FTL: Faster Than Light

Reroute power from the Medbay to the engines, we need to make the jump now! I know you’re a space slug with tiny arms but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your job! Tell the giant mantis to stop lazing about and get on weapons and where is my rock-man? He’s on the other side of the ship?! So with the speed he walks he should reach the shields in about a week. You know, I’m all for diversification on space travel, after all I am a polar bear, but this is just getting ridiculous.

FTL: Faster Than Light is a top down, real time strategy, and space simulator. As the player you command a space ship with a mission to deliver vital information that can stop a rebel uprising. On your mission you jump from point to point in space dealing with a wide variety of encounters. Broadly these come under two descriptions: you either encounter a ship or have to deal with a random event. Encountering a ship can range from fighting rebels to making deals or fighting slavers; the random events roster is even more varied, ranging from fighting giant alien space spiders to helping a planet deal with a terrible pandemic.

Engage! Make it so! God I love being a captain, I get to say all the dramatic things.

The purpose of all these missions is to gain scrap, the currency of the game, so that you can outfit your ship with better weapons, more crew, various upgrades, and new abilities. There are nine sectors to travel through, each with a large number of beacons to explore, but you constantly have to deal with the rebel fleet that’s chasing after you and the information you carry. It’s not instant death if they catch you but you really don’t want to end up in that situation.

FTL is a roguelike game, meaning that it features randomized levels and a permanent death system. This does make for quite an intense experience but can be equally frustrating as I shall discuss later. The fact that it’s a roguelike means that you won’t have two games that will be exactly alike, although after a while you will learn the various encounters you might have and what you should be aiming to do in each sector. It also means that you have to look after your ship because if you don’t…

This, essentially, forever. You’ve lost all the crew… and you knew their names!

This is a game for micro-management, controlling your crew, manipulating your power supplies for maximum benefit, and firing your weapons all requires individual commands and planning. You put in a lot of effort to get your ship through encounters safely but it is very rewarding when you do. It does make you feel like you’re in Star Trek or Firefly and you’re balancing risk vs. reward when it comes to dealing with a new situation.

It’s quite a difficult game with this constant feeling that you’re running out of time and every decision being important. It can be played casually but even the so called easy setting can be quite punishing. Despite this the game is for the most part fair; you won’t immediately meet ships that can destroy you without you being able to touch them. Enemies scale quite well along with you so unless you are careless or unlucky you shouldn’t find yourself in too many hopeless situations.

The game also has a fantastically in depth world with seven races of creatures, all of which can be recruited, including telepathic space slugs and partially robotic humanoids. Each race also has specific ships that you can unlock and pilot. There is a wealth of detail about the races and the galaxy that the game provides in little text boxes as you travel.

 

Now how the hell are we going to adapt the toilet so everyone can use it?

FTL is a fairly short game but with the incredible amount of replay value this isn’t really a problem. It does sometimes mean that by the time you’ve finally finished upgrading your ship to the level you wanted the game is over and you have to start from scratch. However the game always has this sense of running out of time because of the red wall of the rebel fleet that’s chasing you through each sector so I suppose it’s very fitting.

 

Though there is a great deal of variety to the encounters you will, after a while, see the same ones, particularly with ship battles. But this is nitpicky and not really a problem. There is one battle, however, that does irritate me and that is the final boss. I don’t have a problem with it being hard, it’s good that it’s difficult, but I have frequently ended up in a situation where it is impossible for me to win. Unless you have kitted out your ship one or two specific ways you will not be able to complete the game. It makes it very frustrating when you have a ship that, for example, is good at killing crews, only to find you cannot possibly beat the boss that way.

 

FTL is a fun game if you like your micro management. The atmosphere of being a space captain is a great one but if that sort of strategy gameplay isn’t your thing you probably won’t enjoy it. But if you have even a slight interest in real time strategies with a bit of a challenge to them you can’t really go wrong with FTL. There isn’t a plan for a direct sequel but this is a franchise which, I feel, could be used some more. I just want to see more of this universe while piloting a ship full of rock people. Is that so much to ask?

Don’t worry, the fire took out the oxygen supply! All we need to do is wait for it to burn up all the air and it will go out! … Wait…

 

 

Hotline Miami

And who do we have here? Oh, you don’t know who you are? Maybe we should leave it that way? But I know you. Look at my face… we’ve met before… It’s hard to forget when you meet a polar bear and what are you doing wandering around the Arctic wearing an animal mask? Are you crazy? Let’s wait and find out…

Cryptic is the best word to use to describe the story in Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami, a 2-D Topdown action puzzle game. The best word to describe the gameplay is violent. Oh yes this is a violent and gory game but don’t write it off as a cheap and lazy attempt at pulling in 13-year-old boys. There’s a lot more to this game than meets the eye.

Welp, something pretty awful happened here

Hotline Miami is set in (surprise, surprise) Miami in the 1980s. It follows the story of a character of Jacket, whose name is never used in the game, as he receives phone calls with coded instructions to go to a location and kill large numbers of people while wearing different animal masks. It’s difficult to go into the story properly without spoilers or just wild interpretation. Very little is fact.

It rarely gives the player a reliable idea of what is going on. Jacket’s mental faculties seem to decay throughout the game leading to hallucinations that make it difficult to determine what is real and what isn’t. It’s like looking at the world through the eyes of a schizophrenic. Most of the story is implied with the player having to interpret the meaning behind the various events. These don’t usually happen in mission but take place in mini prologues or chapter breaks with (possibly) imaginary scenes.

Nah this must be real, I frequently meet with three figures wearing animal masks who spout (maybe) gibberish at me

The game does a lot of things really well. The combat system is incredibly quick and incredibly satisfying when done well. Most characters are one hit kill and this includes the player character so when if you make a mistake you’re almost guaranteed to die. But this isn’t a problem because it’s just one button to respawn instantly.

This is so streamlined that you can go into room, kill two enemies, get killed by the third you didn’t see, and respawn to try again in a matter of seconds. The game is as much a puzzle game as it is an action game, with players having to navigate around the many rooms and dispatch all the enemies without a single one getting you.

The game does have an interesting design. Great clashing colours dominate with a psychedelic feel that is very evocative of the era and (potential) madness of the characters. Even the menu screen creates this haze of insanity that does sometimes make you feel like you’re a bit drunk when you’re just trying to pick a level to play.

But one of the best features in Hotline Miami is the soundtrack. When I first played the game I didn’t really think much of it. I’d heard lots of people praising it but didn’t find it particularly special. However, I very quickly found that the game and the soundtrack blended together so well that it started creating a real adrenaline rush just hearing it. Good soundtracks can do wonders for a game, Bastion for example, and Hotline Miami’s mirrors the gameplay to the point that your brain just kinda turns into this crazy mush as you just play and die and play and die until it’s about three hours later and you don’t know what happened.

I… I don’t know… I think I’ve just been playing too much of this

Of course for all that it does well there are inevitably things it does poorly. Though the game can get frustrating I wouldn’t count this as a bad point because that’s part of the puzzle, apart from two things. First is Chapter 12: Trauma which is different to all others (one of these things is not like the others…). This chapter is a stealth chapter where if you are seen by an enemy you are sent back to a checkpoint, all the while having to manage how long you walk before having to pause thanks to a head trauma

It is frustrating, really frustrating and for me it breaks the flow of the game a little. The rest of the chapters are quick and loud and adrenaline fuelled. This one is slow and quiet and patient. Changing the tone in a game can be done well but here I feel that this chapter deserved to be more of a story prologue than a full chapter.

The other problem is the boss battles. They are few and far between but they are probably my least favourite parts of the game. The one-hit kill feature for the player character does not make for exciting boss battles and since most of the bosses are preceded by an unskippable cutscene it doesn’t have the flow of the instant respawn that the rest of the game has.

Hotline Miami is a bit like a fever dream with serious violence and serious confusion. It is unlike pretty much anything else out there at the moment and I look forward to the possibility of DLC or even a sequel. I just have one question: why no polar bear mask?

I think someone slipped something in my drink…

Currently on Steam for: £6.99

$9.99

€8.49

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes

Ah good evening, Watson, so good to see you rested after our encounter with Arsène Lupin, Cthulhu, and Jack the Ripper. Who is our great nemesis today, you ask? Well that’s obvious, Watson, it’s me… apparently.

 

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is the latest in Frogware’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. The series themselves are an odd mix, the odd plotlines coupled with some very strange dialogue in places created and almost surreal Sherlock Holmes experience. In my opinion the series peaked with Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, a game in which Sherlock Holmes battled wits with cultists and Cthulhu. I am not kidding and yes, it is as awesome as it sounds. Even beyond the wonderful premise the game itself is actually pretty good. If you’re a fan of adventure games you’ll probably find it an enjoyable, and unexpectedly gory, experience.

Alas I am stalling. For me The Awakened was the best game in the series though the others were fairly good games in their own right. I found Sherlock Holmes versus Arsène Lupin (also known as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis) to be enjoyable but buggy and Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper to be fun but the victim of questionable design choices. Still, in that game you got to see Holmes and Watson act out the murders of Jack the Ripper. Seeing Holmes’ looped animation of striking, strangling, and otherwise mauling Watson was a delightful, if surreal experience.

Yes, Watson, I was the Ripper all along!

Yes, Watson, I was the Ripper all along!

So now we reach the Testament of Sherlock Holmes…

It’s bad. It’s really bad. A brief outline of the plot: the game starts with some appalling badly voice acted children playing around in an attic and finding the journal of Dr Watson who recorded the events of the game.

The proper game starts off with Sherlock Holmes going through the motions of his regular cases; until he starts getting accused of various crimes. He doesn’t help his case by acting like the biggest arsehole in all of Ol’ London Taaaan. The game is mostly told from the perspective of Watson who is as in the dark about Sherlock’s actions as the audience. Things come to a head when it looks like Sherlock Holmes has started straight up killing people. But it all starts to revolve around a plot against the throne.

Holmes, what have I told you about murdering people!

Holmes, what have I told you about murdering people!

So, good things about the game…

Erm…

Ooh! I know! There is an excellent section where you get to play as a dog! And the character model for it is just adorable as the dickens. It actually does make for a fun section of gameplay, a twist on the classic adventure game style.

This is, however, the most enthusiasm I can muster for this game. The plot is trouser-eating retarded and has the most ridiculous ending. When you’re making an adventure game good plotting is incredibly important. It can be saved by good characterisation but this game doesn’t even have that. Watson just comes off as an idiot and Sherlock Holmes is a dick. Even after the big reveal of what’s really going on I just hated these characters so much.

So what about gameplay? Well, let’s start off with the user interface. The UI has three different modes, you can play in first person, third person, and classic point and click style. None of them work! In third person mode your character model takes up so much of the screen you can’t see what you’re meant to be looking for. In the point and click style it is so difficult to navigate around the different camera angles in each room that I gave up trying to use it almost instantly. I used to the first person mode for most of the game but that was frustrating because the camera has this odd sweeping motion that generally carries you over the item you were trying to look at. I had to mess about with the mouse sensitivity and experiment until I could actually get the thing workable.

Pictured: Dog anus

Pictured: Dog anus

The majority of the puzzles in this game are extremely contrived and do little for the experience but break the flow of the story. Thankfully there is a skip puzzle button that appears when you linger on one too long. A shame there isn’t one for the bloody deduction boards which have you hunting around for the one piece of information that isn’t quite what the game says it should be.

This is not a good game. It is an adventure game with a poor plot, poor characterisation, poor gameplay, and one wonderful section where you don’t play as any of the main characters. If the whole game could have been from the perspective of Toby the Dog I might have enjoyed it, but as it stands I did not like it.

It is a shame, the surreal humour behind this series just wasn’t there. Instead Frogware seemed to be trying to make it gritty and edgy. They do not achieve their goal. It’s just annoying and I don’t have anything more to say.

Ah, another shipment of puzzle boxes, no doubt.

Ah, another shipment of puzzle boxes, no doubt.

Currently on Steam for: £24.99

$39.99

€39.99

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Hello, Commander, welcome to the XCOM project. You will head this paramilitary organization of multicultural, but strangely all American sounding, soldiers trained to defend the Earth from alien attack. Good luck.

Released in October 2012, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of the big releases of 2012, creating a huge splash in the market and garnering great praise from critics. However, the game was met with trepidation. The original 1994 series is one that, I must admit, slipped me by. I had never even heard of XCOM before this game, nor did I know about the huge fan-base, the host of critics citing UFO: Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defence in North America, as the pinnacle of gaming greatness.

So Firaxis, the developers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the very popular Civilization series, took a great risk in making this game. Not only was it a departure from the style of games they normally produced but it was one that was going to be held against an incredibly high standard. Not a simple challenge.

These aliens aren't just here for a probin'

These aliens aren’t just here for a probin’

This is the basic premise of XCOM: Enemy Unknown: aliens attack the Earth (proper thin grey men at that) and you head the organization designed to repel them. The gameplay is split between a management mode where you build up your base, research upgrades, outfit your soldiers and generally keep control of your finances and the level of panic across the globe. Let the panic rating of each country get too high and they withdraw their support of the XCOM project. Lose too many countries and that’s it, game over. The second mode is the turn-based strategy mode where you control your soldiers directly to complete objectives such as investigating crashed UFOs, defending citizens from mutant/zombie spawning aliens, escorting VIPs to safety, and more.

There’s not much plot to XCOM. The main story missions are few and far between and there’s not a great deal of depth beyond figuring out why the aliens are here and what their ultimate goal is. For me, a big fan of plot, this was a little bit of a flaw. I didn’t feel the main story was in depth enough and when I got to the end, discovered all the secrets, and got to the closing cinematic I didn’t really feel very engaged in this story.

There is a reason for this rather thin story: the main plot of XCOM is the one you make yourself. Your squad of 4 – 6 soldiers (depending on upgrades) becomes very close to you. You remember their names and nicknames, you remember when they pulled off that great shot (or you pretend that they did and it’s not the result of a random number generator), and when they inevitably die it’s a shock.

Yeah this is a soldier you shouldn't have gotten attached to

Yeah this is a soldier you shouldn’t have gotten attached to

Because XCOM is pretty hard, it’s designed to be. It’s designed with atmosphere in mind and it does it so well. You know you’ve got a tense game when managing your finances becomes a real point of excitement; because if you don’t manage your finances and don’t get to outfit your soldiers properly you have as good as killed them.

This is probably the thing XCOM does best. The atmosphere while managing your base and commanding your soldiers in the field is this grim combination of fear and inevitability. While in the base you are constantly waiting for there to be an alien encounter just before you finish a vital piece of research or before a soldier recovers from their last encounter. While you’re in each mission you’re waiting for the next level of alien to appear and kill your best soldiers before you have a chance to react. It is really tense in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

Squad, get into overwatch and- WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?!)

Squad, get into overwatch and- WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?!)

XCOM is a fun game and a massive time sink but it’s not without its flaws. First and foremost the bugs, oh the bugs. Mostly these are little graphic errors, your soldier seems to be shooting the wrong way or you actually missed the shot despite the animation showing you hitting the alien right in the head. But there are a few more game altering bugs that range from issues with a soldier’s line of sight (which, believe me, can lead to your whole squad getting wiped because one soldier apparently couldn’t see the alien that was ten feet away) to complete game breaking save issues.

My other main issue with the game is its difficulty curve. The game does start off very difficult and it stays this way through the mid-game; but somewhere around the last third, once you’ve got some of the best armour and weapons, you can run through missions pretty easily. For a game which has such a great atmosphere of tension it’s a shame that it doesn’t last for the whole thing.

Oh god, what am I?!

Oh god, what am I?!

Many fans still (rather vocally) claim that this XCOM is not as good as the original. But speaking as someone who hasn’t played an XCOM game before I really enjoyed it and don’t think it deserves to be constantly in the shadow of its predecessor.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown does a fantastic job of drawing you into its universe and, when things go right, making you feel like a tactical genius. When things go wrong it hits you really hard in a way not many games do. If you are a fan of strategy and games with a real sense of tension then you can’t go wrong with XCOM.

XCOM, where we take “Shady Government Agency” literally

XCOM, where we take “Shady Government Agency” literally

Currently on Steam for: £29.99

$49.99

€49.99

Welcome

Welcome, dear reader, welcome to the icy cave here in the frozen wastes. Here you find me, the Polar Bear Gamer, with a ready supply of reviews, news, little features, maybe top 10 lists depending on how lazy I am or whether or not I’m hibernating. Things may get rant-y, I’m famous for my rants.

Basically this is a blog primarily devoted to the reviews of games. You’ll likely find a lot of indie games because I don’t have a great deal of money to spend on AAA titles. But hey, indie games are where you see a lot of innovation and really interesting titles.

So I’m going to go ahead and start of the blog by completely going back on what I just said and review two bigger titles from 2012. I’ll generally be doing one a week but I thought I’d start off with two, one of which I really like and the other… well, let’s just get started.

Welcome to the frozen cave.

Hello there...

Hello there…