Endless Hellscape/License Hell: Ice Cream Surfer

I did not mean for every License Hell column to be on a webcomic turned video game, but somehow I keep falling ass backwards into them.

You may notice the screenshots changing resolution as this article goes on. I’ll get to that.

Playing around with the “random” button on Steam with a pal one night led to both of us discovering that a) this game existed and b) I owned it. In need of a quick mark in the win column, I figured a cute-em-up would be the ego boost I was after. Buuuuuuut there were two problems with that.

This game suffers from a lot of what I might call “fundamental design problems”. Can you figure out what my shot pattern is based on this screenshot? Hint: it’s not entirely consistent, which makes aiming monstrous. And this is POWERED UP.

The first is that this game controls impossibly poorly. There was a single patch note for the game on Steam which simply read “Error control solved – 3/8/2016. This new release solve the problem with the pad control.” This was a lie – no matter how I bound the controls (and this is an early Unity title, so there were control options in and out of game!), I could never get them to stop feeling floaty and stuttery. Seriously, it’s really hard to explain, because the framerate is pretty consistent, but you just don’t stop moving a lot of the time. Given that character hitboxes are also questionable, this leads to a lot of deaths.

I tend to agree with the opinion that in the shoot-em-up1 genre, you haven’t beaten most until you can one-credit clear a title, especially a lot of modern titles where this is the only way to unlock the “true” final boss. Just spamming “continue?” or pumping credits isn’t really a clear… buuuuuuut I absolutely did that on this game and I’m still going to count it because of the other reason.

See all those flames? They appear with no signaling whatsoever, and they are invincible.

The final two stages of this game are utterly hateful. The fifth of six introduces a lot of invincible enemies and culminates in a boss who is pure RNG, the is-that-a-sun you see in the above screenshot. All you must do to defeat him is simple on paper: he has 4 throbbing… somethings… appear on his face, you shoot them before time runs out, and he opens his mouth, a weak point you can shoot to lower his health bar at the bottom of the screen. (Which has 3 bars, I’ll point out.)

Did you fail to shoot the throbbers in time? Every one of them has now burst with no cue whatsoever, killing you if you’re still in front of it. Also, please notice that now that he’s down a few lifebars, he has a flame not-quite-a-shield around him. Aura? As far as I can tell it does nothing.

The problem with this is that if you die, you go back to a level 1 character, and this means that depending on your character2, you’re VERY CLOSE TO UNABLE to kill his throbbers before they explode. If he spread them out too far, I just killed one and got out of the way, because between movement and the fact that I had to be on top of them to fire fast enough, it was too risky. I would also like to mention at this point there is no autofire whatsoever in Ice Cream Surfer, so by stage 5 my thumb was real tender from mashing for every single shot in the game.

You can’t even credit-feed him to death because if you game over, this game is checkpoint based. Your three lives are your only three hits to take out this boss, and if you lose them, have fun restarting the entire thing from his lifebar at full.

Remember how I mentioned your hitbox is questionable? Do take a guess how I was supposed to navigate through attacks like THIS.
These teleporting pricks can and will appear right under you and cause a death you can’t react to.

And then there was the final stage, where credit feeding became even less workable because it had no checkpoints whatsoever and was a gauntlet of bad design. A recurring boss who has attack patterns these controls/characters were not designed for, teleporting enemies who can just gank you if they choose to spawn inside you, and it’s the longest one in the entire game, all to be done on three lives. I will be entirely honest and admit that because of this, I cracked open Cheat Engine and locked myself to a permanent 1 life for the rest of the game just to get this over with. Were it not for that I probably wouldn’t have any screenshots – it became incredibly challenging to hit the key and not die, and only with the ability to die at will did I not care anymore and F12ed away.

And then I cleared the game and got to see something that led me down a weird, weird rabbit hole.

I actually expected this domain to be dead, but I did look. And… it was a cute but aborted webcomic. But from there, I discovered the artist’s social media, and that this game was not a one-off vanity project by the creators. In fact, it was the first game from a still-present company staffed by two gentlemen from Spain, one of whom was the comic’s author, the other being the coder.

A company that is apparently putting out physical versions of Ice Cream Surfer on PS4 and Vita this Christmas. Seeing that this game got ported made me real curious if the Steam version was just abandoned and it had been improved for consoles, and… uh… It looks like it controls just as bad, at least. The UI has a slight improvement but otherwise, this is the exact same game I went through in an evening, with the same much too loud volume that can’t be tweaked in-game, and spritework that looks about the same as it does on my PC at higher resolutions if I don’t turn the game to “Fastest” out of spite.

Although I have to give the PS4 version this: the video there doesn’t constantly shift resolutions. Every time the game loaded a new scene it’d go to fullscreen in a hitchy fashion, and I’d have to alt-enter it back to windowed. It’s really hard to express in words how poorly coded the game is – every time you close it, it unlocks 30/31 achievements for you on Steam, all of which have no icons or descriptions. I’ve mentioned the control problems. Volume seems to be maxed on every possible sound that comes out of it – I turned the game down to 1% on Windows’ own mixer and it was still way too much for me to listen to after a few stages.

Since I mentioned the other characters, do take a look at ’em. You may also notice the character select icon is not in any way centered on these characters.

If anything, I’m most curious about what in the absolute hell deals Dolores Entertainment has made to become the publisher for the titles they have. Somehow this is the team who ported indie darling Nihilumbra to Switch and they’ve worked with a few others in the same role across a variety of platforms now. Reading reviews tells me that not everything is as questionable as this game, so now I’m only left wondering what in the hell happened here?

Or I would be if I wasn’t going to absolutely scorch all traces of this game from my hard drive and open tabs when this post goes up, because pee-yew.

  • Remaining clears before hiatus ends: 25/36
  • Remaining titles to be written about: 4

Endless Hellscape: Failed Attempts

I set myself some pretty lenient rules with the backlog clearing: 6 hours or “the ending” knocks it off the list as a victory. Here is some of the stuff that I could not even muster up that meager amount for so far. Keep in mind that for all my bitching, I cleared Sacred 3 and, this one’s gonna get its own post in a couple of days, Resident Evil 6, so it’s not like my bar is amazingly high on this project… and yet these didn’t even manage to make it.

Matris

The entire game, more or less.

Matris feels like an early access puzzle game. There’s a concept here, but practically nothing to do. The four modes are “Puzzle”, where you try to cover the entire board (with medals at 90, 95, and 100%), “Combo” (score attack), “Time Attack” (take a guess), and “Free Play”, which is basically a modified Combo with occasional special spaces. In non-Puzzle modes, you’re forced to make every successive piece start within one square of the last one you placed, which is how you end combos when you run out of moves and it clears your mass for bonuses.

And that’s it. There’s nothing competitive, different boards don’t do anything to shake it up aside from making you work carefully on a few spots, and high scoring in Free Play is entirely RNG based since the special spaces go between positive and negative and hitting one can either propel you to victory or fuck you.

And you’ve now seen the entire game.

There are leaderboards for Free Play/Time Attack, but very few people seem to give a damn on them: flailing through Free Play for about five minutes earned me #38 worldwide out of a total of 115 players (and you can’t view the leaderboards in the game at all – only via Steam’s game page). I can’t blame them, this isn’t a title I’m going to revisit.

Tapped out at: 4.4 hours/6 hours

Lines X

It should be very clear I love me some casual games. After work/before bed, I tend to do a little bit of wind-down with some puzzle title or a quick run of something low-impact. I’ve even been known to engage in those “hidden object” games here and there. In theory, this should mean Lines X would be another title like Sudoku Universe where I’m gonna mark it done after 6 hours and continue playing it here and there for this very reason.

After all, this is THE ENTIRE GAME.

See those colored dots above? Your goal is to connect all same-colored dots in such a way the entire board is covered when all have been paired off. How do you fuck this up?

This is how.

For some fucking reason, this game blasts you with sets of achievements after every puzzle. At first they were just letters of various alphabets and I thought “oh, that’s cute, I can spell some stuff out on my Steam profile with this now”.

And then came the words. Like the above. I probably would have considered this an unfortunate use of a dictionary, but then I decided I was going to try and clear one more puzzle so that when I woke up, “Most Recent: Rape” wasn’t staring me in the face.

When a puzzle game goes out of its way to insult me, I am entirely okay just binning the bastard.

Tapped out at: 14 minutes/6 hours and 120/590 achievements, at least ten of which were just an algorithm giving me the middle finger

Rapture Rejects

This one is pretty easy, it’s a story in two parts:

So yeah, that’s not happening for reasons of impossibility.

Tapped out at: minute wait time/6 hours

Endless Hellscape: Sequels and Shorts

I was laid up a little last week with a sinus infection, so it gave me the time to blow through a few titles before going back to work. Unfortunately, this one isn’t the most praiseworthy crop…

Sacred 3

Y’all, I absolutely loved Sacred 23. It was an action-RPG that didn’t go for balance or sanity or anything but being a kitchen sink entry into the genre.

The Linux-powered Anubis-styled Megaman was a real character class.

Every class had their own special equipment slots, the game threw gear and skills at you aplenty, and there were systems in place to convert other people’s loot into something you could use if you didn’t want to save it for alts or trade with other players. Quests could be as straight-faced as “battle your way free in the arena” or as insane as “Please rescue the members of Blind Guardian so they can play a concert for you”. That’s really a thing that happens. Above all, though, the game never really slowed down or forced any of this on you – if you wanted to just do the main story, it was straight-faced, and there was a mass of extra toys lying around a massive world to play with.

Once upon a time, I and a woman who was not yet my wife got an invite to a party taking place in town during San Diego Comic-Con. If you’re unfamiliar with SDCC, it’s where downtown SD turns into Hollywood South for a week, and sometimes anime, comic, and games companies show up to fill some of the extra space on the show floor. Nearby hotels become showrooms for one company or another if you’ve got the press pass, the cash, or know a guy who can get you in to see things. Because she shared a clan with one of the employees, she got an invite and a plus-one to see a joint party Square-Enix and Deep Silver were putting on in the summer of 2014 at a local bar.

There is no sense of design whatsoever in this game. Half the characters dress like a Champions Online reject next to steampunk dwarves or kung-fu monks or Conan the Barbarian ripoffs…

There were good games on display (I actually still have a t-shirt won for getting one of the highest scores in Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris), and there was some real trash. One thing I recall catching my eye was that above one station were simply the words “Sacred 3”. It actually took half the night to get to mess with it – unlike more than a few of the stations, this wasn’t running code on a console, and was a developer build that they had to download from Steam on a very, very poor connection. But eventually, the two of us took a crack at this game, and immediately I bristled when the station only had two controllers. Sacred 2 hadn’t been a game I’d want to play on a 360 controller.

Sacred 3 was actually really bad. The first stage was overlong and the two of us together (slightly drunk, to be fair) didn’t get to the end of it before the endless parade of low hanging fantasy jokes, sloppy gameplay, and just boring pacing had us walk off to try, and this is true, Hitman Sniper Challenge, a game we both had much more fun with on an iPad in a corner.

And when I talk trash about the writing and the humor, I want you to know that within every three lines, you’re going to hear something on this level. Or worse.

I do not know how I got my copy of Sacred 3. I’m going to guess a spite-gift from one of my friends4 or a bundle of some sort. It came with all of the DLC, and so when I began to play it this time around, I learned two things really quickly:
1. the DLC actively makes the game worse
2. the finished version was in no way better than the development build we tried at a bar, except now I was sober and I didn’t have anyone to riff off of

The DLC did this to me and if I had to experience this moment, you do too.

Here’s the thing I haven’t quite made clear yet – this is not a Diablo clone like the prior games in the series, with equipment, loot drops, a big open world to dick around in, etc. This is a game whose biggest competition was the Gauntlet reboot that showed up the same year, a co-op focused level-based action title with powerups, characters who only had a few skills and minor gear based ‘builds’, and, in Sacred’s case, a shitload of padding. I played legitimately for the first 35 stages and then just set my XP to maximum because a) gear was a negligible part of this game and b) I wanted it to end faster. Sure enough, just pumping my Seraphim’s numbers took the main stages from 30-40 minutes down to around 10 on average. Some were a little longer, but it’s because they had a particularly gimmicky boss, or relied on a lot of enemy arenas.

The game seriously is one of the most formulaic things I’ve played in recent memory, by the by. Every major stage (and if some of you keep wondering why I’m distinguishing main/major stages: there are 2-3 little 5-10 minute jaunts for every plot level, I don’t know if they’re optional or not) will do all but one of the following in some order:

  • A sequence where you must do a thing 6 times in a row, with the thing involving a cooldown timer, as waves of enemies swarm your position. This can be as simple as “turn a crank repeatedly and each time, it has an animation before you can do it again”, or, my least favorite variant by a mile, “destroy 6 X”. These things will be spread around a much too large area, and this game has no minimap or camera control, so you’ll be wandering looking for your targets in graveyards full of entire cities, or my personal nadir of the game, “destroy 6 catapults on a full size battlefield”. The place was huge, nothing pointed at your targets, and finding the final one when I missed a shot on it earlier was hell to make my way back to.
  • The segment where Shit Falls On You From Above With Telegraphed Explosion Markers. It can be boulders. It can be catapult fire. It can be an erupting volcano. Maybe it’s cannonballs. Whatever the excuse, it’ll be you running through an area with probably-zero enemies dodging this stage’s glowing circle parade.
  • Find 1-4 keys. Much like the destroy 6 X, these are spread over huge areas with no signposting, so wander around slaying everything until the correct 4 men have died. Usually these are the largest 4 men, but this is not a guarantee!
  • Charge The Portal. An endless procession of enemies swarms you as you hold a button to fill up the same gate that appears in every one of these. The killer? You’re not just standing in place screaming and powering it up with your aura, you’re actually consuming your special attack meters. And a single player at full special will only fill the thing about 66%, so get ready to smack down the idiot parade for a while to fill back up to finish the job if you play solo. (You’re playing solo. Nobody is still in this game.)
  • A boss. Most of these are just a big dude, but some of them are irritating puzzle bosses, where you have to do things like angle a specific enemy to damage the boss, or lure it into a room hazard, or crap like that. Those are the worst in the game because suddenly you’ve got to use one of the lesser-developed mechanics to make it work, usually the “pick up a fodder enemy and throw them” one with exploding idiots who can’t be aimed well. The thing that broke me of playing this game legitimately and sent me to ratchet my XP to max was a pirate ship boss who could only be damaged by basically bowling enemies carrying explosives towards the ship that would dodge and occasionally turn invincible to send enemy generators at you. The boss fight alone on that already over-long stage took me another 10 minutes.
Fuck this wheel. Fuck this wheel straight in its disappearing spokes.

There is so much more bullshit to this game6 but I’ve already made my point. To add insult to injury, the original developers of Sacred 1/2, Ascaron, had folded as a company between 2/3, and some of them tried reforming to create a spiritual successor. Playing this game made me look up what happened to them, and I got to learn that one of their lead members died young of cancer, killing the startup’s momentum and the game itself. The website for the project went offline mid-2018.

Disgaea 2

I hadn’t played a Disgaea since the original Atlus PS2 release of the first game, but at some point (probably out of “let’s support these PC ports” idiocy), I bought this ages back. What pushed me to install it for this backlog rush was that during Christmas, someone bought me the freshly released Disgaea 5 Complete, and if I’m going to play that, I want to knock off the one I already own before what I’ve been told is The New Champion in the series.

I legit didn’t realize this warning screen was a full cutscene until I was halfway into the game and let it boot in the background. I was surprised.

I caught on to one of the twists partway through. I think it was chapter 3 or thereabouts. I did not pick up the other until right before it happened, and at the end, I confess I was tearing up a bit in the last chapters. The big thing that killed me is I started min-maxing early, not realizing (remembering?) that there were straight up “you lose” points in the campaign if you were too potent to die. I had fun overall! I’m just spacing out grind-tacular SRPG games and making sure I get a bunch between 2 and 5. It’s really hard to think of much to say about this because Disgaea is… kind of a known quantity? You know if you want it or not.

Also there is no way in hell I do the Axel campaign. That dude sucks.

Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015: Do You Still Shower With Your Dad

I know this has a bunch of bonus modes in it but I played a few rounds of the basic ones because my wife wouldn’t stop suggesting this be the next game on my backlog pile7 and I think I’m good here.

Sudoku Universe

This is the first one I’m gonna invoke the 6+ hour rule on just because while I’m going to play this for ages as a cool-off game before bed, it won’t be done for ages with a few hundred puzzles. It’s sudoku. There is an interesting aspect where it’s got a shared launcher for the few other puzzle titles the company has on Steam, though, so I can just use one executable for all of them I install, swapping puzzle types at will. Pretty cool touch.

Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut

This one was incredibly short, my final playtime was under 4 hours. But that tracks given that this game very clearly took a lot of inspiration from the original Portal – a two-button interface with jump key that has you solving puzzles in pre-constructed chambers, as an unseen woman monologues at you and, in this case, your broken radio prevents you from answering back.

I actually burned through this one faster than expected, in about three? sittings, maybe a fourth due to taking a break near the endgame. The part where it diverges from Portal is that you’re actually interacting with colored cubes – red ones can be extended or shrunk, blue ones are springboards, yellow ones come in trios that you can manipulate the size of, and later on, you start getting into more and more odd ones than these, but those are your building blocks for the whole game.

As the game went on, it started playing a lot more with space and construction. Not as easy to show in screenshots: the walls here are “breathing” or have a kind of rhythmic heartbeat to them.

If you actually want a couple of spoilers for it, I’ll go into that next paragraph, but this one left me really sated, the standalone puzzle race mode had a whole bunch of new concepts and powerups to interact with that mean I’ve left it installed to keep screwing around with, and, since I am a hoarder, I got to discover I own the sequel to the game too, so I’ve actually begun installing that in the background. I’m excited!

Okay here’s the spacing before I talk about the story concept and one moment that really haunted me. Also, in looking things up, apparently this narrative is only in the Director’s Cut version? So that’s a thing.

It was really hard to catch the ‘distortion’ effect that appears on your screen sometimes in moments of high action, which start appearing later on in the game. So that’s why this is here. Not just to pad the article away from the spoiler section.

So. The Portal comparisons last a little more in that you have two people you’re in contact with for the game: an (unnamed?) astronaut woman who can only radio you when the ISS is on the side of earth facing the cube (QUBE?) you’re in, and a very Rat Man-esque figure who seems to have lost his mind but might also be more aware of what’s going on than you are. The former insists you’re another astronaut who was sent into this alien thing hurtling towards Earth to dismantle it from the inside, which, to be fair, your progress seems to be doing as you go along and it begins breaking apart, or entire sections are done without power, or the like. But the latter insists you’re just another rat in the maze “who’s going to be abandoned in the dark forever”, and the former doesn’t acknowledge the other for the longest time, eventually claiming the fellow is a long-presumed-dead astronaut whose disappearance seems to have been him crashing into the structure.

I won’t lay out how it ends, because the final chapter has some pretty good tension there, but there was one scene that was some excellent horror in miniature: at one point, you’re under the structure of the cube, and it’s misfiring things, entire sections have you walking on rebar-like structures connecting shattered stone, lights aren’t working, and wires hang loose. The whole time, she’s telling you something she “can’t tell Mission Control”, but since you have no radio, she feels safe sharing it. The story goes that a recent space-walk had her outside the station to repair paneling, but the fact that she was somehow more isolated than ever just got to her. She had to focus on her work and keep her head together while a voice, her own voice, started talking to her from outside the suit, in the void. It just kept whispering and building and by the time it got audible enough to decipher, all it told her were three words: “God is dead.” And then it went silent and she was alone.

I’m underselling it, because the actor really does put her all into the scene. It’s legitimately terrifying the way she spins this, and it just made me realize that in one moment, this game had done more to lean into first person puzzle/horror than another Portal-clone I’d gone through, the pretty-mediocre Lovecraft homage Magrunner: Dark Pulse, where the only horror comes from the fact that in the back half of the game, you just have sahaguin chasing your ass around voids while you try to solve the rooms.

Remaining clears before hiatus ends: 30/36

Mass Effect 3, Warframe, and Solo Multiplayer

 

Hey, remember when the worst a Mass Effect game could be was a letdown of a finale, and not singlehandedly shoot a franchise in the back of the head? Good times8.

Mass Effect 3 was the only game in the franchise I played at launch, rather than buying it discounted down the line, and to be fair that’s mostly because my then-not-wife tricked me into a copy for my birthday. You see, she’d been a tremendous fan of the series to that point, but more specifically, she wanted someone to play multiplayer with.

For those who never played it, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer was a ten wave third person shooter, with every third round being a varied objective (hack these terminals! Escort this drone! Etc.) to shake up gameplay a bit, and then an “eleventh” round of extraction where you all head to a landing point amidst crazy levels of enemies within a short timer. It was a bit generic in concept, so the bit that elevated it was the fact that at the end of the day, it remembered it was bolted onto an action-RPG, and granted you a variety of classes and builds. If you wanted standard run and gun, there were classes for that, and their skills tended to be passives to add damage types to ammo, or grenades and other more limited heavy hitting attacks. Wanted to be a biotic (space mage)? That’s in there too, and they were usually fragile, should be kept off the front lines, and could start removing dudes from gravity, sucking them into singularities, or igniting men with their minds. Then there were “tech” classes, setting mines or traps, using a summoned drone to flank, or a variety of other gadget skills. Add in that there were three sets of “hybrid” classes to mash up those three sets, and you were guaranteed room to find something that worked for you, even before the “race” system that would grant specific base stats the class augmented – some aliens were beefy tanks, others quick but fragile, some were Space DeVito, you know how it goes.

By and large, I’ve never been a multiplayer guy when it comes to my video games. I’ll do co-op, because that tends to involve just having fun with the pals, but most of the major competitive genres are things I’m absolutely terrible at – real-time strategy or precision shooting in action games. Still, I owned the game now and I had a partner who was egging me on to do some matches, so I kept playing with her, and it turns out I actually got quite into the loop.

Incredibly so. This screenshot was taken recently, but at one point I was top 1% in all categories because I was so bloody-minded about the game. Eventually I finished the campaign, but didn’t uninstall it, because the multiplayer kept getting new DLC packs, with new maps, weapons, characters, and enemies, and the design went from “canonical” to “what’s the dumbest thing we can do this week for the sake of fun?”

The final update let you run around as an extinct race or a giant-sized miniboss, among others, and I’m more than convinced the final weapons included in that were just ideas everyone had that got vetoed until then. More than anything, though, it was very much a decision motivated by having fun and not worrying about the precious canon, instead aiming to go out with something unlike the rest of what had come before. It worked, and kept myself and a pretty healthy playerbase going for the entire time of the game’s run until it died… and beyond. I booted the game up recently to take these screenshots and while I had to set it to Platinum difficulty to end up in a match, I did end up in a full group within a minute or so.

At 2AM.

The thing is, there were two things that propelled this to a regular play for me9: the fact that it could be played solo if I didn’t feel like grabbing a mic or grouping up, and that it was moddable.

Not officially, of course. But a friend tipped me off to the fact that you could grind out unlocks with the aid of a resource editor and creating what were referred to as “husk lobbies”. A Husk was a shite-tier enemy with no ranged attack who just charged at you and could be rebuffed easily, effectively making the game impossible to lose without trying, and what you’d do was convert, mmm, every single enemy type to Husks in the code, so that you just had ten quick waves of mooks, extract, and get credit for a full round. There didn’t seem to be any anti-cheat to speak of, so unless someone wandered in and went out of their way to report you, you were effectively set.

But if you dug around under the hood, there was a lot more you could do to the game than just farm quickly. Every bloody variable was alterable if you found where it was to unpack it, from HP, to amount of enemies spawning at once, to players in a match. It was a throwback to the days of the early Command and Conquer series for me10, and an under the hood tweak known as “rules.ini” – if you were to screw around in the file, just like the ME3 screenshot above, you could change anything from the cost of units, to their health, to their weapon type, etc. Want to start breeding lightning dogs that bark Einstein quotes? That was doable.

In Mass Effect 3, it meant as long as I was the host (since if you just joined someone else’s game, it’d use their rules instead, rendering you cloaked as a FILTHY HACKER), I could cause all sorts of wild tricks, blending factions who didn’t play together, or making all miniboss waves, or just eliminating the worst of the three-round challenge types. And since I kept odd hours compared to most folks, it meant I got really, really good at doing these stupid things solo in what was ostensibly a multiplayer title.

Which brings me to Warframe.

Warframe is a free-to-play title that’s similarly a PC and console affair, third-person shooter, etc. Real similar, except remember how I said the ME3 multiplayer ethos seemed to be “fuck canon, what’s the most fun idea we can work with”?

Okay, that’s the entire Warframe design ethos, for better or worse.

I messed with the game a few years ago and put it down because it had an incredibly rocky launch, but rejoined it last year after a Twitch Prime promotion meant I got some gear for it, and it had dragged a few friends back to it, who convinced me to use my new toys. That’s when I learned that the entire thing had received a lot of overhauls for the better. There was now a set of progression “gates” from planet to planet designed to make sure you learned how some mechanic or other worked (stuff I didn’t know a damn thing about or that might not have existed when I first played). Matchmaking was improved.

And then there were the new cinematic story quests as you got further in which took this very weird universe and went “Hey, you know what? It’s queerer than you realize.11

As well, there are a metric assload of different play types, and you choose what you want to do barring the initial “you must clear a path to move onwards” progression of the starmap. Somewhere while I was starting to screw around with the weapon customization, it hit me, though… this game felt like someone took ME3’s multiplayer and ran with it. And while I know “RPG elements in a third-person action game” isn’t specifically rare, well… lemme just run through a few points.

Both games feature a flexible modding system for your weapons, letting you turn the same basic items into whatever suits how you play. It’s just in ME3 you were limited to a little up and down on a few stats, and in WF you’re able to get as granular as “can reduce the number of bounces on a ricocheting weapon to speed up attack rate”, or the Riven system, wherein you unlock mystery mods via a challenge it assigns you, and upon completion, it randomly rolls a gun to attach to and effects to bestow upon it. It basically gives you a personalized Diablo-esque gear boost, and these can buff up a mediocre gun into something potent, or mutate a favorite into a portable war crime. It’s great fun.

In ME3 (see prior ME3 screen again), weapons were a hindrance and a help: the more you carried, the more you were weighed down, causing longer cooldowns on class abilities, meaning skill-centric classes wanted to have lighter loadouts and gear. In Warframe, both of these things are separate, but there are reasons to go into missions with less gear equipped (better XP distribution to what you do bring), or ways to tune a frame to be more power-centric than relying on weapons. Also, I feel it needs to be stated that while there are specific classes of weapons, you very quickly outgrow the standard “rifle, shotgun, bow, pistol” types and end up in “handheld beam cannon that treats enemies like a prism, splitting its fire across all nearby targets”, or “flamethrower that fires viruses”, or “bioweapon that feeds on your blood to reload but heals you if you begin sniping heads”, or…

They get buckwild in the best ways.

ME3 kept “classes” and let you customize within them based on your race/a few skill points per level, but you had shared powers and levels for each archetype. Warframe’s “classes” are the Warframes themselves, and while there’s a little bleed between some of them (These are tanky! This pair is lightweight and agile! This set are crowd control frames! Etc.), the game goes weird with later ones. Probably my favorite would be Nidus, who forsakes shields entirely for a health-only frame that has passive regen, powers that use the game’s MP mechanic for two of his four skills, the others relying on “infection” charges earned by hitting with the first two. It’s that latter pair which can turn him into a crowd-ganking monster who can stun enemies and heal teammates at higher level play.

Basically, most small systems from ME3 multiplayer were here for me to mess with, but taken somewhere past a mere 11 to maybe 30-something. In ME3, min-maxing came down to whether you wanted to build guns for a niche with mods, maybe using a consumable buff item for a match, and then just playing your role. In Warframe, if I want to screw around, I’ve got builds for survivability or taking damage to boost my attack, I can control individual resistances on a frame to different elements, I can weaken enemies based solely on their race, change how much my melee weapons can deflect bullets, or just power up a build that will allow me to literally walk through a level as everything dies around me. And these are just the easily explainable ones.

And trust me, there are plenty of things I could go into which go way beyond that meager framework I pitched this on. There’s an entire space combat mode with its own gameplay and mission types called Archwing. The game now has its own massive open world stage on Earth, with another planned for release sometime this year. I haven’t even touched on the faction system, or the fact that as I write this, we’re a week out from the release of Beasts of the Sanctuary, the patch introducing a new challenge mode which goes “Oh, you think you’re lethal? Let’s see, hot shot.” in an endless gauntlet that challenges you to keep a sufficient murder ratio to move onwards at all times. You have your own ship to customize, and more than a few people would tell you the endgame isn’t raiding or running bosses, it’s “fashionframe”, designing the silliest damn things you can for your frame, your pets (oh, you can raise pets, by the way, and trade DNA with other players for specific breeds or to create hideous digital DNA monsters), your living quarters, or your clan dojo.

And at no point, unless I really feel the urge, do I have to interact with any other players to do so. Warframe has become an excellent perma-game for me, something I can play a mission in before bed to chill after a shitty day at work, with a ludicrous amount of different things I can do to “progress”, or just blow some goons up and realize that I can mess with one of the ludicrous other guns or toys I haven’t yet tried and be in for something new and exciting. Sometimes I’ll even do it with friends! As much as I lone-wolf the game and have tried to get murderously efficient in my gear picks, anytime I do a team event I realize just how much Warframe is designed for player skills to complement each another, and you have to actively try to create a loadout to hinder the team.

Neither my lady or I have bought Mass Effect: Andromeda12. I’ll absolutely pick it up on the cheap at some point, because that’s kind of my entire schtick, and if it happens to suck, that’s also up my alley… but even if they evolved the multiplayer past ME3’s, I don’t think it’s going to have the same appeal to me now that I’ve gone to the big city of Warframe.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another 250 or so toys to fuck around with. I think the next one on the list is “the bow which fires singularities”.

License Hell: Blade Kitten

Not a single one of you who knows me should be surprised that this is where I began this column.

Blade Kitten is a once-upon-a-time1 webcomic about a catgirl bounty hunter named Kit Ballard, who has a floating weapon known as a Blade, so… yeah, the title is a bit obvious.

I’ll be honest, despite the fact that I actually own the complete2 collection of the strip, I don’t think Blade Kitten is a very good comic at all. The action scenes are photoshop filter disasters, even in the last, best-drawn stories…

…and the dialogue is not great.

But I’m not here to praise the comic, thank god. I’m here to tell you about how I blundered into this property and it is a spectacular success. In September 2010, Krome Studios, a small Australian developer, put out their first digital title (which was not a raging tire fire – burn in hell, Game Room) on the Playstation Network (for PS3), Xbox Live (for 360, obviously), and on Steam.

It wasn’t a visual masterpiece, but it was actually a pretty solid budget release on its own right. The game had more than a little depth to it, between hidden secrets aplenty, a combat system that had moves you never get told about but will probably discover by accident, and quite a lot of traversal possibilities. I know at one point I was trying to best my times for a speedrun, especially when I learned how insanely fast you could fly through levels with the blade leap (shoving the sword into a wall and using that to fling yourself upwards like a pole) and careful abuse of wall climbing.

And then I realized that the developers very clearly intended for that, because at least one level let you skip half of it with a well placed blade leap instead of having to crawl through sewers. It even dropped you right into the miniboss afterwards. It was a delight! And the game was clearly a labor of love, because…

Oh, right, “Space Captain Steve” is the second in command and co-founder of the whole company.

Unfortunately, the saga of Krome and Blade Kitten takes kind of a shite turn at this point, because it wasn’t long after the game’s release, to incredibly rocky reviews3, that Krome Studios shuttered its two studios and laid off all employees in October. It was a month out and for all the teases that the game had a second episode in the wings (with, at the time, entire trailers of new material for that back half being on Youtube), nobody was at the company to release any of it.

For what it’s worth, there was definitely talk of “Captain Steve” and his vision of bringing his baby to life in video game form being a fatal blow to the company, including some quotes from ex-Krome staff in this IGN piece at the time taking him to task. If you aren’t of the type like me to enjoy three page dry articles about the behind the scenes of a closing work for hire dev:

“When questioning former staff about their theories on the company’s downfall, some recurring themes emerged. Among them: a too-heavy emphasis on work-for-hire projects on behalf of American publishing houses instead of their own IP; the creative Director’s self-destructive obsession with his Blade Kitten game, at all costs; a lack of government support for the Australian gaming industry; the tumultuous relationship between the American and Australian economies in recent years, poor management decisions; and the emergence of international studios whose significantly lower project costs are unable to be met by their Australian competitors.”

I can kind of see their point, to be fair – there’s a mass of stuff in this game which seems exclusively tailored for fans of the comic (and I guarantee that was a niche of a niche if there ever was one), and in fact, I don’t even know if some of these characters appeared in the series itself outside of brief cameos or mentions by name. I could wager by a huge margin the most recognizable bonus outfit was Ty the Tazmanian Tiger himself, rewarded in the original release for finding every chest in the game. It obviously wasn’t the greatest motivator, though – Steam tells me I’m one of a mere 2.3% of people who ever did4.

I do not know a lot of the Krome Studios story during the intervening years. At some point, it returned from the dead with a skeleton crew again, and releasing the completed Blade Kitten content became a high priority as a way to get some quick cash. The only problem? Their publisher for the original release had been Atari, a company who you might know to be a four alarm fire at the best of times post-2000s, usually bought up from the last people who ran the brand into the ground, slapped on whatever the parent company didn’t want to put their own name on, and sold off in time for quick cash. It would take four years of struggle for Krome to get the rights back to their own property, and likely more than a little money involved too.

In May 2014, Krome got the license to their own game back, and proceeded to tighten up the engine and fix the bugs that had been sitting in the code for nearly half a decade at this point… on Steam. Two-thirds of the releases of the game would never see closure, and for what it’s worth, Atari is still listed as publisher on those platforms to this day, so lord only knows what the deal was that let them get this far. It would take almost a full year before Episode 2 was released on PC, finally coming out in March 2015. To their credit, a few months later, they would take the already lowered price of $6, and dump the base game down to a mere $3, with the entire package, episodes, soundtrack, and comics thrown in as well, for $7 off-sale.

Doing all this research is probably going to get me to pick it back up and try to finish 100%ing5 the game, which I was already incredibly close to. It’s actually funny, I can definitely see that I was a little less thrilled with it by the time of the Episode 2 release, or maybe I was just burned out from the speedrun practice beforehand – all my level times from the first episode are 2-4 minutes apiece, and then my lone runs of the Ep2 content were scouring for every secret I could find, putting me at 20-30 per. I would still wholeheartedly recommend the game, for what it’s worth, I’m just a lot less obsessive than I once was with it. And I do mean obsessive.

See, I would do this thing where I’d buy copies for friends at the slightest provocation, because I was frothing to the point of going “IT’S SO GOOD IF YOU JUST TRY IT, C’MON”. This was not the only title I did this with, actually, but that’s a story for another column… and for now, all I’m gonna say is give Blade Kitten a shot sometime. $7, c’mon. There are plenty of worse things you could spend that on, especially on Steam.

And if you hate everything that comes out of Kit’s mouth, like 99% of the people who I bought it for, don’t worry – there’s a separate volume toggle for voice alone. (I actually think the soundtrack’s pretty good, for what it’s worth.)

License Hell: Introduction

My name is Fletcher, and I have a licensed game problem.

To be more specific, I have a “problem” in that I’ve spent about five years now hunting down every licensed title I could find, for ill or for good, and playing them to completion or whatever passes for it. Legally, when possible. I’ve probably dumped 4-digit sums into this task at this point just on the games alone. When I began, the plot was to try and turn this into a let’s play series, but for the most part that’s not a thing I do anymore1. As a result, these posts are probably gonna be weird. Some will be multimedia, some will just cover titles in general overview if there’s nothing interesting, and more than a couple are going to be actual historical dives into what in the hell led to the existence of such a thing.

But wait, there’s more! I’m one of those broke-brained Amiga fans from the olden days, which means that like it or not, we’re all going on a trip to Europe for their microcomputer madness, where there are so many of these games from bedroom coders making 5k quid from a publisher who didn’t give a shit what went on the tape as long as it played!


And to top it all off, I’m doing this more to satisfy my own horrible obsession, so what qualifies as a “licensed” title is going to be fast and loose. If I can wiggle it in, it’s making the column2. So strap in and get ready for the first one of these to land this weekend!