Try-It Tuesday: West of Loathing

For about a decade now, there’s been this under-the-radar browser MMO operating called Kingdom of Loathing. I’ve played and wrote about it several times, but basically it’s a multiplayer fantasy world filled with stick figures, hand-drawn items, and 80% of the world’s stockpile of puns. KoL developed a reputation as a really funny and often surprisingly clever RPG that walks on the surreal side and utilizes a “reincarnation” system to encourage players to start over numerous times.

This month, the small team behind Kingdom of Loathing finally rolled out a spin-off single-player RPG called West of Loathing, and I can say that from about a week of playing it, it might be the best entertainment you’ll consume all summer. The setting and premise is couched in western tropes — you’re an antsy adventurer who is looking to make his or her fame and fortune in the wild west. Except that this west is not so much historically accurate as it is bizarre, gonzo, and as goofy as it wants to be.

West of Loathing obviously exists in the same universe as KoL, with the same stats, currency (meat), art style, and so on. But there are differences, solo play notwithstanding. You move around in areas with WASD (versus KoL’s menu system) and the combat is more tactical and interesting. It’s also more of an open world RPG like what you’d find with Fallout or Skyrim, so exploring different locations and gradually opening up the landscape is a major part of your progress.

I referred to Kingdom of Loathing as “clever” and “funny,” and both of these attributes are in full effect in this spin-off. If I’m not laughing at some hideously bad pun, activating “stupid walking,” or rolling my eyes as I’m reading plaque after plaque in the “Shaggy Dog Cavern,” I’m finding myself stymied by various puzzles and secrets that are sprinkled everywhere. Trying to subdue one gang in a hat factory, I had to figure out how to spot each of the five members’ hiding tells without getting any wrong. I don’t know when the last time a game made me play hide and go seek, but there we are.

The game is not afraid to break the fourth wall repeatedly, especially to chide you or question your decisions. There’s a running gag about the spittoons in this game and how I (and most other players, I’d reckon) keep digging around in their muck like the trained RPG players we are without really considering how disgusting this is. Well, the game certainly goes to great lengths to call the player out on this. I loved it.

The combat took a little bit to get used to, but it’s actually pretty engaging. WoL uses a simple turn-based system between your team and enemies, but your characters can employ actions that don’t immediately end your turn (like downing a health flask) and ones that do. Getting the most out of every turn and downing enemies fast is key. My character is a Snake Oiler, so I toss out venomous snakes and drink the medicine I make from them while firing away with my toilet scum-encrusted six-shooter to give the enemies “stench” damage and poison them.

Once I got going in this game, it started to suck up the hours. It really is those “one more turn” (or “one more location”) types of experiences that end up making you blink at the clock and wonder if it really is 2:00 a.m. already. And I should probably give the soundtrack, a cheeky Western tribute, some praise as well for giving the game a great audio atmosphere.

For just $11, this was a purchase that was well worth it… and now it’s making me want to play Kingdom of Loathing all over again.

Try-It Tuesday: Galaxy of Pen and Paper

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

I am a massive fan of the “Pen and Paper” game series that so far has churned out the two Knights games. My frothy excitement overflowed when I saw that there was a sci-fi installment coming, and this past week, Galaxy of Pen and Paper finally arrived. I’ve been getting very little else done since.

If you’re not familiar with these games, the conceit is that you’re controlling a party of real RPG gamers sitting at a table with a GM who leads you through various missions. It’s part meta and part in-universe and extremely jokey all the way through, and I haven’t seen much else like it. The little conversations your guys have as they go on missions and comment on the various ridiculous RPG tropes are awesome, perhaps more so for the ever-so-slightly off English writing (the team is from Brazil, so maybe that explains it?). There are main campaign missions as well as randomly generated ones, and while combat is the meat-and-potatoes, there’s some actual (albeit brief) role-playing involved.

Galaxy of Pen and Paper doesn’t change up the formula so much as expand and improve upon it. It’s obviously sci-fi instead of fantasy themed this time around, which means a lot of Star Trek, Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Doctor Who, Akira, and other references peppered throughout. One big change is that combat takes place on a horizontal field this time instead of the top-and-bottom fighting of its predecessors (probably to allow the game to show off your characters more). There is also a space portion with some ship combat, although it’s not quite as engaging.

I had a hard time getting going at first, since I kept getting dissatisfied with my party and skill choices. Plus, at the start you only get a handful of characters and classes. More classes are unlocked as you play, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to customize the looks of my characters.

Eventually I got into the groove and found that there’s a lot of depth here. Each character can equip four skills total — both active and passive — but can unlock many more. So there’s a lot of choice involved in how you build your party and some obvious synergies between characters.

The pen-and-paper motif and the cheeky humor easily keeps me entertained. It might be fluff, but it’s fluff that elevates these games above the ocean of other RPGs out there. This game, like the others, is ideal for pick-up-and-play quick sessions, although the much more packed screen (forced landscape this time) makes it cramped on an iphone — I ended up playing it on my tablet instead.

Here’s hoping that it remains entertaining, has a good amount of content, and is popular enough to encourage the devs to bring us some updates!

Try-It Tuesday: Kingdoms and Castles

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

While it seems like the Steam release that everyone is playing this week is Yonder, I went in another direction and picked up the interesting-looking Kingdoms and Castles. I am always a sucker for a good building sim, as they’re relaxing and gratifying on a different level than what I get in MMOs.

So what is this? Kingdoms and Castles is a streamlined — perhaps a wee too much — kingdom sim where you plant down a castle center and start building up a town to support your eventual Fortress of Doom. There’s absolutely no tutorial (why?), but it’s pretty straight-forward and after a couple of false starts, I found my groove.

Getting all of the production lines set up to harvest and bake food, cut down trees for wood, and hew rocks from the quarry is essential, as is creating a balanced village that has enough housing, amenities, and support structures to keep your peasants content. Seasons and years pass, everything grows, and I was always saving up the next round of resources for much-needed projects. It felt like I never had enough and had to prioritize what I wanted to build and how much I could support, which is actually good. Interesting choices and all of that.

Like the gameplay itself, the graphics are somewhat simple and functional. Everything looks like Legos and Fisher-Price, and I kept going back and forth on whether I liked it or if it could have used more detail. I think the latter. It’s colorful and does the job, but there comes a point when your minimalistic desires start to make everything too abstract instead of creating a visual reference for players to identify and bond with.

As your kingdom grows, threats emerge from inside and out. There are always plagues, fires, starvation, and discontent to deal with, but even if you have a fully happy and safe population, dragons, ogres, and vikings might show up to ruin the day. This is why it’s essential to have a decked-out castle with attack towers and troops and walls and moats, although making all of these takes a LOT of time and resources.

For $10, I felt like Kingdoms and Castles had good value as a casual building sim. I wouldn’t mind seeing the devs patch in more variety and even some better graphics, but it kept me entertained for a few hours and I’ll be leaving it on my desktop for future sessions. Oh! I’d love to see this on tablet. Man it would be sweet on tablet. Oh well…

Try-It Tuesday: Missile Cards

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

It’s been a while since I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a new mobile game, and happily this happened last week. I saw some strong buzz for a Steam game that just launched on iOS, and I splurged on the $3 price to pick it up.

So the game is called Missile Cards, if you couldn’t make out the tiny font in the graphic up there, and the best way to describe it is “Missile Command: The Card Game.” You know Missile Command? That really old arcade game that taught John Connor the futility of humanity’s future before the T-1000 tried to shoot him in the face? It’s a bizarre concept that really works well, and it’s well and gotten me hooked.

Missile Cards puts you in charge of defending a planet under bombardment from comets, nukes, and other terrible threats. If you can eliminate all of the threats without dying, then you win the game, but chances are you’re going to lose, and maybe lose quickly if you end up drawing bad cards.

During each turn of the round-based game, you can (generally) perform just one action as a conveyor belt brings cards across the screen. Threat cards get played automatically and put a Bad Thing on the heads-up display, such as a comet crashing down on one of your sub-bases or your main base. But you can prep weapons to attack (these need two or three turns to ready), charge up weapons faster with batteries, prep tractor beams (which suck in currency from destroyed threats that can be spent on permanent upgrades), and play other helpful cards. Your sub-bases can only take one hit before being destroyed (and if they’re hit again, game over) and your main base has hit points that absorb a certain amount of damage. The lower a threat falls on the screen, the more points it’s worth when destroyed… and that’s pretty much the gist of it.

The simple design and flow of play hides a lot of strategy, particularly as you’re trying to plan out three or four moves ahead of time. The conveyor belt doesn’t stop pushing cards across, and you want to grab and use helpful cards before they get tossed back into the deck, but you also need to eliminate threats. Some games are pretty much over at the start, but by thinking ahead, using the bare minimum response needed to destroy threats (each threat has a hit point count), and sometimes sacrificing sub-bases, you can have a fighting chance.

I love that each game is only about five minutes long and lets you make progress on missions (think achievements) and currency collection so that even a failure helps you out in the long run. There are different stages with more difficult challenges, but you don’t have to progress until you’re ready. I also really dig a simplified deck building mechanic at play that allows you to buy special cards and equip whichever ones you think are the most beneficial.

Anyway, a fun and addictive little game that I recommend to you… and I think will stay on my phone for a long time to come.

Try-It Tuesday: The Sims 4

No, that’s not my house. My house looks like something you’d see on a “before” part of a home makeover show, where the audience gasps and says things like, “Who could even live in a place like that? Mercy me!”

OK, so I had a jonesing for some Sims action — it had been far, far too long since I played any sort of Sims game apart from my brief (and bugged) foray into the original Sims earlier this year. The Sims 4 had been on my “to play” list for a couple of years now, although I’ve held off because it didn’t get the most glowing of reviews. However, it was on sale for $20 last week and I figured it was high time to check out the latest incarnation of the Sims franchise before Sims 5 is announced.

I used to be such a Sims-head (or whatever they call addicts to this series). Both building houses and watching a life simulator take place are deeply gratifying types of gameplay for me. And, as I found out this weekend, the Sims games are perfect for audience participation.

When I loaded this game up, three of my children ended up congregating around my computer and giving me all sorts of advice about how I should make the characters, what I should put in the house, what I should make them do next, etc. This wasn’t annoying at all, but rather a really fun group activity for us. The kids had so many giggle fits over the different hairstyles, Sims emotes, and activities the Sims could do. And when I created little versions of them, they got even more invested. It was great to bond over video games in this way, I must say.

So what about the game? My first impressions were very positive. I love the look and aesthetic to Sims 4. It’s a little more cartoony than the last installment and has a “softer” feel, but is definitely Sims at its core. There doesn’t seem to be any meters for the characters’ moods, but rather just icons and mood states, which works out well.

Building a new home was mostly intuitive. There’s a lot I have to learn about doing this well, but I got the basics pretty quickly. I liked that there were options to plop down fully-made and -furnished rooms, but I always prefer to start from scratch. What I didn’t like is that you couldn’t start with a blank neighborhood map. It’s my tradition to demolish everything, evict all families, and make everything just mine. This game resisted me on doing that, and that was kind of annoying.

What we all ended up enjoying the best was to watch the characters without interfering. They were like little soap opera stars, all super-emotional and highly emotive, and that connected very strongly with my kids. Of course, they were incredibly meta by wanting to watch whatever the sims were watching on the TV, which made me a little cross-eyed to consider.

As I fiddled about with yet another house design, I found myself really wishing that there was an updated Sims Online that would allow for connections to a huge pool of players instead of just my own characters. I’m crossing my fingers that Maxis adds deeper multiplayer functionality to the next edition of the series, whenever that arrives.

Try-It Tuesday: Warframe

While I almost never see anyone blogging about Warframe, I keep seeing people playing this all over the place, especially in a casual capacity. It seems like it’s been one of those sleeper hits with numbers that some MMOs can only envy from afar, yet it doesn’t get a lot of lip service. I haven’t quite figured out what the deal is, unless it’s being promoted and spread in circles that I am not a part of (magazines? consoles?). Oh well, I can’t have my ear to the ground everywhere, so I’ll accept some mystery.


So Warframe. Very popular, some strong recommendations, purportedly a nice casual title. Sounds good to me, so let’s give it a try!

What I was first struck by is the fact that your character — all player characters, in fact — do not have a face. You’re “born” into the game world as a tenno, some sort of battle-suited warrior who the bad cyborg guys wanted to use but the good guys conspired to release. So I’ve got an omnipresent helmet, a la Master Chief or Tali from Mass Effect, and a feeling like the devs just didn’t want to bother with character customization at all. Hey, your game, your rules.

The first few missions are a sneaky tutorial in disguise, keeping you in the spirit of high adventure as you escape the clutches of this unknown foe and learn how to use your various weapons and powers. Also — POWER SLIDE. I do love the power slide.

I’ll give Warframe this: When it comes to movement and action, this game has it down. You’re jumping, wall-hugging, double-jumping, sliding, crawling, and sprinting all over the place… and it feels very fluid and natural. And my character has a virtual arsenal at his (her?) disposal, including magic attacks, a sword, a pistol, and an assault rifle. I ended up gravitating toward the last, although the sword was fun in close quarters when you wanted to see a lot of blood (and this game is quite bloody, with gibbets flying everywhere).

I wish I could say that I was following the story better, but all I could glean for the first hour or so is that Earth is a battleground and that as a tenno, I’m part of some sort of resistance. At least I had plenty of opportunities to take gorgeous screenshots. I heard that Warframe has a cool freeze-frame option for screenshot taking, although I haven’t investigated that yet.

In no time at all, I ended up on my own little spaceship, orbiting Earth and wondering why I was getting advertisements from the year 2017 on my ship screens. Again, just feeling things out at this point, but it seems like the ship is kind of a single player hub for your various needs before jumping into the next mission.

After running a half-dozen missions, I came to the conclusion that Warframe is a slick, well-made game with gorgeous art and fluid animations — and it isn’t for me at all.

There was a point in my life that I was much more into run-and-gun games, but these days I would much rather walk than sprint/slide/roll through levels. I want to check out every nook and cranny. I want to think through my fights instead of frantically whirling about my mouse to try to locate who is shooting me and respond in kind. And if I desire a semi-mindless clicker with lots of mobs and loot explosions, well, the Diablo clone army is more than enough for me.

Try-It Tuesday: Love You to Bits

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

Space Boy meets Robot Girl. Robot Girl is a fugitive, but Space Boy doesn’t care. The two fall in love and go on adventures together. One day, Robot Girl is blown up in a starship explosion. Space Boy becomes determined to find and assemble all of her parts, because love will find a way. It might be a strange, challenging adventure, but Space Boy is going to see it through.

I have nothing but high admiration for Alike Studios and their library so far: Tiny Thief and Love You to Bits. Both games offer much of the same experience, being adventure puzzlers with lots of charm and accessibility.

The simple story that drives Love You to Bits — a boy trying to rescue his “princess” — is downright heartwarming and more complex than at first glance. Love You to Bits is a dialogue-free game, preferring to tell stories through simple speechless cutscenes and environmental details. And boy does it work: This game is an absolute masterpiece in its field and a true joy to play.

Each stage of this game takes place on a different planet as the boy tries to secure another one of Nova’s (that’s the robot girl) parts. There are also optional items to grab that can trigger black and white cutscenes that show some of the couple’s past moments together. In fact, getting to know the bond that connects the two as you play the game adds to the motivation to see them restored in the end.

The planets are a bizarre mix of puzzles and settings, each one vastly different than the last. Some play with time, some with seasons, some with gravity, and so on. You never know what you’re going to get, but the process remains more or less the same: Explore, find interactive items and objects, and experiment with unlocking a path to the robot part. One stage had me finding three little critters playing hide-and-go seek and returning them to their alien mother, while another kept allowing me to rewind time in certain areas to show “before” scenes. There was an alien bar that paid homage to Star Wars, a quantum library that only showed rooms that were directly adjacent to you, a comic book-style dungeon romp, and so on.

The challenge level for these stages seems perfect. It’s never tear-your-hair-out frustrating, but you do have to keep poking around and backtracking to try to uncover secrets and figure out what needs to be used where. The boy’s inventory is usually kept small and light, only filling up with one or two items at any given time. I think I might have had three once. The game’s also like a memory challenge, since you have to keep track of what does what when you first fiddle with them, so that you can come back later when you find certain parts or make changes elsewhere. On average, I would clear a screen every 10-15 minutes, and there are several of them (the devs recently finished the game by releasing the final set of levels and completing the story).

More than the puzzles themselves is the art and animation. Again, without dialogue, Love You to Bits conveys so much in every level. The characters can be laugh-out-loud funny and make themselves understood with simple gestures. The fact that you can’t get stuck or die makes exploring and experimenting a relaxing experience. By the end of each stage, I’m usually a little sorry I have to leave, because the locales are so cute and interesting. But then, I want to see what lies ahead.

Anyway, I’m diligently working to complete this game in my spare time, and thought it deserved a mention in this series. Definitely check it out for a polished, intuitive puzzle experience!