Welcome to the Steam Room

At last count, there were 475 titles in my Steam library, so I'm not going to run out of games to play anytime soon. In this recurring feature, I’ll be offering my verdict on games I’ve been playing recently on PC. Read away!

Tiny & Big: Grandpa's Leftovers

Published and developed by Black Pants Studio

A 3D platformer themed around the protagonist Tiny's quest for his grandfather's underwear (pants in the UK vernacular used here), but that's far from the most distinctive thing about about it. You're given a set of physics-based tools, including a grappling hook with which to pull objects; remote-controlled rockets you can attach to objects to drive them away from you; and most importantly of all, a cutting laser that can slice through objects. Most of the challenge revolves around figuring out how to slice up objects so as to climb up to previously inaccessible areas, create bridges, and so forth. The visuals aren't terribly impressive, even for a five year old indie game, but the pencil sketch style adds some charm and the indie funk soundtrack fits the vibe extremely well.

Tiny & Big: Grandpa's Leftovers is also quite short, with only six levels (not counting some optional challenge areas), so it doesn't wear out its welcome up until a frustrating final boss. That might be a problem for a pricier game, but for a game that's frequently on sale for about $1, it's hard to complain.

Cibele

Published and developed by Star Maid Games

A deeply personal and heartfelt visual novel, based on creator Nina Freeman's real-life experiences of finding love through Final Fantasy XI. But unfortunately, I just can't recommend it.

You navigate the protagonist Nina's meticulously recreated desktop, catching bits and pieces of story through emails, chats, saved photographs, and occasional live-action cut scenes, telling the story of her incipient relationship with Blake, who goes by Ichi in the fictional game-within-a-game Cibele. These portions are engrossing, though, so where does it falter? Well, by making you actually play the game-within-a-game. And unfortunately, those segments do not play to Freeman's strengths at all. These faux-RPG sequences offer no gameplay to speak of apart from repeatedly mashing the left mouse button to kill enemies, they go on far too long, and to make worst of all, they run at an abysmal frame rate despite the simple 2D graphics used.

Game developers: stick to your strengths! Don’t try to make a quasi-interactive story more "game-y" unless your gameplay is actually good!

Monochroma

Published and developed by Nowhere Studios (also on Xbox One)

This cinematic platformer, with its black-and-white visuals and minimalistic, dialogue-free story about a boy guiding his handicapped brother through a dystopian city, clearly owes a heavy debt to indie smash hit Limbo. And while it's not quite up to par with Playdead's title, Monochroma has charms of its own. Unlike Limbo, the visuals are fully 3D, adding an additional sense of place and depth to the environments, and the color red is strikingly used to emphasize certain onscreen objects. Puzzles are satisfying and integrated fairly well into the environments and the narrative progression thereof, and while some reviewers have been very critical of the controls, I seldom had a problem with them. Until the last section of the game, anyway.

Unfortunately, Monochroma gets increasingly janky as you approach the end, with increasingly frequent control frustrations, almost invisible objects you need to interact with that are obscured by the art style and poor hit detection, (one key ladder late in the game is far too difficult to interact with, and it's part of a timed puzzle!), and an overall cheap-feeling spike in difficulty, culminating in a "final boss" of sorts whose attacks are almost impossible to avoid except by dumb luck. The prevailing sense I get is that Nowhere Studios simply ran out of time and money to adequately play test the last levels and had to rush the game out the door.

It's still absolutely worth buying on sale if you're a fan of the genre, and so I give it my qualified recommendation. Just play roughly up to the "final boss" (you'll know it when you see it) and then watch the ending on YouTube.

Shadow Warrior

published by Devolver Digital, developed by Flying Wild Hog (also on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One)

A reboot of the cult classic 1997 first-person shooter of the same name, Shadow Warrior puts you in the shoes of Lo Wang, a sword-wielding mercenary who must slice and shoot his way through mythological demons, Yakuza gangsters, and a setting that problematically mixes Chinese with Japanese culture.

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first: mainly, the core combat mechanics. The sword feels fucking great to use, with a satisfying sense of impact and weight on each hit, and copious arterial spray from your demonic and human adversaries. Unfortunately, after a positive first impression, it becomes increasingly clear that that's where the vast majority of the developer's effort went.

What went wrong? The controller inputs for your magical special abilities work maybe half the time; the encounter design is extremely repetitive, with wave after wave of the same handful of enemy types; the game gates off combat areas without any visual indicator of where the gates are or whether they're active, leading to one instance where I stumbled around for 15 minutes before realizing that I hadn't picked off a distant enemy whose death would arbitrarily make an ordinary-looking door open; scenery is frequently repeated; and most of all, the levels are just plain hard to read navigation-wise. It’s extremely difficult to distinguish what's merely scenery from where your path forward lies, a problem exacerbated by the aforementioned repeated scenery and the lack of any sort of in-game map.

Worth a try just for the sword combat, but only if you can get it for very, very cheap. (Or free, as it has been on Steam before).

Candle

published by Daedalic Entertainment; developed by Teku Studios

Look at that screenshot. Gorgeous, isn't it? Candle bears the unique distinction of featuring entirely hand-drawn watercolor art for most of its backgrounds and sprites, and it's simply beautiful to look at throughout as you navigate the protagonist, Teku (who heavily resembles the Koroks from the Zelda series) through wonderfully detailed, colorful tribal fantasy worlds. And fortunately, the gameplay here lives up to the visuals.

Like Monochroma, Candle can be described as an entry in the cinematic platformer subgenre, though its take on that aspect owes more to older entries in the genre like Out of This World/Another World (there's even an achievement referencing that game) than to newer titles like Limbo and Inside. But instead of relying purely on environmental navigation, platforming, and avoiding enemies for its puzzles (though there’s no shortage of those), Candle also features plenty of inventory-based puzzles revolving around figuring out which item to use where, along the lines of an old-school point-and-click adventure.

On the whole, the combination works extremely well, but not without a few nagging issues: puzzle design is occasionally too old-school for its own good, with the item/object/character interactions necessary to solve puzzles sometimes being too obscure; there are a few minigame puzzles (i.e., a board game and a connect-the-pipes challenge) that simply aren't much fun; there's a lot of backtracking; and sometimes, the beautiful scenery hides paths far too well.

But these issues don't outweigh what Candle does well, and for fans of the cinematic platformer and adventure genres, I highly recommend it.

on September 15, 2017