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Review: The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark

Not actually an American football simulation at all!

The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark is the sequel to The Darkside Detective, a point-and-click adventure game. It is divided into cases, as was its predecessor. The case-based adventure game has become a subgenre of sorts, though I am not aware of its origins. (Oniria Crimes ( “Review of Oniria Crimes) and Nobodies spring to mind. The latter is a different spin on point-and-click, in that the goal is to quietly dispose of corpses.)

Whatever the cause of the trend, it is a reasonable way to break up development and still create a cohesive game, as shown by The Darkside Detective and this sequel. Like the previous game (and like the others mentioned) there is usually some connection between cases, which makes each case feel like an episode rather than an isolated story to itself.

Here you play as Detective Francis McQueen, now-formerly of the Darkside Division of the Twin Lakes Police Department. The darkside isn’t a reference to the yin-aspect of the Star Wars force, but to an alternate dimension or parallel universe where things are kind of screwy (in a different way than they’re normally screwy). The darkside itself doesn’t feature as heavily or directly in this game as in the first one.

Each case follows the same basic shape that detective stories have since Sherlock Holmes first solved a case. There’s the exposition, in which we find out the nature of the case. There’s the rising action when we uncover clues as to who’s responsible or, in the case of point-and-clicks, we cobble together inventory items into solutions to puzzles. And finally, there’s the denouement, when we pull the disguise off of someone and they complain about us and our dog foiling their scheme.

Case locations include an older-peoples’ home (the grandmother of your sidekick, Dooley, lives there), Ireland (not the whole island, but a castle there, the ancestral home of your sidekick), a carnival, a pro-wrestling event, and your highschool reunion. There are also two bonus cases (with a third planned, according to the case selection screen). The first bonus is a nice time-travel case for Christmas (loosely after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and the other is occasioned by your sidekick’s nephew being missing.

The writing has good humor to it, including some absurdity which I always enjoy. It does tend toward memery in places, but it’s not terribly online. The writing is British English, which is kind of strange at times given the game takes place in America. But it’s not really America is it? It’s a fictional America where British gamemakers have replaced America with a British imagining of an America—bizarro America—where supernatural things happen. In any case, the puzzles tend to the easy side, and are mostly logical.

It took me about 14 hours to complete eight cases and all the achievements. If you want an easy-ish, pixel-graphics adventure game, particularly one with light elements of supernatural themes, give it a look.

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.