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Review of Summoner’s Mess

A modern Pac-Man without the ghosts?

Summoner’s Mess is a 2D top-down game similar in appearance to the classic Legend of Zelda. It is a short maze-running game. And I mean short. It took me two hours to beat the game and get all ten achievements.

Graphics are what made me look at this game, as they are meant to be retro pixel sprites (including a rounding effect to give the game a fake-round-screen CRT styling) but are well made and have some modern touches added.

The plot is simple enough: you’re a low-tier member of a death cult that wants to summon evil to do its bidding, but being low-tier pisses you off, so you attempt to summon evil all by yourself, for fame, glory, and leadership of the cult. Army of Darkness-style fumbling with the incantation causes evil to scatter your books across the dungeon, and you need to go find them to take control of the abomination.

The conceit is that you have limited light, so as you make your way through the dark dungeon, you must constantly pick up torches and candles to renew your light. If your torch dies out, as in Zork, you get eaten by a grue. At which point you start anew.

Controls are limited to WASD or arrow keys (or controller), but it’s a simple enough game, which makes it mostly forgivable. You have three inventory slots, and if you pick up more items then you will drop one of them (though you can pick it back up to cycle to the one you choose to drop). The torch is a separate thing, not taking up inventory, and it has a subtle back-fill that indicates how close it is to burning out. It could be more obvious, as I didn’t even notice the background fill until I was writing the review. But I could tell from the lighting alone when I was in danger, so the HUD element wasn’t that important.

There is a speedrun mode, which starts the timer when you move and displays a clock. Pressing the escape key pauses the game, letting you restart. You’ll want to hold down the escape key when starting runs (after your first) to skip the exposition at the start of an attempt.

There are also some accessibility options in the settings if you need them, though it warns you can’t complete achievements while they’re turned on.

Again, it’s a simple and short game. Perhaps too simple, but it’s hard to say what would have added to the game without changing its character entirely. It’s well-made as it is. Adding an enemy to kill or flee wouldn’t have done much. While the avoid-the-dark mechanic is getting to be overused in general, it is well-suited to the pacing of the game. Keep moving, get your books, keep your torch lit.

In all, it was a tidy diversion. If you like retro art, maze-type games, or if you think Cthulu is cthool, it’s worth a look (if you have the light left by which to see).

Review of Death Stranding

In the end, Death Stranding delivers on its promise.

Death Stranding (Wikipedia: “Death Stranding”) is an open-world delivery game set in a post-post-apocalyptic (but also peri-apocalyptic) future. You play as Sam, a porter, delivery guy, carrier of things. The game opens with you already in action, with a reputation, but the game also treats you as though you’re just starting out. This is common in games, where there is a tension between plot and story on one hand, and gameplay on the other.

And there are immediate cutscenes to start building the story. The story is great. The cutscenes, the cinematic nature of the game, which preferenced animation and lots of it, get a bit tiresome. It’s not that there’s something wrong with blending cinema into games, but how it is done is another thing entirely. And the clumsy and untelegraphed nature of Death Stranding‘s cinematics are part of its larger, though mostly forgivable, problems.

The basic story is there is rainfall that causes accelerated decay (and timeflow in general) of whatever it touches, and in those storms there are ghosts that, if they grab you, can cause matter-antimatter explosions. The world (though we only see America) has been devastated by these events, which also involve other supernatural elements. It is your job as a cargo carrier to help reunite humanity and hopefully put an end to the supernatural stuff. It’s more involved, of course, and beyond the scope of the review. But it’s a nicely told story.

You don’t have too much knowledge or control of when the next set of cinematics will come, and they tend to come on top of completing some lengthy cargo run, just as you need to go make dinner. Surprise! Here’s a ten minute short you didn’t expect to watch right now!

I’m not sure what the best way to handle the issue would be. One might be warning the player that “after this mission are about ten minutes of expository scenes.” Another might be to make it easier to skip them and come back and watch them after the fact. (If you search, you’ll find people online explaining how they watched some cutscenes on YouTUBE as there was no in-game way to watch the ones you skip.)

The only other note on cinematic presentation is that every time you first encounter the rain ghosts, a ten-second animation kicks in to make sure you’re properly warned. You can disable it playing every time you leave and return to the same storm-area (this was apparently added in a patch), but you can’t turn it off entirely. It’s quite annoying, as were the longer-than-needed animations for getting in and out of the truck. There are a few other spots where this over-indulgence crop up: deliveries, recycling, and the private rooms (including activities in the private rooms). The only place where it was completely forgivable was the interactions with the “BB” (bridge baby), as (some) babies are adorable and silly.

The other big problem of Death Stranding sits in the interface. I played the game on PC, on Linux through the Proton (WINE) translation layer, but my impression is that my experience is representative of the PC experience, and it may well apply to the console experience as well. The interface often fights you by being less clear and more complicated than necessary.

One example is crafting. Because of the time-corrosive rain, you have to craft replacement items fairly often. There are six or so resource types, which are available at various locations to craft items. Each craft location has a finite amount available and a maximum. You can recycle. But if you want to recycle and the resource is full, the excess is discarded. But the game doesn’t let you recycle, fabricate, and then balance whatever’s there. If you need to maximize resources, you need to fabricate, then recycle.

Of course, maximizing resources is not required. If metal’s already full, you’re probably not going to run out by trashing a bit. But if you’re playing faithfully ( “Faithfulness in Games”), you shouldn’t waste resources. The game warns you if recycling would spill, and the game should wants you play faithfully, right? If it doesn’t matter, the game shouldn’t set the artificial limit to begin with. It’s unnecessary to the player experience, but it tripped me up until I lowered my faithfulness.

Another example is vehicle repair. You return to a distribution center, and you can store your vehicle and retrieve it to repair it to new, to recharge the battery. When you do this, it also deposits all vehicle cargo in the private locker, meaning you have to move it back on the vehicle every time (or you forget to, get half-way to your destination before you realize you left something behind). You can also rest in a room to refill your ammunition and canteen. I say can, but I should say must. You have to do these silly little interface dances to improve your status rather than the game simply being honest with the player and giving you a repaired vehicle and full stats and resources because you got to the place where, if you wanted to do the interface dance, you could have gotten them.

I assume both of these things have something to do with how multiplayer works in Death Stranding, which is among the coolest parts of the game. The game features a kind of metaverse for areas you have connected to the in-game network. Other players can build several types of structures, as can you, and these structures are shared between your world and theirs. You can upgrade their structures, and they and you get “likes” (equivalent to experience points) based on these (and other) interactions.

But why would the problems be caused by this novel multiplayer system? My guess is they wanted to encourage it to be used and therefore certain interface choices were made to distinguish consequences. If you don’t store your vehicle, a multiplayer might find it sitting out. If you do, they might retrieve it from their garage. If you could overfill the resource coffers, you might start sharing the extra resources via postboxen and shared lockers, and there might be overabundance.

Whatever the reason, the game suffers from the kind of extra-steps-necessary interface that was quite annoying. At one critical point in the plot, if you don’t decide to sleep in a room, you miss a cutscene that gives you critical information about what to do. You will fail the mission and be put back at its start, but still won’t be told to go sleep in a room.

The mail interface is about as annoying as e-mail in real life, except there is no spam filter in the game. The “Likes” system can feel spammy sometimes as well, though it’s generally nice and the game does a good job of making you feel appreciated by receiving “Likes.”

The interface also did a poor job of surfacing useful information. You can’t tell the health of items at a glance, so you have to poke around at each one to see if you have items falling apart, lest you be caught without critical kit when you need it.

And when you select orders to take on, there are several types in separate menus, which you cannot select in one go. You have to take on some orders, go through the end of the process (mandatory crafting screen, vehicle selection, load up those items, exit interface to world) and then go back and add the next set. This may have been done to try to avoid you overburdening the character with too many orders, but in practice it was a messy way to fix that problem.

The other interface issue was the HUD color of light blue being of terrible contrast in snowy areas. That should not be a thing. Either add a shadow to the HUD or let me change its color or change its color yourself. But don’t put invisible stuff on my screen and say, “Go ahead, try and read that.”

There were a few smaller gameplay-feel issues worth noting as well. The reverse-trike vehicle felt terrible to drive other than on roads. (Though the few speedruns I found after beating the game seem to prefer it.) The truck felt fine, except it could get funky on some slopes. (Slopes in general could be a problem. Walking down a snow-covered slope, I somehow managed to slip-and-slide at high speed causing a death event at one point, even though it wasn’t that steep, but that was an aberration.)

The non-human fights, against boss-style “catcher” BTs (beached things, or monsters) were often annoying, particularly because the character would not always respond to commands during them. On more than a few occasions, I had hematic grenades aimed and primed, but they would not throw, and as a result I got sort of stun-locked and suffered for it. I was mostly able to salvage those encounters, only having a few deaths and only one voidout (i.e., matter-antimatter explosion).

All of that said, Death Stranding was mostly a fun game that I enjoyed. I don’t play big games very often. The graphics were excellent. The world feels nice and big. The different take on multiplayer is a step forward and something that other games must explore. It’s a fun game.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a slightly-purer delivery sim than it was, but the story was a good one and I adjusted my game-faith to the annoyances over time. It took me 135 hours to get all 63 achievements. It’s worth a look.

Review of Baba is You

Game is FUN. Thinking is HARD. Brain is FRIED.

Baba is You is a 2D grid-based puzzle game. You play as some character-icon (most often the titular Baba, some kind of four-legged animal) and push other icons and tiles around to solve level-based puzzles. What makes the game unique is that the rules of the levels are the puzzle, and the rules are part of the level—are tiles in the level.

For example, if a level has the rules Baba is YOU and Flag is WIN, you must navigate the YOU (a Baba icon) to the WIN (a Flag icon). But you usually have to build the rules to make it possible to beat the level. And therein lies the fun!

The artstyle is basic. As with most puzzle games, that’s probably for the best. It keeps you from being distracted while looking acceptable enough. It has the feel of being a classic computer game that could’ve come from the early days, could’ve been made in the 80s.

It takes a bit for the logic to sink in. Part of that is learning the different types of blocks. There are non-logic blocks (like the Baba icon and Flag icon), which only have properties by virtue of what the logic blocks say.

As for logic blocks, there are names (Baba, Flag, etc.), which represent one or more icons on the board, there are operators and connectors (in white letters) like is and and, which connect those names to properties, and there are the properties, which are labeled in inverted blocks (here in all-caps). A few are WIN, YOU, PUSH. The other thing to know is that names can also be properties. What that means is if you have a sequence like Man is Dog, it will transform all man icons into dog icons.

One of the early tricks you have to learn is that any of the blocks can be reused by having them cross vertically and horizontally. This is similar to how tiles in crossword puzzles (or a game of Scrabble) can serve double duty.

The teaching of new properties is decent. Each area starts with some easier ones that demonstrate the new concepts you’ll see used in that set of levels. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t fully understand them when I was expected to use them (EMPTY from the “Rocket Trip” levels is a good example of that). That’s part of the challenge, though, the difference between knowing a little and mastery of the concepts.

Some the level solutions are kind of complicated to get set up right. Others are messy, requiring a lot of stuff to be moved around on the board that didn’t matter in the moment, next to things that did. And in general, order of operations and the specific properties of specific board pieces matter a lot. It’s a game probably best received by programmers and other technically-minded types. But most of the levels are likely accessible enough to anyone who likes puzzling their way through.

Another messiness issue arises when multiple items are stacked in the same spot. It could be confusing to figure out which items you have stacked. That’s true both for items of the same type (multiple copies) and for mixes of different items and words. The good news is that there is an undo feature (the z key) that you will use often to fix mistakes or remind yourself the correct first part of a solution after the second part falls apart. (You’ll also use the r key to reset the level as needed.)

Most areas have bonus levels, which are numbered by dots instead of numerals. The bonus levels are copies of their neighbors with tweaked rules to puzzle out an alternate way to solve. So if something doesn’t work on a level, keep it in mind! On a number of bonuses, I had to implement a solution that didn’t work for the main level, that I had to abandon.

Most levels’ difficulty arises from figuring what to do. For the harder levels, and some of the others, the challenge comes more from figuring out how to do what you know you have to do. And then for a few levels, most of them not particularly hard, the hurdle is doing the solution that’s obvious enough. But you might get stuck here and there. It’s easy to overthink some of the puzzles.

A good help in dealing with those cases was Key of W (Michael Matlock): “Baba is Hint: A Spoiler-Free Guide”. It let me think about my approach without telling me the answer (and it helped me make sure I didn’t miss any levels). Steam Community: rjdimo: “Guide Has Hint Is Not Solution (WIP)” was also good for some hints, though it’s less complete. Fandom: Baba is Wiki is a full wiki with lots of information about the game, including levels. Unfortunately, the level pages have full solutions in plain view.

“Baba is Hint” is well put-together, with each map area having its own page (use the pictures near the top of each section to navigate to the right one). It’s got several hints per level from nudges to bigger hints, and it rates level difficulty and offers some commentary. Toward the end-game, it does tend to reference prior levels (but you may not remember what or when or how), so clicking around is necessary for those hints. I tended to use the Fandom wiki for looking up solutions to levels I’d already completed to refresh my memory, rather than going back to them in-game or looking at their hints again.

The nature of puzzles always makes it difficult to give useful hints that are not outright solutions. About half the time I looked for a hint, I was overthinking the solution, believing I had to do things I didn’t need to do (some of which I would later have to do for a bonus level). The other half of the time, it was usually a matter of confirming I had to do what I thought I did, and then I figured out how to do it.

The endgame levels of “Baba is You” are many. This is a deep and involved endgame. After you complete the regular levels, things get crazy. I would not have beaten everything without at least some hints and nudges to keep me sane.

A well-done puzzle game, it took me about 53 hours to complete with all achievements, though I spent a little time after messing with the level editor and user-made levels. Unless you’re adverse to puzzles you should give this one a try.