameless protagonist of I Am Alive is a survivor who has spent the last 12 months walking back to his home city of Haventon, where he hopes to find his wife and daughter. The game begins as he approaches the outskirts of Haventon, intent on making his way into the felled metropolis and finding his family.

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Don’t look down.

I Am Alive is played from a third-person perspective and incorporates elements of climbing, shooter, and hack’n’slash gameplay. The survivor can scuttle up surfaces like an insect thanks to his handy dandy climbing harness, but he has only so much stamina with which to do so. This ain’t no Assassin’s Creed; players have very finite climbing energy and will fall to their death if they can’t reach a horizontal surface in time. Players who are quick can regain lost stamina, but spend too much time monkeying around and the stamina bar begins to permanently shorten. The only way to restore its length is with precious food and water.

I Am Alive‘s climbing challenges make for some of the game’s most tense moments. As the survivor takes longer to reach the nearest surface, an itchy little violin starts rubbing against players’ eardrums like a mosquito. Compound this with the game’s frequent use of unclear paths upward, and climbing can feel like disarming a ticking time bomb. It’s a brilliant mix of sound and level design where both elements can make even the most seasoned survivalist feel anxious with every passing second. Even planning a climbing route can only do so much to preempt that alarming violin. Risky climbing maneuvers cause the music to crescendo.

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Oh God oh God oh God go go GO!

Even more tense than I Am Alive‘s free-climbing is its combat. The survivor has a pistol and machete with which to defend himself against Haventon’s many bandits, but ammo for the gun is scarce. The survivor can trick enemies into thinking the gun is loaded, but pull the trigger on an empty clip and they’ll see the ruse for what it is. Players will often be outnumbered by foes, so figuring out who to shoot and who to tell to back up can be dreadfully tense. Players can also trick enemies into thinking they’re unarmed and cut them with the machete when the bandits get too close.

I Am Alive‘s concept of pre-combat being more terrifying than combat is fascinating, but the execution suffers from clunky controls. Players have to manage shifting between multiple enemies (some of whom will try to jump the survivor if he’s not looking) and the controls for doing so are pretty un-intuitive. Indeed, players are just as likely to die from not shifting the mouse quickly enough as they are from a bullet to the head. Fortunately, picking up on the rhythm of managing enemies is not that hard. Killing the mouthy bandit first is Post-Apocalypse 101.

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Alright everyone, back up! Back. The f***. Up.

I Am Alive‘s controls suffer in other departments as well. The character has to take wide turns and the camera feels janky. Sometimes the controls just flat-out don’t respond, which can be a problem when the player is trying to shoot a bandit or climb up a building. There’s more than one segment in this game where the survivor is within arm’s reach of a horizontal surface but can’t reach it, and not because of invisible walls. Similarly, shooting and looking controls may sometimes not respond.

I Am Alive‘s user interface also needed a bit more cooking time before Ubisoft pulled it out of the oven. Ridiculous as it may sound, it can be difficult to tell what types of supplies restore the health or stamina bars, and by how much. Does that can of beans restore the stamina bar to its proper length, or just replenish the amount of stamina that can currently fit in it? These issues could’ve been easily avoided with some simple UI fixes; hell, Ubisoft Shanghai makes the Far Cry games, and those have simple enough UIs. No such luck for I Am Alive.

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Y’all got any extra beans?

The story in I Am Alive is more impressive than its controls, even if it ends up taking a game-long detour. The survivor gets back to his old home in downtown Haventon, and finds a note his wife left behind nearly a year earlier. That’s about as far as his search for his family goes, as he quickly gets roped into rescuing another wife-and-daughter pair who are on the run from a particularly sadistic bandit clan. The survivor also teams up with Henry, a cagey local who seems to know every nook and cranny in the city.

Despite a valiant voice acting effort from Elias Toufexis as Henry, none of these characters are particularly memorable. The survivor is a pretty blank slate, offering rote observations of how bad things have gotten since the apocalypse but coming up with few original ideas. Most missions are helmed by Henry, who yells at the survivor to get going up this skyscraper or down that subway tunnel. The entire point of a nameless character is to get players wondering who they are, but the survivor is not that compelling. More’s the pity; there’s plenty of room for emotions of anxiety and longing that go unexplored in I Am Alive.

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Where are we going?

Despite the main narrative being, well… not that great (and ending on a huge cliffhanger that will likely never be followed up) players on the hunt for post-apocalyptic fiction can find it from a few other survivors throughout the city. Not everyone will shoot the survivor on sight but some are armed, so be careful about testing their patience. Unscrupulous players can kill “good guy” survivors and take their stuff, but these hardened individuals won’t go down without a fight. Still others are people in need of certain supplies. Usually they have nothing to offer in return, but do provide backstory on the Event.

I Am Alive offers a small open world that has just as much vertical space as horizontal. Though players can spend as much time as they want creeping through gas stations and exploring subway tunnels, very little of this space has anything of value in it. There’s no impetus for exploration except the sake of exploration. Given how many bandits are roaming around, the chance to look at the environment is something most players will likely find too risky. Some areas can’t be revisited, so pick them clean.

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Just kickin’ it.

The other problem precluding exploration in I Am Alive is how ugly the game is. It’s a given that a post-apocalyptic game probably doesn’t burst with bright colors, but I Am Alive is done out almost exclusively in dull shades of gray. The textures and character models look atrocious, having more in common with a game that came out in 2004 than 2011. The objects in I Am Alive have no sharpness to them at all, looking more like smudgy polygons than anything else. Though the survivor’s climbing animations are decent, they’re about the only decent visual element I Am Alive has to offer.

I Am Alive‘s sound design is a bit better. The aforementioned climbing violin is a great way to ratchet up the tension, and the game also comes with some beautiful music driven by mournful piano chords. The voice acting’s pretty good; not great, but definitely serviceable. Guns go off with startling force, and players are constantly hounded by the sounds of groundquakes and distant cries for help. It’s a functioning stew of unsettling noises that does a better job of giving I Am Alive its haunting atmosphere than the graphics.

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HI BUDDY

Despite I Am Alive‘s many failings, the game’s biggest success is its portrayal of the lows desperate people can sink to. The game pulls no punches in its graphic depictions of violence, however poorly rendered they may be. I Am Alive also contains some of gaming’s most visceral depictions of sexual assault, which, while heavy to witness, reinforce the game’s hopeless atmosphere. The violence makes the player feel alone and afraid in a city full of monsters; not zombies, mutants or the creatures present in dozens of other titles, but the monsters inside of people—the creatures that even the best people can devolve into under the worst circumstances.

Video games that do these sorts of exposés on humanity are surprisingly few and far between. Gaming presents a unique opportunity for humanity studies, because players engage more directly with them than with books, movies, and television. I Am Alive is almost shocking in its portrayal of callous survivalism. Even though its enemies are just dudes with machetes, that context can make them more terrifying than even the most disturbing creatures in Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Soma. Humans are complicated, and though I Am Alive spends most of its time showing them at their worst, it also shows them at their best.

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In its own way, this is one of the darkest games ever made.

It’s a shame that the one thing I Am Alive does well is outweighed by all of its poor design decisions. Even players who are excited after reading about this game should know that its PC port is awful. Seriously, it’s garbage, and don’t even bother trying it out on an AMD card. In fact, I Am Alive‘s PC port is probably the worst such port Ubisoft has ever released; yes, even worse than Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity. Crestfallen PC gamers interested in this types of horror game should take heart that others like it might be on the horizon. If I Am Alive can’t get props for being a functioning or well-designed game, it gets credit for being a horror game about the monsters inside of each of us.

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You can buy I Am Alive 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.

12 is Better Than 6

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Face off against every gun in the Wild West on a quest to remember your past.

PC Release: November 20, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Before the advent of air conditioning and rule of law, the Wild West was a lively mix of anarchy, sand, and cheap Colt revolvers. A place that, more than anywhere else, exemplified the idea of the law being only as strong as man’s resolve to enforce it. Western books and films tend to look back at that period with rose-tinted glasses, preferring to focus on John Wayne riding off into the sunset instead of the astonishing crime rate or the locals’ penchant for dirty booze. 12 is Better Than 6 crushes those rose-tinted glasses beneath a mud-crusted boot.

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Created by the rabid anarchists at Ink Stains Games, 12 is Better Than 6 is a chaotic top-down shooter set in the Wild West. Players assume the role of the Mexican, a nameless vigilante on the run from some bad dudes down south, as he tries to find a safe haven from his pursuers and undo his amnesia. The Mexican is wanted for some pretty heinous crimes, so players can bet that there are cowboys intent on making a “citizen’s arrest” around every corner.

Luckily, 12 is Better Than 6 ensures that players are equipped to deal with hordes of bloodthirsty banditos. The Mexican can wield any of the pistols, rifles, and shotguns found throughout the game, as well as sticks of dynamite usually found stuffed inside Bible drawers. Players finish each mission by killing all the bad guys and completing objectives. If the Mexican gets outgunned, players have to start that stage from the very beginning. Though deaths in 12 is Better Than 6 are a dime a, well, dozen, respawns are instantaneous.

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Now THIS is what I call a fiesta!

Between its top-down gameplay and instant respawns, 12 is Better Than 6 draws obvious inspiration from Hotline Miami. As with that game, players can quickly move around large maps loudly firing at enemies or quietly slitting their throats. The Mexican can only take 1-2 hits before dying himself, so finding cover and using tactics are vital to survival. Unlike Hotline Miami, players can find money and items stashed around the environment and use them to upgrade the Mexican. An old conquistador’s chest plate works wonders for stopping bullets, but only if the Mexican can cough up the pesos.

The levels in 12 is Better Than 6 comprise a tight mix of open desert and constrictive buildings, forcing players to switch combat styles on the fly. Most enemies go down in one hit, but players have to remember to cock their gun before each shot. That little detail is both fealty to history and an added layer of challenge. 12 is Better Than 6 does an admirable job switching between environments so players don’t have to worry about shooting up samey saloons (say that five times fast) over and over. From desolate canyons to bustling towns, 12 is Better Than 6 succeeds at bringing the Wild West to life.

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Must’ve had some of that reaper pepper chili.

12 is Better Than 6 is drawn in a gorgeous monochromatic style that includes hand-drawn characters, environments, and objects. The only color the game does sport is red, which flies all over the map during the many, many gunfights. The game’s characters are beautifully animated, though their giant hats can make 12 is Better Than 6 look like someone is playing chess with little 10-gallon caps. The Mexican sports a particularly large sombrero that, while awesome, can make it difficult to tell which direction he’s facing.

Though it can occasionally be difficult to tell whether the Mexican is facing the gunfight, 12 is Better Than 6‘s controls make gunslinging a cinch. Players can move quickly from cover to cover and aim whatever heat the Mexican’s packing with deadly precision. The Mexican can pick ammo up from bad guys or simply take their weapons from their cold, dead hands. That latter option is a lifesaver when there’s no time to reload. In addition to the story missions, the Mexican can also take side quests from folks in town. Almost all of them revolve around killing lots of people. Wild West indeed!

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Before HR, this is how coworkers resolved disputes.

The missions in 12 is Better Than 6 are fun bouts of top-down shooting, but they have a dangerous tendency to blend together. No matter the goal the Mexican is pursuing, it usually lies on the other side of about two dozen raging rodeleros. Even though retrieving a package or killing a bandit read like different objectives on paper, the gameplay for each mission goes through the same paces. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does run the risk of making 12 is Better Than 6 feel repetitive. Luckily, that feeling of repetition is staved off by the game’s varied level design.

Come to think of it, the actual narrative in 12 is Better Than 6 is a bit repetitive too. The Mexican starts the story out just trying not to die, but eventually wins a few allies and starts trying to figure out who he is. The convenient amnesia trope has been beaten into video gaming at this point, and 12 is Better Than 6 sure doesn’t try to reinvent the spoked wheel. The Mexican gets pointed toward someone who can help him discover his identity, everything goes to hell, and he ends up getting just enough information to lead to the next piece of the puzzle. So on, and so on.

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All I wanted was a little gold dust. Is that so much to ask?!

12 is Better Than 6‘s narrative is no different from the other amnesiac revenge stories in gaming, but the title’s frantic pace and humorous writing will keep players invested in the Mexican’s story. The Mexican himself is an uncomplicated villain, a character who doesn’t busy himself with notions of fairness and is instead only interested in killing as many non-Hispanic people as possible. If he can’t shoot his way to the solution, it’s not the solution he’s looking for. The character’s near-complete lack of humanity makes him curiously compelling.

12 is Better Than 6 also features a supporting cast of kooky characters, including a crippled bandit who styles himself a true Robin Hood and a white guy who smoked a little too much ganja and is now convinced he’s Native American. These dudes are hardly ideal companions, but that’s what gives 12 is Better Than 6 its grim atmosphere and moments of off-color humor. As the Mexican adds more and more factions to his enemies’ list, he meets foes that are similarly ridiculous or dangerous in their composure. All of this culminates in an ending that, while abrupt, is perfectly in character for the game.

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I wonder what horse meat chili would taste like…

No top-down shooter is complete without a great soundtrack, and 12 is Better Than 6 comes to that gunfight fully prepared. The game’s OST is a rollicking jamboree of southwest rock, with lots of heavy electric guitars, drums, and gravelly harmonicas. The music, like the game itself, is fast-paced, enhancing 12 is Better Than 6‘s top-gear gunslinging. Occasionally the music incorporates other instruments and sounds, like the proud brass blaring of a trumpet, but is always built on a foundation of fast drums and guitars.

12 is Better Than 6 compounds its rocking tunes with excellent sound design. Guns pop off with alarmingly loud force, and knives cut through tendons with cringe-worthy slicing sounds. Occasionally players can mount cannons to take on large groups of enemies, and the sound those things make could shake the thorns off a cactus, I tell ya what. Good sound design can do wonders for a shooter’s adrenaline factor, and it kicks into overdrive for 12 is Better Than 6.

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I’ve been killin’ on the railroad…

12 is Better Than 6 comes with a few other game modes for players who aren’t interested in gunslinger tales. There’s an arena mode where players can face off against waves of foes, and though it doesn’t have any sort of narrative, it’s a lot of fun to play. There’s also a challenge mode unlocked after the story where the Mexican… faces… off against waves of foes? Okay, so the two modes are functionally identical, but the latter is a bit harder and is more of a post-narrative brawl than the arena mode. Both are fun, so no worries.

12 is Better Than 6 could’ve done with a better options menu, though. The game has lots of options when it comes to modes and challenges, but its graphical and audio toggles could’ve done with, well… more graphical and audio toggles. Players can only rely on a catch-all graphics quality slider, an FPS toggle, and gameplay and music volume sliders to control their 12 is Better Than 6 experience. The game is not visually complicated and can run on most machines without a hitch, but there’s nothing wrong with including as many options as possible to deal with potential issues.

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Decisions, decisions…

12 is Better Than 6 overcomes repetitive gameplay with fantastic top-down level design and beautiful black-and-white visuals. Its story is nothing new to video games or to the western genre, but it livens up old plot points with funny writing and a self-deprecating fixation on Wild West tropes. All told, it’s a challenging and fun shooter that does more than merely scratch the Hotline Miami itch. It presents an affable story and fun gunplay in a gameplay format that fits the Wild West like a glove.

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You can buy 12 is Better Than 6 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.