Kona

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Investigate a deserted town and the whereabouts of its inhabitants.

PC Release: March 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Horror games can be a great way to beat the heat. That assertion may seem premature with the first day of spring having only been a few days ago, but between summer’s rapid approach and the appalling disinterest in combating global warming, hot temperatures will be here quicker than split infinity. Ideally, though, a horror game’s thrills and chills should be much more than a means of temperature control. They should be the result of a spooky world with a thick atmosphere, something that gamers can get rapidly sucked into. It’s time to see if Kona, the subject of tonight’s review, has a spooky world going for it.

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Kona is a first-person mystery horror game developed by a small French Canadian studio called Parabole. It’s the rarest of video games in that it started out in Steam’s Early Access program and was actually seen through to completion. Few are the Early Access games that actually make it through the front door instead of being left to languish in a half-completed state. The first 30% or so of Kona was available in Early Access for the better part of a year, but with the finished product now on the market, it’s safe to review.

Kona is set during the winter of 1970 and casts players as Carl Faubert, a private investigator. The game begins as Carl makes his way to a remote village in northern Canada at the behest of local businessman William Hamilton. Someone has been vandalizing Hamilton’s businesses, and Carl’s been hired to catch the culprit and bring them to justice. Carl eventually makes it to the town, but when he gets there, he finds it abandoned. The townsfolk have vanished from their village and from what Carl can tell, they left in a hurry.

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Helloooo? Bonjouuuur?

As he travels around the village, Carl makes a far more disquieting discovery: a few villagers flash-frozen in ice as they were fleeing from an unknown threat. Indeed, unnatural formations of glowing ice dot the entire village, and are incredibly cold to the touch. With his investigation into vandalism having grown into something much more serious, Carl sets out into the fierce Canadian winter to solve the mystery of the missing townsfolk, and what they were fleeing from.

Kona‘s icy tale is a suspenseful story that combines elements of adventure, horror, and survival gameplay. Players progress in Kona by exploring the village, gathering clues, and solving simple puzzles. It’s up to Carl to figure out why the town is abandoned and how the flash-frozen villagers he encounters met their fates. He can also spend time learning the villagers’ stories and investigating buildings off the beaten path. Carl doesn’t talk much, but the story is narrated by a grandfatherly Canadian whose wit and suspense-building are well-written.

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You have a dead body, but no jerky or Crown Royal. Worst Canadian convenience store ever.

As one might expect of a game that has such an eerie premise, Kona is a spooky title. The entire production is cloaked in an atmosphere as claustrophobic and foreboding as the blizzard that rages through its town. The game’s horror comes from investigating the blacked-out buildings and who knows what awaits inside, as well as avoiding the ravenous wolves that patrol the wilds outside town. Of course, wolves can’t freeze people in ice or drive an entire town to flee, so players can bet that there’s something far worse skulking around in the trees.

Kona also incorporates light survival elements into its production. Players have to stay alive by lighting fires and scrounging for supplies, as Carl can easily freeze to death or succumb to injuries if players aren’t careful. Supplies are usually pretty close at hand, though, so while playing Kona does require some survival aptitude, the game isn’t a hardcore wilderness simulator like The Long Dark. No, Kona‘s focus is much more on story and atmosphere than ransacking cabins for granola bars (though players can do that too).

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I’m going to be honest for a sec, I don’t want to go in there.

The meat of Kona‘s gameplay comprises exploring the village for clues. Kona is set in a small but vibrant open-world map, about the same size as that of Firewatch. It’s easy to get lost or freeze to death out in the snow, but luckily players can also drive from house to house in Carl’s truck (be sure to gas it up first). Investigating surroundings is usually pretty simple; just walk up to the item of interest and touch it or take a photo. It’s not the most interactive of gameplay setups, but similarly to Firewatch, the point is more what the item or narrative step represents than the gameplay involved.

That said, Kona still has lots of gameplay to offer in and around the story points. The exploration of abandoned homes is definitely the tensest part of the game, especially when Carl’s in the bedroom sifting through drawers and hears a loud crash from the kitchen. Carl has an inventory that players can slowly fill with the tools and weapons necessary for getting around, and can store excess supplies in his truck. Combat in the game is pretty straightforward; pull out a weapon, pray hard, and aim low. Usually, it’s best to avoid confrontations with wildlife and… whatever else is out there. Apart from these core components, players can also expect to have to solve a few puzzles.

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And people wonder why I’m a cat person.

Kona‘s exploration-heavy gameplay will sate fans of open-world and mystery games, but there’s something a bit tedious about how it’s all set up. As the game unfolds, players may need to return and re-comb the same areas over and over to pick up items they now need. It’s a bit dull to get to a certain point, realize Carl needs a previously overlooked item, and then spend hours combing houses the player already spent hours combing to find that now-essential item. The best way to head this little issue off is just to be as thorough as possible and leave no stone unturned. Don’t have room in Carl’s pockets? Pop the extra item in the truck.

Apart from that potential snafu, exploration in Kona makes for some spooky fun indeed. There’s an unbeatable tension in driving through blizzard weather, pulling up to an abandoned house, quietly opening the door, and creeping from room to room in search of supplies while wind and wolves howl outside. More than that, Carl’s after a story, and the game does a good job at leaving tantalizing clues behind. Carl picks up on everything from the minutia of everyday life to major clues about the mass disappearance, and all of it is masterfully narrated by the aforementioned grandfatherly Canadian.

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Oh God. I’m not going in there.

Kona‘s mysterious atmosphere is further reinforced by smart art direction. The entire game was built in the Unity engine, but it has an actual in-depth options menu instead of that pitiful little resolution panel players usually get when booting up a Unity game. Some of the visuals look dated, especially the clone-stamped patches of dirt, and the textures could be sharper, but the game’s blizzard weather is absolutely beautiful. Parabole’s designers did a good job of creating a foreboding winter landscape, where winter winds rip realistically through pine trees and one can almost “see” the cold inside every abandoned building. The interior and exterior lighting are both very well done, though character animations on both animals and… other things… need a touch of work.

The open-world map sports a mix of buildings and open wilderness, both teeming with dangers unseen. Carl can make his way up and down the map and weave through both deserted houses and copses of pine trees in relatively quick order. Straying too far from the road can be hazardous, what with all the wolves running around, but there are rewards out there for the discerning private investigator. In addition to the plot-essential areas needing exploration, Carl can deviate to “side locations” and uncover optional treasures and story points. The map is in pretty good shape; the one drawback is that it seems to have an awful lot of loading screens. Four or so loading screens over a relatively small open world isn’t exactly seamless.

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I feel colder just playing this.

Despite ending on a rather abrupt note, the central narrative of Kona does an apt job of tying several subplots into an overarching, terrifying story. Carl doesn’t exactly abandon his original assignment of investigating vandalism when he arrives, as it seems to be tied up in the disappearance of the townsfolk. As Carl makes his way through the village, Kona introduces more characters and plot threads at subtle, well-paced intervals. Even though these characters are being introduced post-disappearance by the narrator, Kona ensures that the player feels some remorse for their disappearance through a combination of well-written documents and more physical show-don’t-tell exposition.

Kona also provides a plethora of exposition on the local area. The village holds a lot of history on Quebec, and makes most of it relevant to the plot in some way (especially the spate of Quebec independence movements that were active at the time). Much like the documents and other exposition helps tie players to the characters, this material similarly provides some endearment for the setting (even though it’s a grim, forbidding, cold, and quite possibly haunted setting).

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WTF IS THAT

In the end, Kona largely succeeds at providing that grim atmosphere that both delights and terrifies. It offers a haunting setting and forbidding central mystery to chase after, and it taunts players with deathly obstacles all the while. Cap it all off with a heart-pounding, climactic encounter with an insidious foe, and Carl’s assignment to investigate graffiti becomes one of the most suspenseful capers since last year’s Firewatch. Horror, mystery and adventure gamers alike will find much to enjoy in Kona. In an industry teeming with developers who misunderstand subtlety, Parabole’s new game (and future productions) bear watching with great interest.

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You can buy Kona 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.

Viscera Cleanup Detail

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Experience epic sci-fi battles… as the janitor who cleans up after them.

PC Release: October 23, 2015

By Ian Coppock

If Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands teaches gamers anything (aside from the economics of Mexican drug cartels) it’s that furious gun battles can leave a huge mess. There’s all the blood, the bodies, the bullet shells… not to mention whatever else got blown up in the crossfire. Usually video games neatly sweep these trails of carnage under the rug by deleting corpses and debris, but that’s certainly not how things work in real life. It’s certainly not how things used to work in video games, and even the games that don’t delete the bodies rarely deal with the consequences of all that viscera lying around. Viscera Cleanup Detail, the final game of this month’s zany party series, is here to change that notion.

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Created by the indie studio RuneStorm, Viscera Cleanup Detail is a “first-person cleaner” that explores what it might be like to clean up in the aftermath of the action hero. Whether it’s the Master Chief, the Doom Guy, or another party entirely, some space-age superhero has blasted their way through a sci-fi facility, leaving a trail of bodies and bullets behind themselves. Viscera Cleanup Detail challenges players to step into the galoshes of an unfortunate space janitor, and make the facility they’ve been assigned to clean spic’n’span once more.

Now hold on, don’t click away just yet. The idea of spending an entire game cleaning up after someone who got to do all the shooting may not sound appealing at first, but Viscera Cleanup Detail presents this concept in a challenging, humorous, and surprisingly fun way. The game’s entertainment value is multiplied when other players come aboard to help clean, either locally from the couch or in the game’s online multiplayer mode. Much like the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld or the gameplay of InfraViscera Cleanup Detail takes a seemingly mundane concept and uncovers its many novel layers… in this case, janitorial work.

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Hahaha oh my God, that guy bought it! And I get to clean it up!

Viscera Cleanup Detail has roughly two dozen levels based on common sci-fi game settings, like military fortresses and secret laboratories. It also sprinkles those levels with the aftermath of scenarios common to science fiction, like a big battle against aliens or a lab experiment gone horribly wrong. Regardless of whatever mess each level contains, Viscera Cleanup Detail drops players into these facilities to mop up the carnage. The game ends when the player decides the level looks clean enough and clocks out. The more thorough the janitorial work, the higher a score the player receives.

Players drop in armed with a few tools to get the job done, including a space mop, galoshes, and a handy dandy little sensor that can sniff out hidden trash or a missed pool of blood. Brooms, welders and other tools can be found in the levels themselves. As the galaxy’s best space-janitor, players can also access endless amounts of water buckets and haz-mat containers for keeping the mop clean and cradling garbage, respectively. Players can dispose of all this viscera using an incinerator plopped down somewhere in the level.

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Alright, boys. Time to make this joint the cleanest trash compactor this side o’ Yavin 4.

The two most basic elements of cleaning in Viscera Cleanup Detail are mopping up spillage and disposing of debris. The former consists of using the space-mop to do away with everything from pools of blood to splatters of alien goo. Approaching the mess and clicking repeatedly will suffice to mop it up, but take care to rinse the mop so it doesn’t get too dirty. In fact, mopping repeatedly without straining the goo out of the mop will cause it to start leaving trails of whatever the player’s trying to clean. When the bucket’s taken as much crap as it can, it’s time to dump it in the incinerator and grab a fresh one. Rinse and repeat. Literally.

Cleaning up debris is about as simple as mopping, but potentially much dirtier. Each of Viscera Cleanup Detail‘s levels is strewn with dozens of garbage objects, from spent shell casings to the corpses of unfortunate bystanders. Picking up smaller items is simply a matter of grasping them and throwing them in a haz-mat container, but larger objects, like bodies, need to be handled carefully or they’ll splatter blood everywhere. Some debris, like alien corpses, is too big to fit in a container and must be sliced up into smaller chunks with a laser gun. Viscera Cleanup Detail isn’t as simple as spamming the mop button until the level is clean. The consternation heard when a new player realizes that a dirty mop actually spreads blood is priceless.

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Damn. This science fair went down the tubes pretty quickly.

Each round of Viscera Cleanup Detail has a notable crescendo of gameplay. The first stages comprise getting rid of the obvious mess, like bodies and blood. Later in the game, players can pick up a welder to patch up bullet holes and other dings in the space-drywall. Inveterate space janitors also need to make use of the J-HARM, a finicky Al Gore-style scissor lift that’s as likely to launch players into space as lift them to that hard-to-reach cranny.

Finally, the garbage sniffer. Or whatever its name really is, the little sensor thing that goes “ping” when trash or mess are nearby. This device is usually stored away until all the apparent mess has been cleaned up, and is useful for finding debris that might’ve gone overlooked. Once the place looks as clean as the player thinks it can get, it’s time to clock out and call it a night. The player’s final score depends not only on how well they cleaned, but whether they restocked spent supplies and organized items according to the mission screen.

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I tell ya dude, those tanning beds are death traps.

Similarly to manually gathering materials in Minecraft, there’s something deeply cathartic about cleaning up after a huge mess in Viscera Cleanup Detail. It may sound crazy, especially to players who can’t be asked to clean in real life (ahem) but Viscera Cleanup Detail can be deeply immersive and relaxing. The only drawback that can pull players out of this cleaning trance is the game’s numerous physics bugs. Debris can sometimes scatter randomly as if thrown by an angry ghost, and janitors getting stuck inside a shelf is not unheard of. RuneStorm managed to patch most of these bugs when this title was in Early Access, but not all of them, so take extra care with that container of human heads.

Though it produces a weird serenity when played alone, Viscera Cleanup Detail can elicit hilarity when played with friends, which is the main reason a janitor simulator made it into a zany party game lineup. Working as a team to clean a level is all good and fun, but the mind games players can play with each other within Viscera Cleanup Detail are hysterical. From secretly re-dirtying an area that a buddy swore he cleaned five seconds ago, to murdering other players with stray explosives (“janicide” as the game calls it), teamwork in Viscera Cleanup Detail almost always makes for a novel gameplay experience.

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Hey man, it’s sure weird that that hole you patched five seconds ago came back somehow (snort).

It also helps Viscera Cleanup Detail‘s case for fun that its levels are absolutely gorgeous. Each area players visit is brightly colored and sharply textured, with dozens of in-game objects to draw the eye. Even the relatively mundane levels, like the waste disposal, have plenty of nooks and crannies for the curious janitor to explore. Of course, larger levels like the “Overgrown” stage can contain some truly eye-popping detail, with beautifully realized alien landscapes and lots of bright, leafy fauna. Gamers who play Viscera Cleanup Detail will get a lot of enjoyment from exploration alone, and subsequently enjoy restoring these areas to their proper order.

The level design in Viscera Cleanup Detail is as varied and interesting as the game’s sightseeing. Whether it’s a small spaceship corridor or a sprawling science facility, each level contains lots of elevation variation and areas of different sizes. Levels in Viscera Cleanup Detail vary considerably in scale; some levels might take as little as a half hour to clean solo, while the larger 4-5-hour facilities might go faster with some custodial backup. Players who also own a copy of Shadow Warrior will receive a free Viscera Cleanup Detail episode set in the Yakuza temple from that game’s first level. Longtime readers might also remember that standalone Santa’s Workshop level that was reviewed on this page as a Christmas special back in 2015.

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This place seems familiar, and the janitor sounds an awful lot like a certain wisecracking ninja…

Viscera Cleanup Detail‘s biggest flaw, and one that inhibits players both new and old, is the game’s relative lack of instructions. For a start, the game has no tutorial, and doesn’t impart new janitors with so much as an on-screen control scheme to help them get started. Each level starts players off with a list of things that need to be done for the stage to be considered clean, but the instructions in most of these are quite vague. “Stack barrels in the designated area”, well, what the hell is the designated area? Oh, that thing on the wall is a medkit that needs restocking? Might’ve been good to mention that too…

Even if Viscera Cleanup Detail didn’t have some tricky mission requirements, the abject lack of any sort of tutorial is annoying. It doesn’t take too long to figure out how to mop spills or pick up debris, but what about finding and using the scissor-lift? What about figuring out that the laser gun actually patches holes instead of creates them? Which objects count as trash and which ones can be left on the table? Viscera Cleanup Detail isn’t the first indie game that forces players to rely on wikis to figure out what it can’t spell out, but that sort of stuff is usually the province of crappy Early Access survival games.

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Knowing how to turn the gravity back on would be really great right now.

One thing Viscera Cleanup Detail has in spades more plentiful than a tutorial is some pretty funny writing. The game doesn’t really have a narrative, but in-game text logs allude to some sort of mercantile janitorial company for whom the player works. Funny Aperture Science-esque notices about employee safety and protecting the company are scattered everywhere, and inform the game’s various options menus. Exiting the game is considered going on strike, and finishing a level without requesting more paperwork is probably career suicide. The mission logs left behind by the mystery gunman who did all this are similarly amusing, poking fun at the mindless “get to the chopper, bro!” mission objectives all too common in games these days.

Luckily for Viscera Cleanup Detail, performance options are something else that the game has in spades. The game allows players to toggle the full range of visual and audio options, from v-sync to framerate buffering, so that they have a chance at getting the game to work if it doesn’t quite load to their liking. Players can also customize their janitor, albeit just their shirt and overalls, in these menus.

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Dammit Bob, why’d you wear suede to a gore cleanup?

Viscera Cleanup Detail is rough around the edges when it comes to its in-game physics and the conspicuous lack of instructions on how to play, but its core gameplay experience is truly one-of-a-kind. Teaming up with friends to clean a futuristic facility of guts makes for an eyebrow-raising story, as does blowing up a decaying alien carcass in a best friend’s face. When backed by streamlined if unexplained gameplay and gorgeous level design, the idea of spending a Friday night at a space cleaning party doesn’t seem quite so odd. Pick up a few copies and dive mop-first into a bizarre odyssey of janitorial mayhem with Viscera Cleanup Detail.

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You can buy Viscera Cleanup Detail 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.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands

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Destroy a ruthless drug cartel from the inside out.

PC Release: March 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

What would Tom Clancy think of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands if he were still alive? It’s little secret that the author, perhaps the great military fiction writer of all time, had nothing to do with this title beyond his name having been licensed to it. The same goes for Tom Clancy’s The Division and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, the other Tom Clancys titles bouncing around right now. Despite what his all-military subject matter might imply, Clancy’s prose is actually more subtle, and complicated, than the “get to the chopper, brah!” vibe that the games carrying his name give off. It’s time to find out if Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands goes beyond that vibe and approaches the subtlety, complexity, and enjoyment of the late author’s written work.

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Created by the folks at Ubisoft’s Paris studio, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a third-person shooter and, unlike previous Ghost Recon games, features an open-world setting. Set in 2019, Ghost Recon Wildlands follows the exploits of the Ghosts (no, not Call of Duty) as they’re dispatched to Bolivia to dismantle a ruthless Mexican drug cartel called Santa Blanca. The cartel’s led by El Sueno, who styles himself as a “modern-day Moses” that led his people to a promised land. In other words, he and his buddies arrived to Bolivia, seized all of the country’s coca production, and have turned Bolivia into a destabilized narco-state.

The Ghosts are called in to deal with El Sueno after Santa Blanca kills an undercover agent and bombs the U.S. embassy in Bolivia. Players can create their own point man from a variety of facial features and accessories, and are accompanied by three other operators. Their mission is simple: dismantle the Santa Blanca cartel from the inside out. Players will also have help from a local faction of rebels intent on taking Bolivia back from the cartel.

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Let’s do this!

Armed with cutting-edge military technology, player character “Nomad” and his/her buddies take off into the Bolivian wilderness to destroy Santa Blanca. As the title “Ghost” implies, Nomad specializes in stealthy combat, and is adept at quietly taking out enemies up-close or from afar. Players can customize the character to be a bit louder, but it only takes a few bullets for Nomad to go down in a blaze of glory, so caution is still a must in Ghost Recon Wildlands. Players can receive in-game assistance from the rebels while Karen Bowman, the team’s CIA handler, distributes mission objectives.

One more fun fact before we get into the meat of the game: Bolivia’s ambassador filed a complaint with the French government over Ghost Recon Wildlands‘ portrayal of his country. Bolivia’s interior minister even vowed to take legal action. Couple things to note real quick, guys: coca leaf production has been legal in Bolivia since 2009, and, oh yeah, the French government isn’t the one developing video games. Ubisoft responded by saying that their game is this new thing called… a work of fiction. Obscure concept, but check it out.

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And people wonder why I seek solitude from other people.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a very “safe” combination of all things third-person shooter. Players can look over their character’s left or right shoulder, sneak around, take cover behind walls, that sort of thing. Players come equipped with some state-of-the-art weaponry, but can find more out in the game world. The basic gist of each mission is pretty simple: sneak around tagging targets with either Nomad’s binoculars or the drone, then systematically take everyone out until the enemy base is devoid of enemies. Enemies in Ghost Recon Wildlands ain’t too bright, but they have quick reflexes and will start shooting pretty much as soon as they see the player.

After rescuing the rebel leader at the start of the game, players can destroy the Santa Blanca cartel pretty much however they want. Wildlands‘ vast open-world map is completely unlocked from the get-go, so players can drive (or fly) from province to province shooting bad guys and running jobs for the rebels. In addition to clearing towns and fortresses of enemies, players can tag supplies for the rebels, help them with firefight missions, and gather critical enemy intel to help them track down cartel bosses. When enough intel has been gathered, the team can drop in for a showdown with El Sueno or one of his lieutenants. Repeat until all the narcos are dead, and the game is won.

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Is it too soon for a get-to-the-chopper joke?

When the first trailers for this game rolled a few years ago, they portrayed a dynamic world that responded to how players completed missions. They showcased a game whose narrative might change depending on if the player went in quietly or with a salvo of mortars. Whether Wildlands actually ever had that or if this was just more marketing BS from Ubisoft, the ambitions the game seemed to have were scaled back. Each mission is the exact same setup: kill the narcos, touch the objective for a minute, then leave. The vehicles handle like bars of soap, and attempting to fly an aircraft is usually a death sentence.

Yes, though Wildlands might’ve turned some heads with its open-world setting and focus on tactics, it’s actually a pretty bland game. Even with four player co-op, doing the exact same mission over and over again gets old fast. Play the game for a few hours, and players have seen pretty much everything that Ghost Recon Wildlands has to offer. Approach a location quietly, use the drone to tag people, kill them before they can radio for help, repeat ad nauseum. Sure, Ubisoft’s known for pulling this sort of repetition with most of its games, but Wildlands is their purest expression of dull, repetitive mission design since the first Assassin’s Creed.

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Congratulations, Ubisoft. You made blowing s*** up boring.

Wildlands‘ narrative is little more exciting than its missions. Because the vast majority of the game is spent out in the wilderness gathering intelligence, the actual story-driven missions are few and far between. Bear in mind that the term “story” is being used in the most liberal sense possible, as even the missions deemed crucial to the plot consist of little more than some token military jargon, killing someone, and then leaving. Wildlands‘ plot is only even somewhat interesting at the very beginning and the very end of the game. Between those two points is dozens of hours of… nothing.

It doesn’t help that this game’s writing is atrocious. Even by Ubisoft standards, this is some of the most forced humor and outlandish dialogue seen in a big-budget game so far this year. For starters, the team speaks almost exclusively in tough-guy military acronyms… just like in every low-grade military shooter ever produced ever. The dialogue’s forced attempts at humor are laughable, and not in ways Ubisoft intended. The golden line “when life gives you lemons, kill everyone and go home”, is just… really? Is that seriously the best dialogue a team of so-called writers could conceive? The final nail in the plot coffin is that none of these generic dudebros undergo any kind of character development. Sure, the AI squadmates are supposed to be stand-ins for real-life players, but what about the protagonist? No? Alright then.

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Dude, bro, brah, bruh, broheim, check out that cactus brochacho.

If the existence of Assassin’s Creed Unity has a silver lining, it’s that it taught Ubisoft what happens when games release full of bugs. Since the fall of 2014, the company has done an uncharacteristically good job of making sure its products ship in at least working condition, with last fall’s Watch Dogs 2 perhaps the best PC port they’ve shipped in years. Unfortunately, while Ghost Recon Wildlands runs okay and has a fantastic options menu, a fair number of bugs and glitches came clung to its underside.

To give prospective buyers just a taste of what to expect, characters sometimes teleport for no apparent reason. Occasionally, AI-controlled squadmates just stand there instead of getting in the car with the rest of the team. Random crashes and server errors are also not unheard of. Most annoyingly, the game sometimes fails to load the next objective in a mission, leaving players stuck without a path forward. For example, the player can spend half an hour killing bad guys in order to steal a drug lord’s car, but even after getting in the car, the next objective may not load, necessitating a restart. Yeah, that’s not frustrating at all.

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#brolo

The one outstanding achievement Wildlands brings to the table is its environmental design. This open-world rendition of Bolivia is one of the most beautiful landscapes that Ubisoft has ever cultivated, and the developer’s cultivated its fair share. Though its accuracy is debatable, this big wild playground packs lots of environmental variety and eye-popping features. From the pink salt lakes full of birds to the steppe-like environments in the center of the map, Ghost Recon Wildlands is easy on the eyes.

Although the game’s lighting and atmospheric fog effects are also impressive, the game’s character models are much less so. The animations are particularly stiff, making in-game cutscenes look like weekly meetings of the Wax Dummy Society (another potential name for the band). The pre-rendered cinematics are nice, but they’ve got that generic military film quality to them, with lots of quick cuts and that overused classified document background.

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Oooooh.

Unfortunately for Ubisoft and its landscaping acumen, the studio has fallen for one of the oldest development fallacies in video gaming: mistaking spectacle for substance. Even though Wildlands‘ map is beautiful, it’s pretty empty, with each province containing about a dozen discoverable locations. It’s difficult not to drive through literal kilometers of uninhabited wilderness and, in spite of its beauty, wonder why it’s all here. What’s the point? Why spend years crafting this landscape if it has nothing in it?

More to the point, why spend years crafting this game when its gameplay is repetitive and its plot is soup-thin? Four-player co-op does little to ameliorate either of these issues, or the numerous bugs that Wildlands is still crawling with. Though this game’s scenery is beautiful, Ubisoft has failed to recognize that scenery alone is insufficient for a great game. A game world can’t just look pretty; it has to engage with the player. It has to compel them to fight for it for more reasons than just looks. Wildlands comes up empty on anything more than looking pretty, though. It’s a stale, generic shooter that amalgamates old ideas instead of innovating new ones, and is patently unworthy of anything having to do with the late, great Tom Clancy. Give it a miss. A very wide miss.

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You can buy Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands 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.

Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball

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Dodge, dive, duck, dip and dodge your way through rocking dodgeball games.

PC Release: February 19, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Next up in this month’s cavalcade of zany party games is Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball, a title whose gameplay is (thankfully) a bit more fluid than its name. The game’s premise—uni-wheeled robots rolling around disco parties clubbing each other with dodgeballs—may seem a bit ridiculous, but it’s actually pretty great, and it doesn’t stand out that much when coming up on the heels of Gang Beasts and King of Booze. Just because St. Patrick’s Day has now passed (a moment of silence, please) doesn’t mean that the March madness has to go with it. More fun. More partying. More Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball.

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RR-DDD is a multiplayer dodgeball game brought to life by Erik Asmussen, a one-man studio who apparently remembers high school dodgeball more fondly than most nerds. This game ain’t no state-sanctioned athletic torture, though; it’s a room-sized disco party full of robots attempting to forcefully deactivate each other with high-speed balls of death. Robots don’t keel over and vomit if they get hit in the crotch with a dodgeball, so already this game sounds much more fun than the real-life sport.

RR-DDD is pretty simple to understand: players are organized into two teams and roll around a big room throwing dodgeballs at each other. It only takes one dodgeball to knock an enemy player out of commission, but they’ll respawn soon enough. Team matches are the lifeblood of Roller Robot-Derby Disco Dodgeball; players can duke it out in local 4-player co-op, or participate in well over a dozen online game modes. These range from simple death matches to one-kill elimination. Players can also forego playing on teams in favor of an every-robot-for-itself free-for-all.

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If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

Before rolling into battle, players can customize their robot with a huge palette of colors, accessories and visual effects. Most of these are locked off behind the game’s leveling system, but new players can still give their robots funny doodads and clan emblems. After creating their custom robo, it’s time for players to roll into one of gaming’s grooviest battlefields. RR-DDD enjoys thriving online activity, and finding a match usually only takes a few seconds. Of course, players are also welcome to create their own online matches and invite friends. RR-DDD provides full controller support for local matches.

As previously mentioned, RR-DDD includes an impressive variety of game modes for online multiplayer. The most popular is the simple team deathmatch mode, in which the first cabal of robots to reach a certain number of enemy deaths wins the game. RR-DDD also provides some true novelties in the multiplayer world, ones that tweak the environment or players’ equipment for entirely new experiences. The mode pitting a team of laser gun-wielding robots against a squad armed with jetpacks is particularly fun, as is the game’s basketball mode, in which one team tries to score hoops while the other defends. Players can also race each other or team up against hordes of enemy bots. The sheer variety of RR-DDD‘s modes is almost bewildering.

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Legend has it that before rubber was invented, dodgeball players used severed heads instead of balls…

 Even though RR-DDD has a lot of modes, the gameplay at the core of all of them is pretty simple. Roll into battle, find a dodgeball, pick it up, and throw it at an enemy player. There are only so many dodgeballs to go around, so players have to hurry to find one before an opponent does. Dodgeballs fly fairly quickly and bounce off of surfaces, though they don’t ricochet at the speed of a bullet. Players can also make shots while moving or flying through the air, the latter movement enabled by the robots’ high jumping ability.

To further preserve its variety. RR-DDD scatters each of its battlefields with little perk tokens. These items grant players timed abilities to help them out in battle, like being temporarily immune to shots or moving just a little faster. Most arenas are also riddled with floor panels that can enhance jump height and speed when touched. These features help level RR-DDD‘s difficulty for new players, but they also help to make each round as chaotic and unpredictable as real-life dodgeball.

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The Average Bots. Er, no, wait, Robo-Gym!

Thus far we’ve seen the robot, roller-derby and dodgeball elements of the game, but what about the disco? While all of this chaotic combat is going on, RR-DDD accents its arenas with a soundtrack of pulse-pounding disco electronica. Each track is a fast-paced round of tunes that wouldn’t seem out of place in an arcade game, and they fit RR-DDD‘s neon-tinged atmosphere pretty well. The music certainly helps the game’s combat feel even more frantic.

Visually, RR-DDD is not too sophisticated. The in-game textures on character models and arenas aren’t super-sharp, but they’re almost always covered by the game’s neon colors. Each arena in RR-DDD is absolutely soaked in neon, rounding out its groovy cyber vibe nicely. Character animations are pretty simple; robots basically just roll around and somehow launch the balls at each other despite lacking arms, but the characters’ movements are mapped just fine.

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Anyone else getting a Tron vibe?

As can be inferred from these screenshots, RR-DDD‘s arenas are not the flat school gymnasiums of real-life dodgeball nightmares. Each arena features lots of elevation variety to give players a chance to escape opponents… or a chance for an amazing long-distance strike. The game features a few types of terrain, mostly stairs and the aforementioned jump pads, but the robots seem to function well no matter where their wheels roll. It might’ve been interesting to include terrains that negatively affect player speed and performance, but their absence is no great loss.

Indeed, RR-DDD‘s level design is as crucial to success in the game as throwing its titular dodgeballs. In addition to dodging enemy blows, players also have to account for enemies having the low or high ground, and making or avoiding shots while sailing through the air on the robots’ high jumps. This makes an already chaotic game even more fun, and opens up the floor (no pun intended) for players to take pot shots at enemies above or below them. Having the high ground can grant a distinct advantage, but it’s no deal-breaker; it’s also relatively easy for players to throw the ball from the relative cover of an upper level and then dart back out of reach.

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Three points!

Between its quick-to-find matches and endless character customization, RR-DDD is already its own cavalcade of player choice, but the game’s versatility is further rounded out with its spectacular options menu. One of the most in-depth menus of any PC multiplayer game, RR-DDD‘s options menu includes sliders and adjusters for shadows, buffering, and other high-end performance functions. Players who can’t quite get RR-DDD to run (unlikely, as it also runs well) will want for nothing when poring over the options menu. Like most games built to run on PC, RR-DDD brings some serious performance versatility to the table.

Indeed, versatility seems to be the name of RR-DDD‘s game. Erik Asmussen spared no facet of this game from being able to be tweaked by the player. The options menu allows for the game to be contoured to virtually any machine. The player character can be customized with hundreds of items and endless combinations of them. The online multiplayer is easy to access and has a ton of different modes to suit any multiplayer itch, from combat to racing to shooting hoops. To top it all off, the game runs well, and its groovy soundtrack adds to the slap-shot hilarity of robots killing each other with dodgeballs.

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FOR GLORY!

Overall, Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball is a fantastic multiplayer indie game. It’s difficult to find fault with almost anything the game does, from providing players with a plethora of options to all of the modes it includes. The game’s multiplayer community is thriving, and its local matches make for gaming parties on a caliber comparable to Gang Beasts and King of Booze. And in case all of that isn’t enough, more items, robots and arenas can be found in the game’s Steam Workshop page. Pick up a copy and take a journey into a world where dodgeball is a fun neon party with robots, not a dreadful gymnasium ordeal with assholes.

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You can buy Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball 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.

Portal Stories: Mel

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Find a way out of an abandoned laboratory that’s under the auspice of a dutiful AI.

PC Release: June 25, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Every so often, an opportunity comes by to review an older game that can still compete with the best of the new stuff… a game that didn’t get reviewed on this page back when it first came out, but now gets a (belated) moment in the sun… a game that, in tonight’s case, takes some of the best that a beloved series has to offer and recreates it with impressive attention to detail, and some love of its own. Portal Stories: Mel is that game, and tonight’s a good opportunity to see how it fares both as its own game and in comparison to its predecessors.

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Portal Stories: Mel is a first-person puzzle game set between the events of Portal and Portal 2. For any Portal fans who are freaking out over apparently having missed a new title from Valve, that’s not quite the case – Portal Stories is actually a fan-made game and the debut title of Prism Studios. Much like the series’ vaunted Aperture Science, Prism Studios seems to be run by a cabal of madhouse scientists who enjoy tricky puzzle chambers and jabs at black humor. This concoction of theirs is an attempt to conjure the same “sciencey” magic that captivated gaming audiences everywhere with Portal and Portal 2.

Though the bulk of Portal Stories: Mel is set between the two main Portal titles, the game actually starts in the 1950’s with the arrival of Mel, a famous Olympian, to the then-brand-new offices of Aperture Science. After walking around the company’s opulent offices and getting an eyebrow-raising welcome from Aperture CEO Cave Johnson, Mel learns that she’s been hired on as a test subject for the company’s suspended animation initiative. Well, she climbs into the chamber, goes to sleep, and wakes up sometime between Portal and Portal 2… decades later than planned.

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Hmm… I might’ve overslept just a smidgen.

As Mel stumbles through the ruins of Aperture, she eventually gets a call from Virgil, an office employee who insists that the decay is all an elaborate test. Well, Mel isn’t fooled for long, and also discovers that Virgil is a personality core who’s also trapped in the bowels of Aperture. She also finds an old timey portal gun, complete with 1950’s warning labels, and promptly begins puzzle-shooting her way back to the surface of the facility. Virgil offers to help however he can- unlike Portal 2‘s Wheatley, he’s a calm and friendly personality core who does a better job of planning ahead. He’s Bing Crosby to Wheatley’s Bob Hope.

As the two make their way ever higher, they encounter another problem; after Chell knocked out the insidious GlaDOS in Portal, GlaDOS’s backup AI, AEGIS, came online to manage the facility in her absence. AEGIS is intent on exterminating all life in the facility so he can rebuild it from the ground up, leaving Mel and Virgil with an unfeeling, unsympathetic adversary. Armed only with her portal gun, Mel will have to stretch her wits to their limits to escape before AEGIS can resurrect Aperture Science.

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Maybe it’s the orange color or the retro decals, but I like this portal gun better than the original.

Despite being identical in plot to the first half of Portal 2, the story of Portal Stories: Mel opens Aperture up for more sci-fi intrigue. Though the game is not considered canon by Valve, Portal Stories presents a believable scenario set between the two titles that, in many ways, acts as a bridge between them. Like her counterpart Chell, Mel is a silent protagonist who offers no spoken thoughts on the chaos inside Aperture, but her perseverance in spite of being a stranger in a new time period suggests a Chell-like tenacity.

Unfortunately for Portal Stories: Mel, the supporting cast of characters isn’t all that interesting. Virgil is a friendly little core, but he serves more as a game guide than a Wheately-esque fountain of gaffes. Sure, he pokes fun at the occasional Aperture absurdity, but most of his dialogue is restricted to giving Mel instructions. It was probably better that Prism Studios not try to fill Wheatley’s guide rail with their new character, but the two personality cores cannot help but be compared. Virgil, while competently written, just ain’t all that interesting. To his credit, though, saying these things about him does elicit feelings of regret.

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Sorry, buddy.

Even though there’s not much to say about Virgil, he’s still leagues and fathoms more interesting than AEGIS. GlaDOS’s substitute laboratory overseer is barely even a character, and is much more an automated computer than a sophisticated, finicky AI. AEGIS’s flatly delivered announcements about laboratory protocol, while done out in an intimidatingly deep voice, can’t hold a handle to GlaDOS’s bleak humor. Here, it feels less like Prism Studios is trying to avoid reinventing the wheel and more like they’re trying to avoid putting a wheel on altogether. AEGIS is about as interesting as a printer, and his dialogue little livelier than a tray 2 lifting error.

No, the most Portal-like bits of humor Portal Stories: Mel has to offer are in the very beginning, when Prism at least manages to capture the likeness of Cave Johnson’s dialogue from Portal 2. Whoever the studio hired to voice the character has an uncanny vocal resemblance to J.K. Simmons, which helps with the game’s immersion. The Cave Johnson impersonation and the occasional funny rule reminder are where Portal Stories: Mel feels most like a Valve-made Portal game, but otherwise its narrative is pretty unremarkable.

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Portal Stories does not a memorable stories make.

Although a Portal narrative is supposed to be the fun, funny glue that binds the game together, Portal Stories‘ absence of a memorable one is this game’s only major flaw. For a start, the game’s level design is excellent, and presents a real challenge even to gamers who have played the two main Portal games. Indeed, Portal Stories: Mel seems to assume that players have already done so, given how difficult even its very first puzzles are.

As with the main Portal games, Portal Stories: Mel comprises puzzle rooms that are solved using the portal gun. Players can fire two portals onto two different surfaces, enter one portal, and come out the other. Some surfaces are resistant to portals, which is one of the Valve games’ most challenging factors. Players may also need to make use of environmental objects, like weighted companion cubes, to move forward. Unlike the main Portal games, which introduced new mechanics and obstacles gradually, Portal Stories: Mel pretty much hands players everything from the get-go.

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Hey! I recognize that death sphere!

To its (great) credit, Portal Stories: Mel actually advances many of the level design innovations that Valve made with Portal 2. It’s not often another studio can take what Valve did and make it better, and that Prism Studios managed to accomplish that feat makes Portal Stories: Mel warrant immediate attention. This game introduces almost no new mechanics or obstacles, but rather scrambles the series’s pre-existing obstacles in new ways. Players might need to oil up a hard light bridge with friction gel, something that Portal 2 never did, or find new ways to get behind the game’s infamous turrets.

All of this, of course, means that Portal Stories: Mel is much more difficult than Portal 2. Even its mid-range puzzles are harder than the toughest conundrums Portal 2 had to offer. This makes Portal Stories unwelcoming to players new to Portal, but it’s a bit unreasonable to expect gamers to play this before playing the main games anyway, so power to Prism for turning things up for the established fans. Any inveterate Portal fan spoiling for a new challenge will love (and hate) Portal Stories: Mel.

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Portal Stories’ level design is most impressive.

Similarly to the level design, Portal Stories‘ art direction manages to preserve what Portal 2 pioneered and add some intriguing innovation. Players can expect to encounter the same derelict puzzle chambers encountered in Portal 2, but Portal Stories adds a few new areas with original textures and objects. These include the 1950’s Aperture labs back when the company was, y’know, alive, and new office and administrative areas under the control of AEGIS. The game also introduces a 1950’s variant of the Aperture turret, as well as dozens of new doodads and decals to spruce up what would otherwise look like a very familiar world.

Because Portal Stories: Mel is built in the Source engine and therefore to run on PC, players can expect few performance issues in-game. No crashes, no glitches, and relatively few physics bugs. The game’s comprehensive suite of options lets players tweak and fiddle with the game how they will until they achieve their desired performance setup. For anything that can be said about Prism Studios’ writing, these developers are ardent students of everything else Valve does well.

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What a beautiful chasm of death this is.

Even though Portal Stories: Mel doesn’t quite create a memorable story, any Portal fan can tell that the game is a labor of love. There are signs here and there that this isn’t a Valve game, like the puzzle chambers’ considerably longer lengths, but Prism Studios still did an impressive job adhering to the atmosphere and level design innovations of the Portal games. The puzzle chambers are still laden with the thick, mysterious atmosphere of Aperture Science, as well as that inescapable feeling of isolation that comes with being within its walls. It provides a hearty morsel of fun for inveterate fans by turning up the difficulty, without sacrificing that tantalizing sense of exploration.

In closing, Portal Stories: Mel is still a must-have for Portal fans despite being light on the dark, absurd writing that made the other two games iconic. It faithfully builds upon the level design and head-scratching puzzles that made titans of the two main games, and scrambles what those games did without losing the atmosphere of Aperture Science. It creates a plausible bridge between Portal and Portal 2, but manages to use its impressive level design to still be its own game. Oh, and uh… has it been mentioned that the entire game is free? That’s right. Prism created an impressive Portal tribute and both it and its soundtrack don’t cost a dime.  So go get it, and take an in-depth journey through the next level of Portal‘s groundbreaking puzzle design.

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You can buy Portal Stories: Mel 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.

King of Booze: Drinking Game

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Race your friends to the bottom of an alcohol-infused board game.

PC Release: September 9, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Homer Simpson once said that alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. Whether it’s a cheap beer at the bar or a glass of something more expensive with a classy ladyfriend, booze is an endemic part of humanity. It gives the timid courage to open up about themselves, and the adventurous cause for even zanier, well, adventures. Tonight’s video game (the review of which was written while heavily under the influence) celebrates the fun, and chaos, of alcohol and brings people together to celebrate it. King of Booze, while not a narrative-heavy game nor a particularly high-budget creation, is that game.

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King of Booze is a multiplayer adventure game created by Daygames, confectioners of video games for the modern alcoholic. Whether it’s simply a Friday night after a long week, or perhaps the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, there are few settings that King of Booze: Drinking Game is inappropriate for. Well, maybe more than a few, but the versatility of the game is the point I’m trying to make through this infernal cloud of drunkenness. Truly, Art as Games has fallen from grace when we’ve gone from reviewing serious art games to drunkenly stumbling through a booze board game at 8:00 PM on a Friday night, but hey; everyone has to cut loose every once in a while, and that’s precisely what King of Booze is meant to help catalyze.

King of Booze is a local co-op game meant for 2-4 players. The game is set up like a conventional board game, with each player getting their own wacky avatar. The goal of the game is simple: roll the dice, move around the board however many spaces, complete challenge that pops up, and ultimate out-drink foes in a shameless quest for drunken glory. Some of the challenges that come up are pretty tame, like taking a drink. Others might be quite a bit more outrageous, like giving another player a massage. Because local co-op games are best played in the living room, King of Booze comes packed with full controller support. Adjusting the resolution is about the only option on its options menu, though.

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Ooooooh boy.

That’s pretty much all there is to King of Booze. There’s no deep narrative compelling the colorful avatars on the board, no deep dialogue driving a relationship between them. The point is simply to get drunk, and have fun while doing so. While not necessarily a game of choice for the solitary story seeker or the multiplayer enthusiast whose performance depends on precision, King of Booze does an admirable job of including gamers both casual and hardcore. How? Well, all one has to do to “git gud” at King of Booze is drink. No grinding, no years of built-up skill, just access to booze and having fun while doing so.

King of Booze‘s inclusiveness goes beyond its alcohol-driven gameplay. The game packs plenty of challenges both benign and dangerous for adventurous alcoholics, but it also allows players to come up with their own challenges. Got a really great inside joke, or want to drive an opponent to madness with a challenge they’ll hate? Players can create these and other cards in the game’s customization menu. The challenges the game comes packaged with can’t be removed, so players who are averse to the idea of potentially being put up to downing a raw egg might get a bit queasy, but rules are flexible amongst friends. Maybe skip that challenge.

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Assassin’s Booze. Haha. Hahaha (I’ll be here all week).

King of Booze also allows players to decide how big the round’s “drink” will be. When a player lands on a “drink” space, the game leaves the size of the drink to be drunk nebulous. Making the drink size something that the players can consider is a good way to include gamers who don’t want to go quite as crazy as the challenge card “grind on Player A’s crotch” implies that they should. Whether a drink is a sip of Scotch or half a beer, players can establish that ground rule for themselves before embarking upon a round of King of Booze.

Of course, given how many drinks King of Booze expects its players to take, it’s probably safe to assume that the portions are supposed to be small. Some spaces on the board demand that players take upwards of 4-8 “drinks” once their turn ends. Actually, no, perhaps that’s a decent amount of drinks to take. The human liver is actually pretty amazing. Miraculous, even. It siphons harmful chemicals out of the body and develops cirrhosis so that the rest of the body doesn’t have to. Crazy.

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Oooh. Things are about to get steamy.

To further reinforce its party vibe, King of Booze is decked out in adorable, colorful graphics not dissimilar to other lighthearted indie games reviewed on this page recently (cough*Flix and Chill*cough). Don’t expect to find detailed facial features on King of Booze‘s avatars, but everything else in the game, even the salacious challenge panels, are cute and colorful. It all makes for a charming aesthetic.

A bit less charming is the game’s soundtrack. Sure, the various little songs packaged into the game’s background noise are cute, but they’re also canned, royalty-free songs that anyone who watches even a bit of YouTube will recognize. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the songs are pretty generic, and don’t do a great job of reinforcing this title’s party vibe. The other sound effects in this game sound depressingly canned, with noticeable tinges of static after the cracking open of a new beer. It’s not the end of the world to hear these sounds in-game, but it does reinforce the feeling of cheapness. Which, with a game that’s all about getting drunk, isn’t great.

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That is one sad ketchup-covered wooden tombstone.

As previously alluded to, there’s a lot of fun that goes into King of Booze. It does a good job of transitioning the drinking game format (think Kings Cup) to a video game, and helping to ensure a level playing field for gamers who might not play all that often. It’s an easy game to pick up and get absolutely sozzled over, and that it’s done with good friends makes it even funner.

Additionally, some of the challenges present in King of Booze make for great drinking fun. Players who don’t want to get too out of hand with the challenges can create their own in the game’s back-end menus. In the end, it’s a customized experience that allows for a lot of fun between friends, or soon-to-be-friends.

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ALL THE CHALLENGES

Although King of Booze doesn’t take all that long to figure out, the game has some potential depth to it that’s worth noting. Even if some of the challenges in this game are crazy, like downing a raw egg, it’s a good opportunity to see how well friends can persevere in the face of pure drunkenness. Who would be willing to wear nothing but a beer box in front of their friends? Or perhaps kiss that one acquaintance for whom a latent crush has burned? King of Booze‘s challenges can lead to all sorts of insanity, but they can also lead to new revelations about friendships. Maybe I’m just extremely drunk, but some friendships are forged in the fires of drunkenness. King of Booze affords players precisely those chances.

On a less profound note, perhaps wearing nothing but a beer box in front of friends is supposed to allow for humor, not deep friendship. For King of Booze‘s various challenges do allow for plenty of humor, from attempting push-ups while drunk to confessing “love” to various acquaintances. Even if some of King of Booze‘s challenges are a bit extreme, they allow for a lot of comedy, and comedy can fuel new friendships just as reliably as the “honor” of wearing a beer box.

Am I even making sense at this point?

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Nope. No way is my BAC that low.

King of Booze doesn’t set out to tell a profound narrative or shake the very definition of art as games, but it does set out to provide a fun time for friends and acquaintances, and largely succeeds in that mission. Some of its sound effects are a bit cheap, and its options menu is way too small, but it’s a fun little diversion from the end-of-week blues or a novel St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Plus, the game is only three bucks, and can reliably produce an amount of fun far exceeding that amount of money.

I only hope this review reliably produced information whose usefulness far exceeds my state of severe inebriation. While King of Booze isn’t getting out of here without a solid recommendation, please remember to drink responsibly. Don’t drink and drive, don’t let friends do it, and stay safe out there. Thanks for reading and happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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You can buy King of Booze 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.

Flix and Chill

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Put on some charm and woo your date in the age of Internet television.

PC Release: February 27, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Oh yeah. Spring is almost here, ladies and gentlemen, and guess what that means? It means warmer weather. It means shedding all those heavy clothes and going outside to meet people. It means longer, warmer days of fun that can last well into the night. It means that love is in the air. With spring just around the corner, Flix and Chill has arrived to inject some charming romance into the video game scene. The snow may not have melted quite yet, but Flix and Chill has arrived to win dates in the spirit of pop culture’s favorite innuendo.

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Flix and Chill is a romantic comedy adventure game created by Jason Lovett, a one-man team whose last name lends him immediate dating credibility. Flix and Chill is an ensemble romance adventure split across five episodes, each one driven by a combination of mini-games and dialogue choices. The gist of the game is simple: in each episode, the player simply meets up with their date and tries to win their heart.

Actually winning that heart, though, is a bit more complicated. Just like in real life, being successful in Flix and Chill requires a careful amount of charm. Say the right thing, at the right time, without too much or too little confidence, and the protagonist will likely head home with their date on their arm. Be too lax or too impatient, though, and it’s back to swiping right for a while.

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Oh boy. Careful, dude. Careful.

Wait a minute… we’re all on the same page about what the phrase “Netflix and chill” means, right? Maybe it needs to be parsed out for some readers. It means taking a date home and, well… y’know. In Assassin’s Creed it’s referred to as upgrading the villa, in BioShock it’s called taking a Plasmid, in Dishonored it’s called whiskey and cigars, in Call of Duty it’s called knifing the watermelon, in For Honor it’s called breaching the gates, so on and so forth.

In Skyrim it’s called taking an arrow in the… well, anyway. Everyone got it? Yes? Good.

flix5Sooooo…. wanna play checkers?

Each of Flix and Chill‘s five episodes follows a different couple on their first date. The dates don’t get more difficult as the player progresses, and will allow players to continue even if they fail their latest attempt at romance. The game’s first episode (and prologue) starts off with an in-game rendition of the developer, Jason Lovett, and his girlfriend Marta, in an apparent retelling of their first date. From there, the game follows a spate of young couples all looking for chemistry in the age of the Internet.

Most of the gameplay in Flix and Chill is driven by dialogue choices. Player characters can talk to their dates and will get a roster of different response options every so often. As with a real date, players have to take care with what they say and when they say it. Dates might get turned off by overly aggressive behavior. Contrary wise, they may also lose interest if the player seems aloof or bored. A measure of interest, not too much and not too little, is key.

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Unfortunately, a terrible mustache is insufficient reason to punch random passerby on a first date.

Even with the occasional spelling error, the dialogue in Flix and Chill is remarkably believable. Jason Lovett did a good job characterizing the couples in each episode and going for a more realistic approach to a dating situation, instead of the stylized substance one typically sees in a romantic comedy. To his credit, he also does well at making it difficult to anticipate how a date might respond to one dialogue option or another. Just being a nice person or telling the date what they want to hear won’t cut it. Players have to pay attention, and it pays to do so.

Even though Flix and Chill‘s episodes are only about 15-20 minutes long apiece, Lovett also succeeded at infusing each episode with mini character development arcs. The couples in Flix and Chill undergo minute but charming changes as the episode progresses, and react believably to different dialogue choices. Some of these episodes stretch the suspension of disbelief a bit, but these two elements of writing give Flix and Chill a lighthearted, uplifting atmosphere, peppered with a few jokes for good measure.

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Oh my God, Bridget. You gray seductress, you.

At this point, it should be made clear that Flix and Chill isn’t some hypersexualized adventure game or creepy dating simulator. Despite the salacious undertones of the title Flix and Chill, this game is actually a charming glance at the magic (and absurdities) of dating in the Internet age. Despite its short length, Flix and Chill does a good job of smashing together contemporary dating etiquette with the rigors of millennial life, making for a game that many people, especially young people, can relate to.

Lovett has demonstrated a talent for writing these scenarios, but their scope seems to be restricted to straight millennials. True, millennials are far and away the most prolific connoisseurs of dating apps and all that, but what about a gen x or baby boomer relationship in the Internet age? What about a gay relationship?  Flix and Chill isn’t lesser for not portraying these ideas, but there’s a lot of opportunity for adventure games to go deeper with idea of what a relationship in the information age is. Lovett’s demonstrated that the adventure format works wonders for romance and romantic comedy stories.

 

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My goodness, your trapezoid face is so lovely…

To make itself even more charming, Flix and Chill is decked out in that low-poly, faceless style that all the indie devs seem to be doing these days. The game’s episodes are presented in a cute cartoon world with lots of bright colors. One small drawback is that Flix and Chill has little sound design and no spoken dialogue, and its music, while cute, loops quite obviously.

Flix and Chill‘s sound design is not a deal-breaker though, and thankfully, neither is the game’s tiny Unity engine options menu. Flix and Chill is so visually simple that players will likely encounter few problems, but a resolution option is not an options menu. The greatest strength of the Unity engine, simplicity, is also its greatest weakness, as reflected by the small size of its options “menu” when players boot up the game.

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Pro tip: In real life I only dance if there’s a strobe light, so the ladies can only see about an eighth of my “dancing.”

Even though Flix and Chill has some spelling errors and could’ve gone much deeper in its examination of dating in the age of the Internet, it’s still a surprisingly endearing adventure game. Its cutesy romantic comedy vibe and believable dialogue make it a novelty in the gaming world. It’s a romance game that doesn’t sexualize characters (which makes it one-of-a-kind right there) and its heartfelt little vignettes of budding love cause smiles to crack and hearts to soften. Pick up a copy of Flix and Chill and get into the spring love spirit. It’s the best kind of romantic comedy: one that takes an innuendo and turns it into something substantive.

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You can buy Flix and Chill 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.