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.

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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.

Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II

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Slash your way to victory in three-sided multiplayer battles.

PC Release: January 1, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Back in the olden days, vikings would send their loved ones out with a bang. When an old viking finally keeled over and bit the mead horn, his corpse was sometimes placed on a burning ship as a dramatic sendoff to Valhalla. This month’s series of Source multiplayer mod reviews is set to go out in a similar fashion: with a huge, chaotic fire that consumes everything in its path and leaves players stranded on the shoreline, wondering what just happened. That unconquerable flame is none other than Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II.

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Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II (let’s just called it PVK II, that full name is… long) is a game that pits its three titular factions against each other in fierce melee battles. The title’s been floating around the web in one form or another for a little over a decade, but calls the Steam store its main port of call. Even though it’s over a decade old, PVK II has enjoyed a consistent fanbase and continued attention from its developers at Octoshark Studios. The title is generally regarded as one of the most popular multiplayer hack’n’slash games on PC, second only to Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.

PVK II was built in the Source engine, leveraging that software’s power to build medieval and Caribbean landscapes of impressive visual quality. Thanks to continued updates from Octoshark, the game features sharp textures, rich object detail, and masterfully implemented lighting. PVK II also has seventeen maps for players to battle across, giving them no shortage of beautiful environments in which to brutally kill each other. PVK II‘s Source engine construction means that it has that lovely Source multiplayer options menu, which leaves no stone un-turned in terms of what players can tweak.

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Glorious.

Like a few of the other Source multiplayer games being reviewed this month, PVK II has excellent map design. Each map is fairly large and features 4-5 levels of elevation for players to run around in, from dark rum cellars up to the tops of knightly towers. It’s lucky that the maps are expansive, because PVK II features three concurrent teams of players fighting against one another. It’d be interesting to see such chaos confined to a much smaller area, but PVK II‘s level design means that there’s more room for the blood to spill.

PVK II retains this consistency in level design even though its maps are set all over the world. At any point players can expect to be fighting in a lawless Caribbean town, only for the next match to start in a Viking hamlet or an English cathedral. Each level has the same penchant for alternating between different elevations as well as between wide and constricted areas. This level variety helps keep gameplay fresh and allows players to find creative new opportunities for combat.

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HAVE AT THEE!

PVK II divides its players between pirate, viking and knight factions, each with its own classes of ranged and melee fighters. Pirates come to battle packing cutlass-wielding buccaneers and drunken sharpshooters, while vikings use lots of big melee weapons and the occasional throwing ax. The knights are arguably the most conventional of the three factions, but that doesn’t stop their armored swordsmen from being true terrors on the battlefield or their longbowmen from being deadly snipers. Each faction is pretty well-balanced; just suspend the disbelief that drunk pirates could face off against knights.

Once players pick their warriors, it’s time to take to the battlefield and defeat the two other factions that are also vying for glory. Each match in PVK II is three-sided, which guarantees at least 33% more chaos than more conventional multiplayer games can. PVK II currently has three multiplayer modes: Booty, a game that has less to do with posteriors and more with taking treasure chests to a home base; Territory, a King of the Hill-style mode all about capturing command points; and Deathmatch, a good old-fashioned team-based sword mauling.

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Booty acquired.

The actual hand-to-hand swordplay in PVK II is an uncomplicated mix of slashing and blocking. Just approach an enemy player and proceed to swing until they’re an eviscerated pile of meat on the ground. Each class of warrior has a few weapons to pick from and most can choose between a heavy two-handed killing implement and a smaller, quicker weapon. Switching between weapons on the fly is pretty simple, but the key to victory in PVK II is anticipating an opening in the enemy’s defense. Strike too soon or too late and the enemy will likely have their way with the player’s small intestines.

Ranged weapons are less common in PVK II, but they can be quite powerful. Classes like the Pirates’ sharpshooter come with a long-range weapon as their primary, but it’s usually pretty slow to reload. Some classes have what could almost be considered joke weapons that, while funny-looking, are lethally effective on the battlefield. Word to the wise: any player who spots a parrot flying toward them should run far, far away. That’s not a friendly local bird. That’s Polly, the Captain class’s avian killing machine.

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Who’s a good boy?

Although PVK II‘s various classes are pretty well-balanced overall, a few can become pretty OP under certain conditions. The Captain’s parrot is essentially a guided missile that can reload faster than most other ranged weapons, giving that class a distinct advantage over other warriors with ranged weapons. The Vikings’ Berserker can be an overpowered killer in the right hands, as players can simply run around while holding down his slash attack button. Because he attacks with two melee weapons, the Berserker can make short work of any foe by simply holding down mouse 1.

That said, PVK II‘s classes have been carefully tweaked over the years to give resourceful players an edge on the battlefield. Players are given a fair amount of health at the start of each round and can maintain that vitality with a hearty plate of Thanksgiving turkey. Some classes also come with armor, which is great for prolonging longevity on a battlefield full of piss-drunk pirates, even drunker vikings, and knights armed with seven-foot swords.

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I KNIGHT THEE SIR DINNERLOT!

PVK II‘s community is alive and kicking despite the game being over 10 years old. Part of that is due in no small part to the game being free, which also means that the community is an eclectic mix of seasoned veterans and new kids on the block who have an afternoon to blow. Despite a lack of matchmaking, PVK II‘s community is usually pretty civil. There’s always that one guy who takes the match far too seriously and barks out orders like a true armchair general, but most players are just there to have fun. A game called Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Because the title is free, PVK II makes for an easy party night with friends. Get some buddies, divide them up into teams of three, and see which ones are better at grabbing treasure and taking names (in other words, who the real friends are). Either way, most players can expect the Deathmatch mode to be the most common order of battle in PVK II. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to witness a mashup between knights, vikings, and pirates?

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Yarr, where be the booze and wenches?

In all reality, PVK II has a lot of good things going for it. The community is lively and usually forgiving of noobs, the game looks great and runs well, and its three-sided matches are a lot of fun. Octoshark Studios continues to update the game on a regular basis and does a good job of interacting with the community. Even though PVK II is technically still in beta, it provides a solid, visceral multiplayer experience for the low, low price of zero dollars and zero cents.

So… why are you still here? Get the game, get on a pirate ship or viking longboat, and get to raiding the enemy’s stash of treasure. Even the most chivalrous of knights have a greedy streak a mile long (and pirates’ and vikings’ are much longer), so charge into battle and defy not one, but two groups of foes in one of Source multiplayer’s greatest adventures. At the very least, it provides a fun hack’n’slash alternative to players who’ve had their fill of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare or of waiting for For Honor to work properly.

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You can buy Pirates, Vikings and Knights II 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.

Double Action: Boogaloo

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Take down enemies with high-flying action movie stunts.

PC Release: October 23, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Even though the 80’s happened nearly a third of a century ago, nostalgia for them is still alive and well. Sometimes that fondness takes the form of listening to Rick Astley… other times it’s a hetero man-crush on Kurt Russell. Arguably the most common kind of 80’s nostalgia, though, is avid appreciation for that era’s action movies. Double Action: Boogaloo shares its enthusiasm for such films to the point where the game’s DNA seems to scream Lethal Weapon and Die Hard when examined under a microscope.

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Double Action: Boogaloo is a Source multiplayer mod that lives and breathes 80’s action tropes. The title was released for free onto Steam a few years ago and, in the words of developer Double Action Factory, seeks to recreate the high-flying, slow-motion thrills endemic to the 1980’s movie scene. Double Action: Boogaloo benefits from the Source multiplayer options menu that puts virtually every other options menu out there to shame, and it also starts players out with the fast-paced, horns-filled music that anyone who’s seen a buddy cop film will instantly recognize.

The objective in Double Action: Boogaloo is simple: engage other players in a prolonged battle while completing small objectives that randomly pop up during the match. These usually consist of killing a wanted man or taking a briefcase full of loot. Each match is a free-for-all; don’t expect any teams or backup from friends in Double Action: Boogaloo. This setup comprises Double Action‘s sole gameplay mode, and even though the game is free to play, that’s a pretty paltry selection for a multiplayer title.

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Yes, yes, begin with the dramatic panning shot over the crime-filled metropolis…

Players start out each match by picking from one three tough-looking 80’s action heroes (one of whom looks like Nick from Left 4 Dead 2). Players then pick from a roster of pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and other weapons, none of which will be new to shooter fans. Finally, players have to pick a combat specialty. Athletes are great at running and sliding long distances, while the Marksman class is for players who enjoy being able to aim. From there, it’s straight into the, well, action. Third-person action, to be precise.

Right off the bat, it’s a bit weird that there are only three player characters. Matches in Double Action: Boogaloo can support far more people, meaning that a full server will have lots of clone motorcycle greasers and well-dressed hitmen running around. Usernames ameliorate this problem somewhat, but the limited selection of characters remains conspicuous. Were doppelgangers a common trope in 80’s action films? Not to feed Double Action Factory excuses for their design choices, but that plot twist wouldn’t look out of place in the 80’s.

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Yippee ki yay, mother… uh… mother dearest.

Double Action: Boogaloo‘s main novelty is the ability to jump and slide around while shooting. Know those scenes in action movies when Bruce Willis or Simon Pegg or whomever is jumping through the air while firing two handguns at once? Double Action lets players recreate that stunt, jumping forward, backward, or to the side. Players can also perform this ability while sliding along the ground, whether the surface is linoleum or a big ol’ pile of rubble. Friction didn’t exist in 80’s action movies and it certainly doesn’t exist in Double Action: Boogaloo.

This jumping and sliding ability is funny for the first hour, but it doesn’t take long for Double Action‘s central novelty to wear off. Part of the problem is that apart from this one mechanic, Double Action‘s third-person shooting gameplay feels generic. When players aren’t shooting while jumping, they’re shooting while running around… much like in any other TPS title. Double Action‘s single gameplay mode limits the fun further; the game would’ve benefited from fleshing out its briefcase retrieval and hitman objectives into full-fledged modes.

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YAAAAAAAAAH!!!

The other element that makes Double Action‘s third-person shooting feel cheap is the character animations, which are among the worst such animations of any game reviewed on this page. None of the characters’ movements, from the bow-legged running to pistols being held high in the air, look natural. It’s funny in all the wrong ways, especially when characters abruptly snap into a sliding position while jumping through the air. The character animations in Double Action smack of many things, but not of being a professionally made Source mod.

Come to think of it, the other visual elements in Double Action don’t look all that great either. The Source engine ages less conspicuously than most other engines out there, but that sure doesn’t stop Double Action from having frayed character models and smudgy textures. The lighting’s alright and the level design looks believable, but the actual elements used to build up the game world look subpar. Don’t go into this game expecting a gorgeous action world.

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And here we see a random fog circle on that building.

For all the halted effort that went into Double Action‘s visual design, its sound design is much more enjoyable. Guns and grenades go off with startling force and most other sounds come through in crisp enough quality. The aforementioned music isn’t all that memorable and plays only on the menu screen, but it does a good job of capturing the fast-paced, campy spirit of the best worst 80’s action movies.

It would’ve been funny if Double Action had featured corny one-liners akin to Die Hard or Lethal Weapon. Maybe the game could’ve had a few lines inspired by Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China. Alas, the characters in Double Action are mutes. Sure, their visual design captures the feel of an 80’s movie quite well, but running around yelling cringey quotes about guns and hardships are just as pivotal to action films as the action itself. With the exception of the menu music and character design, though, Double Action‘s sole claim to being an 80’s homage is the aforementioned jumping mechanic.

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Heh. Okay, that’s kinda funny.

The final nail in Double Action‘s coffin is that its multiplayer community is dead. Despite the fact that Double Action Factory has a dedicated server for its game, players will be lucky to find even a single match going on at any given time. Additionally, those matches typically have only 2-3 players in them; very rarely will players find a match with upwards of 8 people in it. It’s hard to know if Double Action ever had a thriving online community, but if it did, those glory days are long gone.

That’s really about it. Double Action is multiplayer game about sliding around and shooting people. That the game is free only does so much when there are only three characters, eight maps, and one gameplay mode to choose from. The third-person shooting is as generic and basic as third-person shooting gets, and though the sound design is pretty good, it’s not any better than Source games with better gameplay and more active communities.

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(sigh)

That Double Action: Boogaloo is free only does so much to doll up its skeletal offering as a game. The title seems less focused on capturing the tropes of 80’s action movies as a whole in favor of a singular fixation on being able to jump sideways while shooting a gun. It’s a funny little gimmick, but one funny little gimmick isn’t enough to save an otherwise underwhelming third-person shooter from feeling as basic as Double Action: Boogaloo. Even though the game is free, players aren’t missing much by avoiding it. That hour or so spent being entertained by side-jumping is better enjoyed watching the 80’s films that inspired it.

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You can buy Double Action: Boogaloo 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.

Monstrum

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Find your way off of a monster-infested ship.

PC Release: May 20, 2015

By Ian Coppock

The final sequence of many horror movies is a pulse-pounding race to safety. The protagonist’s friends are dead, all other options are exhausted, and now it’s up to that character to outrun the monster. How fitting that Monstrum, the final game of this month’s horror lineup, channels that movie sequence in the extreme. The player is all alone, any potential allies are long dead, and now it’s up to them to find a way to safety while being pursued by a ruthless creature. Running into the night sounds like a fitting end to the horrors that have been witnessed here this month, so prepare to do precisely that with Monstrum.

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Monstrum is a spooky escape adventure whipped up by the adrenaline junkies over at Team Junkfish. The game is a first-person exercise in unpredictability and ruthless survival horror, as players attempt to escape an environment while being pursued by a monster. Monstrum‘s usage of scary monsters and unsettling sounds is nothing new to the indie horror genre, but what is novel about the game is the tenacity with which it burns out players’ adrenaline glands. Even Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast have peaceful interludes. Monstrum does not.

Monstrum takes place on a derelict freighter drifting around the Pacific. The player character, a nameless crewman, wakes up stuffed inside a locker and emerges to find their ship devoid of life. The other crewmen seem to be long gone, and there’s a profound sense of something having gone horribly wrong on board. It’s up to players to navigate the dark corridors of the ship and find a way off of it, but they’re not alone. Monsters are about, and they’re none too keen on sharing the lifeboat.

Monstrum2

When you see it, you’ll…

Rather than being a linear story-driven game like the other titles reviewed here this month, Monstrum is a hardcore survival challenge that changes every time players brave it. The goal of the game is to find a way off of the ship, gather the resources necessary to use it, and avoid getting killed by a monster all the while. There are no checkpoints in Monstrum; if players get killed by a monster while they’re running around the ship, they have to start over from the very beginning, losing all of their resources in the process.

To make the game even more difficult, Monstrum changes the ship’s layout with every single playthrough, reshuffling corridors and decks to make the vessel look different with each escape attempt. Some decks of the ship don’t change all that much, but others become nigh unrecognizable, and items randomly shift alongside the environment. The player’s spawning location changes along with the environment, so trying to form a strategy for quickly gathering resources or getting to an escape route is a pointless way to go in most cases.

Monstrum3

Just bringing my radio to the crew lounge and- oh. This is no longer the crew lounge.

The true terror of Monstrum‘s penchant for randomness lies not in the layout of the vessel, but in the monsters themselves. When players start a new round of Monstrum, the game randomly selects one of three creatures to hunt them down and prevent their escape. Each creature uses different methods to track the player and has its own audio and visual cues. One monster sets traps and crawls around in vents, while another stomps around hallways breaking doors (and spines, given the opportunity). The telepathic creature that can suspend fleeing players in the air is particularly… visceral.

Players’ only hope for avoiding these creatures is running and hiding. Monstrum provides no weapons for self-defense, but does let players get creative with distractions and traps. Players can deploy radios and alarm clocks to draw beasties away or trick monsters into stepping over loose floor panels and crashing through to a deck below. The monsters’ AI is pretty ruthless; players can count on almost constantly being pursued through the ship as they try to find a way off of it. Even if the monsters don’t know precisely where the player is, they’ll usually spawn in too close for comfort.

Monstrum4

Where’s the fire escape on this damn ship?!

Players have a few other options for dealing with monsters and making the most of the ship’s environment. Fuse boxes allow players to get into locked rooms full of goodies… provided players can find a fuse. Most rooms on the ship have plenty of places to hide, so players who have a monster hot on their heels can usually stuff themselves inside a locker or under a bed if they have no other choice. Players who aren’t being pursued still have to be careful, though; the ship’s security cameras sound a very loud, monster-drawing alarm if they spot the player.

Players still have to find a way off of the ship while dealing with this kerfuffle of bloodthirsty monsters and hypersensitive security cameras. In this regard, at least, players have a few options: maybe that deflated life raft or that dusty helicopter can do the trick? Some escape methods require more tools and equipment than others, but players can bet that it’s all scattered across the ship and takes some serious legwork to find. A single round of Monstrum can last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, but the game’s procedural generation guarantees replay value.

Monstrum5

Get to the chopper!

Monstrum‘s procedural environments and random selection of killing machines makes it one of the most visceral, pulse-pouding escape adventures in years. Hardcore survival horror enthusiasts who love the idea of crying in lockers or being two steps ahead of a 500-pound killing machine will want to play the game over and over again. As previously mentioned, the fact that Monstrum‘s environments and monsters change with every playthrough means that the game packs a lot of replay value, even if one round doesn’t take all that long. Despite the rounds’ shortness, Monstrum is quite difficult, hitting that sweet spot between too hard to beat quickly and simple enough to enjoy over and over.

Though Monstrum‘s adrenaline-fueled gameplay is a solid package, some of the game’s other design elements are less tightly focused. The game’s visuals start out strong with sharp textures and a diverse palette of lighting. That latter one is especially important for establishing atmosphere, as even the most brightly lit areas of the ship are illuminated with sour white light to reinforce the gloomy feel. On the other end of the spectrum, players are also expected to navigate dark engine rooms and shipping containers that have just enough light to get around and not a single lumen more.

Monstrum6

Alright, let’s not set the ship on fire.

Less excellent than Monstrum‘s ship design is its character animations, which are painfully amateurish. Whether it’s walking, crawling or running, the player character’s limb and body movements are laughably unnatural. What’s more, the character has a penchant for holding items awkwardly in front of themselves, sometimes taking up the entire screen while doing so. The character holds up a fuse like it’s a lantern and hugs larger items like gasoline containers right to their face. Players can’t deselect items without dropping them, so holding them up like this is really the only option. It’s not easy to spot a monster when the character’s burying their nose in a submarine battery.

Monstrum could also do with a few more PSAs on how to play intelligently. The game provides a few basic control pointers but fails to point out a few things that can radically change the course of the game, like how to break through broken doors or stop security cameras from spotting the player. None of these are deal-breakers, but they do cross that fine line between leaving the player to figure things out on their own and flat-out refusing to drop any sort of hint (for the record, players can bust a locked door by throwing a sound-making device through it, prompting the monster to smash it open).

Monstrum7

How to get in, how to get in…

Monstrum never claims to be a story-driven game, but that doesn’t stop what exposition the game does provide from being chock-full of spelling and grammar errors. Players can find notes and recordings throughout the ship hinting at its fate and why monsters are running around, but they’re full of bizarre abbreviations and careless alternations between American and British spelling (in addition to the usual rogue’s gallery of unnecessary commas, random capitalization, abrupt line breaks, and written-out ha has). Players notice those errors more than developers realize and there’s little to be lost by taking thirty seconds to look them up on Google.

All of that said, Monstrum‘s background story does a good job of setting a spooky stage for the gameplay. The notes look like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, with various crewmen discussing strange goings-on aboard the ship that culminate in the disaster the player wakes up to. Who the player is isn’t really divulged, but again, Monstrum prefers to focus on the visceral action instead of story. Because Monstrum‘s visceral action is so addictive, that’s just fine.

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I guess this is the “brigde.”

The final piece of Monstrum‘s horror motif is its sound design. The game’s soundtrack is a fairly conventional mix of low electronic sounds that elevate to terrifying heights when a monster spots the player. The game’s other sounds are an inoffensive mix of footsteps on metal and rustling through lockers and bags in search of supplies. The monsters themselves sound absolutely terrifying, with a mix of hisses and roars that sound right at home in a Ridley Scott or John Carpenter film.

The only problem with all of these sounds is that they have a nasty tendency to be unbalanced. Monstrum cheats a little bit by making its monsters’ roars and growls about five times louder than the rest of the game. It gives players a good little jump, but it feels like a cheap shot. The other audio element of the game that’s way too loud is the tape recordings found throughout the ship, which assault the ears with a huge roar of static and whose words are usually incomprehensible anyway. Monstrum‘s options menu has a lot of toggles, but subtitles aren’t one of them.

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TIME TO GO TIME TO GO TIME TO GO TIME TO GO

Even though Monstrum suffers from almost every amateur design flaw in the book, it remains one of the scariest horror games ever made. Neither its awkwardly spelled notes nor its flat-falling character animations prevent the title’s escape gameplay from providing pure terror. The game’s procedural generation gives it an element of unpredictability that most conventional horror games lack, and its permadeath adds another level of terror to some already terrifying monsters. Monstrum is interested only in burning players’ hearts out with pure adrenaline, so anybody looking for that type of experience should pick the game up immediately. It’s fun, it’s varied, and oh so scary.

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You can buy Monstrum 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.

No More Room in Hell

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Team up with other survivors and outlast the zombie apocalypse.

PC Release: October 31, 2011

By Ian Coppock

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth. That George Romero tagline is the byword of No More Room in Hell. Apparently Hell is already full (phew) but that means the zombies have arrived once more! No More Room in Hell is not the first or only video game to envision the zombie apocalypse, but it might be the only one that puts such a visceral emphasis on teamwork. When the dead rise, the living can only count on one another to beat back the zombie tide. Even more than that Dawn of the Dead quote, the teamwork of the living is No More Room in Hell‘s central motif.

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Created by the one-man band of Matt “Maxx” Kazan, No More Room in Hell is a co-op zombie survival game that draws heavy inspiration from Dawn of the Dead and Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. Like the other multiplayer games being reviewed here this month, No More Room in Hell is a Source mod that leverages gracefully aging visuals and Valve’s powerful programming to deliver its multiplayer experience. Unlike this month’s other multiplayer games, No More Room in Hell focuses less on players killing each other and more on them working together to survive against hordes of zombies.

That’s really all there is to this title’s gameplay. Grab some friends, sort the ones who are good with guns from the ones who are good with melee weapons, and get cracking on surviving the zombie apocalypse. There are only two game modes in No More Room in Hell, and they both revolve around teamwork. Objective mode forces players to work together to find an escape vehicle, while Survival consists simply of outlasting zombie waves. Both modes are fun, though it’s a shame No More Room in Hell only has two of them.

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We must stop this bank robbery and bring the zombies to justice!

No More Room in Hell‘s modes are not that remarkable. Anyone who’s touched a zombie game has probably run to the chopper or made a last stand against the horde before. No More Room in Hell prefers to make its mark not with game modes, but with the actual gameplay and an acute focus on realism. In this case, “realism” stands for no heads-up display, limited health, and short-term stamina. Maxx Kazan decided to go with the low-key survivor motif instead of the flashy action hero. Even if zombies have been overdone to death in this medium, games that attempts to bring realism to the scenario are rare.

As a survivor, players have no ammo counter on their firearms. Their character will occasionally yell out how many mags they have left, but that’s about it. Even though the player is flying blind on their ammo, No More Room in Hell makes a curious attempt at forcing teamwork by allowing a player’s teammates to see their ammo readout instead. That’s an interesting choice for a game with such a strong focus on realism, and though it doesn’t make much sense, it does encourage players to keep an eye on each other. Conversely, it also causes players to scream “DUDE BRUH HOW MUCH AMMO I GOT???” every two seconds, which is irritating.

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You started with two shells, now you have none. Do the math, Einstein.

Players also have no indication of where their health’s at, at least until they suddenly keel over and die. Indeed, No More Room in Hell‘s HUD might be one of the most minimalist such displays since 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. This approach forces players to not only be much more conservative with their resources, but also to mentally juggle how many bullets and pills they’re carrying.

The tricky thing about the abject lack of a HUD is that it’s not necessarily more realistic than having one. No one knows what “percentage” their health is at all the time, but that’s why doctors give the the “scale of 1-10” question—because most people can at least approximate how they’re feeling, and that’s what a health meter represents. Stripping the health meter out is the video game equivalent of suspecting pain but being unable to feel it. As a stylistic choice, there’s nothing objectively wrong with it; but it’s not realism, per se.

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Tap your knee? HOW ABOUT YOUR FACE!

All of this HUD business means that No More Room in Hell is quite difficult. Players looking for a cinematic Left 4 Dead-style arcade experience probably won’t get much out of No More Room in Hell, but survivalists and challenge seekers may enjoy it. For anything that can be said about No More Room in Hell‘s severe approach to heads-up displays, the game does a pretty good job of capturing the feel of an average person in the zombie apocalypse. With limited stamina, ammo, and health, the game feels much more like a harrowing escape challenge than a shooter.

Either way, No More Room in Hell could do with a few more tutorials. The game does provide a brief control scheme graphic while the map loads, but a few more pointers on how to, say, get out of a zombie choke-hold would be nice to see in-game. So would a warning that it only takes two swings of the shovel to leave the player character winded. Thankfully, No More Room in Hell‘s controls are conventional for a shooter, and the game leverages that awesome Source options menu to help players get the most out of the game on their machine.

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Keyyyyy bindinnnnnnggggsssssssss…

No More Room in Hell‘s level design is more open than that of most Source mods. Rather than the constricting hallways and multi-tiered elevation endemic to Day of Defeat and Fistful of FragsNo More Room in Hell favors large single-story buildings with lots of corners for zombies to hide behind. Good stuff, especially for a game whose modes demand hunting for an exit. Just remember to stick together; No More Room in Hell‘s maps have a way of getting players separated.

The visuals that fill these maps out are more of a mixed bag than the level design. No More Room in Hell looks aged compared to mods and games that came out years before it. Most of the textures are pretty muddy, and the in-game objects could stand some more rendering. Curiously enough, the game characters’ arms look pretty good, but otherwise the game looks rough. No More Room in Hell also suffers from excessively dark environments, as in “too dark to see the room” type of dark. This doesn’t stop the game’s atmosphere from being morbid, but it might stop players from spotting an item.

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Ooooh boy.

Co-op multiplayer games are best played with friends, but No More Room in Hell still has an active community for players feeling adventurous. Playing with randos is a mixed bag these days, but it’s a testament to No More Room in Hell‘s longevity that its community is still kicking six years after launch. Still, No More Room in Hell is best enjoyed with a cabal of zombie-killing friends, and the fact that the game is free means that everyone can at least give it a try (it’s fun to misinform friends of how much ammo they have left).

At the end of the day, No More Room in Hell‘s mission is not to create a small-screen zombie blockbuster, but to imagine how a team of normal people might work together to survive a zombie epidemic. Not much of what the game brings to the table is truly original, from shambling Romero-style zombies to getting to the chopper, but few games take to that subject matter with such acute attention to realism. Players need to work together to survive, just as the living might need to do against the dead. That experience is brought shambling to life like no other in No More Room in Hell.

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Must… get… out…

No More Room in Hell presents an interesting take on surviving the zombie apocalypse, but the game remains rough around the edges in much of its production. The visuals look muddled, the lighting is mediocre, and the soundtrack isn’t all that memorable. However, the game is free, its gameplay is decent enough with a few wiki consultations, and it comes with nearly two dozen maps. Even though No More Room in Hell doesn’t hit all its notes, Maxx Kazan is onto something with his pursuit of realism and is hopefully refining what the original game missed in the forthcoming No More Room in Hell 2. In the meantime, this title might be worth biting into for the discerning zombie survivalist.

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You can buy No More Room in Hell 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.