Whispered Secrets: Enfant Terrible…is

There’s really little more I can say about the run-of-the-mill paranormal HOGs. I mean it, they are all the same and each time I try out a new title thinking I can find something worth critiquing, increasingly I am coming up empty. Yet think about how delighted I was to stumble upon “Whispered Secrets: Enfant Terrible” over at Big Fish Games. Here was something upon which I could hang my morphing hat/beach ball. Finally I had something to say.

Ethan sucks and he should die.

Ew. Unfind me this instant! His introduction should give you pause, as if I need one more courderoyed soggy man spoiling my evening stroll.

Your pathetic attack is easy dismissed by collecting green orbs and the movies of Pauly Shore.

You are an idiot and you should be haunted by bad dreams because you forced me to listen to your bad excuses. Go play pachinko like a man.
I don’t want to help you.
Bye. Bye. Die.
Hey Pumpkin McScareCrow! You can have him.

Light Fairytale is the indie RPG that will make me go back to RPGs

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with RPGs in the past. I enjoy the worlds and story lines but I get frustrated with random battles and incomprehensible turn-based fighting. Let me emphasize, this is a personal fault and not necessarily the fault of any one game. I had no idea that Light Fairytale was a turned-based RPG (because I forgot to read the description). I just downloaded the demo from Game Jolt because it had the word “Fairytale” in the title. In my real life, fairy tales are kind of my thing.

A mysterious girl is hinted at in the opening scenes. How she fits into the story? We’ll see.

However, I was so impressed with this short demo that I’m starting to question why I’ve stayed away from RPGs for so long. Light Fairytale is adorable, but also beautifully designed. I was particularly impressed with the atmosphere and backgrounds. For a one-developer operation, the quality is top-notch.

I particularly like the lighting in this screen shot.

The characters — Haru and Kuroneko — interact with each other and the few NPCs you encounter quite naturally. No heavy-handed dialog, no exposition dumps, just normal conversation fitting with each situation. The life of Haru and those around them and the mystery hinted at in the opening scenes tease what I hope will be an interesting story, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

If you don’t know which enemy to target first, you weren’t paying attention.

Light Fairytale hosts a truly helpful hint system — a feature that other games seem to lack. Not only does the system remind you of the keyboard commands, but highlights NPCs you still need to interact with and the possible pathways out of your current area. I can’t emphasize how helpful this was as the 3D angle of the environment made finding pathways a little difficult. But this is early access.

I’m keeping Light Fairytale on my watch list and am excited to dive into a fuller game this fall (according to the web site).

Neverliria’s early access demo looks promising…and creepy

New sandbox games struggle under comparisons to some of the giants in gaming in the last five years. Yet when I downloaded SmartHartGames’s Neverliria to try out, I made sure that since this game was in such early stages, I didn’t bring any preconceived notions to this preview. I’m glad I didn’t, because there’s a quiet charm to Neverliria that foreshadows what could be an enjoyable experience.

Chopping trees is mandatory. Always.

You begin as a “fire-headed girl” alone in the woods at night. Glowing green eyes peer at you from between trees and various ruins. To survive, build a fire, collect resources, and…well, it’s still early times in Neverliria and you would be best served just keeping the baddies away from your corn field and supplies.

Neverliria has the beginnings of a good tutorial system.

The controls took a bit to get used to, my fingers naturally looking to use the W key for anything, but once I discovered a few helpful mechanics — especially when it comes to placing items in your chest — I progressed just fine. I felt a little confused after building the sawmill, but, early game development may not have all the functionality built in. The icons used for items took a little sussing out, but that may well be subjective and the items they represent may be obvious to another player.

Just handing out with an old dude, trying not to get eaten. Fire is your friend.

I enjoyed trying out Neverliria and look forward to the story that develops in the game, as well as expanded craftables and perhaps a little more detailed instructions — it took me a bit to figure out how to eat. Always a fan of pixel art, the design and sprite graphics are just detailed enough to have personality, but not overwhelming, the scenery dense enough to be ominous. I am hoping there is a less subtle way of measuring the passage of time, though, because you need to get those fires up…or else.

If you like testing out games in their early incarnations, download Neverliria and give it a go. I’ll be watching this one as it develops and will do an updated review when it is complete.

Squarus II smooths the rough edges of its predecessor and reveals challenging fun

Over at Kongregate on the second screen of their hot new games is a puzzler called Squarus II. Fans of the first game will find some improvements in this version, with a more easily discernible color scheme and finer control movement in “Precision Mode.” The puzzles remain just as challenging and there is little hand-holding as you progress through the levels — I thankfully came across a hint in the comments, otherwise I would still be starting at level 6.

 

This is level 7, not six. I don’t hold grudges. (Grrr…6).

I enjoy minimalistic games that focus solely on the challenge and less on visual aesthetics. It reminds me why I enjoy puzzle games to begin with: a way to kickstart my brain without a lot of sugary-sprite stimuli. Put on your best thinking music and give Squarus II a try. You’ll be glad for the frustration and challenge.

Not only a good game, but a helpful bit of advice to get you through the game and life.

Rid yourself of familial obligations in Darkarta: A Broken Heart’s Quest

At first glance, “Darkarta: A Broken Heart’s Quest” plays like your run-of-the-mill HOG game: tracking and backtracking, finding pieces of strange objects, unusual amulets that unlock mysterious books. Further playing reveals that “Darkarta” is remarkably dull and I’ve channeled most of my opinions into snarky photo captions. Yet, there are two high points that make the game worth trying out.

There goes the husband. Hopefully a non-White magical person will come to his rescue and save him. I’ve got a drawer handle to find.

First, some of the puzzles are quite beautiful and entertaining. While I usually lose patience with “move the pieces until they’re in the right order” puzzles, a few of the incidental games are challenging enough to be enjoyable. While overall “Darkarta” is typical for the genre, there are incidental areas and objectives that feel carefully thought out and crafted.

I particularly liked the multi-layered elements of this puzzle.

Secondly, and in my opinion, most importantly, “Darkarta” features some of the absolute worst voice acting I’ve heard from HOG games. The male antagonist sounds like the manager your car salesman brought into the office to sweeten the deal and the female antagonist harpily harpies as if The Little Mermaid’s Ursula didn’t change everything when it came to the female villain.

No.

And don’t get me started on your playable character. She is supposed to be trying to find her kidnapped child after discarding her injured husband, yet the emotional acting comes out in spits and spurts, not unlike the diesel fuel you’re tasked to find. The games does come with a CROWBAR OF DESTINY, which is always a treat, but there is very little here to warrant playing beyond the demo, which I didn’t and you shouldn’t. There are better HOGs out there. I promise to let you know when I find one.

She literally says this while her child is being held hostage by an immortal being on a buffalo. A BUFFALO.

Suddenly, I am in darkness

While playing slogging through the visually nice, but uninspiring “Secret City: London Calling,” I found myself about to be attacked by a decedent of Cerberus when the screen went black. Not the kind of “Thanks for playing the demo” black, or the “Oh guess I need a lit candle” black, just black. I would have been annoyed if it were not for the fact that the blank screen was the most exciting area in the whole game.

When I returned to the game it appeared that I had, indeed, finished the demo.

“Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders” gives you a middling outlet for your white savior complex

I’ve mentioned “Orientalism” before when discussing a game, but “Persian Nights: Sands of Wonder” is one of the more blatant examples of using another culture—or the Western fantastical narrative of that culture—as setting for a story. I use the word setting not merely as the physical space where the story plays out, but as a visceral backdrop, a design element that informs the plot and characters of the story. And while in my previous invocation of the term on this site it was merely as accent to an otherwise enjoyable game, “Persian Nights” relies on its exoticism as an excuse to deliver an amateurish hidden object game (HOG) with little to no challenging elements.

This is Darius, or as I like to call him, Default.

Your character is Tara, outlined in the beginning exposition as a local healer trying to discover the source of the blight upon her land. I use local lightly here as she is portrayed as an American-accented white woman, at least in her voice and the few moments where we see her hand. Soon she teams up with the blue-eyed Darius, also trying to keep a magical talisman away from the evil Zaved, a bearded grand vizier to the ailing king. We’ve seen elements of this story before, done better if not done more accurately.

This is Zaved, or as I like to call him, Not-Jafar.

When Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Dastan in the Prince of Persia film, there was some talk of white-washing, but the full force of that critique would come for later films as we all became a little more aware of the way entertainment continually plays to the lowest common denominator: a white guy. Author John Scalzi once said: “In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Developers decided that their main demographic was and always would be white men, who either wanted to play a hyper-masculinized version of themselves, or as a female character whose body was up for continual critique. Game creators still make those choices today, sometimes making the default-white-male intentionally as a provocation to what is deemed a loss in status; aloss that largely exists within their own minds.

This is Minu, or as I like to call her, Moaning Myrtle.

However, in the widely ignored realm of HOGs, the demographic appears to be the white female. So often these games, particularly on the Big Fish Game platform, have a curious vanilla woman in the protagonist role. Her actions are nearly always reactionary as she stumbles from room to disorganized room to reassemble one puzzle or another to rid the land of evil. “Persian Nights” falls into this category as well, giving Tara no larger roles than nursemaid to Darius and the figurative laundry-picker-upper of a world in disarray. The exoticism of the scenery, the “Other” nature of the villain, even the fantastical creatures, all serve to allow this woman to have some culturally-adjacent adventure and join her male companion in becoming the white savior.

I never got around to the terrible voice acting and writing in this game. Right before this screen shot, Default shouts: “Here yo go. Don’t drop it.” as he tosses the magical lamp across a chasm.

As I have mentioned before, you may argue that I look too deeply into a $7 game few people will hear of, let alone play. Yet, I need to emphasize that it is sometimes the “lowest” forms of a medium, those most accessible to the most people, that require the greatest scrutiny. There are enough people critiquing the world of AAA games—some much better than myself—but on this site, I have to look at these middling games, because what begins as casual soon becomes conventional and even small games should do better.

Your character in “League of Light: The Game” doesn’t want to be there either

I don’t know if there is a prequel to “League of Light: The Game,” but there has to be some previous explanation to the pumpkin-headed golem sidekick our investigator carries around. While the impish gourd is quite useful in some areas, its sudden appearance in the carriage/car (inevitable accident in 3…2…1…) left me slightly disconcerted. Granted, I’ve been away from the HOG genre for a time, but to think that we’ve turned our fall harvest into slave-like automatons will give me pause the next time I need to bake a pie.

Ok, I’ve checked. Apparently this is “the latest thrilling adventure in the League of Light series” so I’m guessing Pumpkin Head has a back story.  And while I may dive into the series’ catalog to shed some light on its manifestation, I’m not keen to do it now as I’ve just slogged through the demo portion of this current chapter.

Your character is talking about the green smoke bomb and not the abomination across the carriage.

I have to give “League of Light” credit where it’s due: the graphics are visually appealing and the motions graphics in the manipulation scenes are better than the norm. Pumpkin Head, for all its creepiness, is especially well acted by the animators, and perhaps its that sense of personality that drives me right into the uncanny valley. So, well done? Yet the game, like most of its cousins, suffers from the same bloated hide and seek gameplay that has, unfortunately, completely redefined the HOG genre. Room by room, area by area, the most challenging puzzles amount to nothing more than those that take the most time, have the most tiles/items to manipulate, have to most tracks to…back track. Only the inclusion of an interactive map actually makes these games playable.

When HOGs try to be adventure games, it is almost always terrible. Don’t do this.

What “League of Light” does okay visually, it makes up for in horribly dull voice acting. My character — I chose the female voice — is so completely uninterested in her investigation, in the happenings around her, of the strange vegetable companion she travels with, I found myself rooting for her complete demise. Thankfully, the demo ends with a cliffhanger after you’ve been poisoned, but I’ll stake a slice of pumpkin pie on it that you don’t actually die. You’ll want to, but you won’t.

The riddles used as clues in this HOG was actually clever.

The story in “League of Light” is hardly worth mentioning, but I will, since I’ve already started the paragraph. A masked man has captured the world’s best…thingies? thieves? investigators? red-heads? I’m not sure, but they’re pitted against each other in the most dangerous dullest game. You will eventually team up with buxom red-head named Fox — because of course she’s named Fox — as you battle against the evil…Mads. I can’t…anymore…wait! You get to collect owls. Owls are nice.

If you want me to respect your story line over multiple issues/books/movies/games, then put a number in your title. Make it plain to me that I’ve missed something important by jumping ahead to number seven and damn me if I decide to proceed forward without that backstory. Yet, it is still your responsibility to make number seven just as compelling and playable as number one, otherwise, why would I bother? “League of Light” is pretty middle league as far as HOGs go and pretty light on enjoy-ability. I wish there was more for me to critique, but there’s just not a lot of “there” there.

You were gone?

I walked away from doing reviews because, after a while, I felt as if I was just picking on the Big Fish Games catalog, primarily, and not actually getting to play and review some really interesting games.

Yet, today I realized that this is how mediocre productions flood an industry and lower not only the expectations of consumers and the bar for creators. When a distributor with a large enough consumer based continues to release unimaginative and problematic games, it does so successfully because no one pays attention.

So I’ll pay attention. Perhaps we can share some thoughts on casual gaming, how developers and distributers should do better, and sharpen the tools that allow us to examine all types of media we consume.

Hold your crowbars high and let’s play some boring-ass HOGs!

X marks the spot…hey! Wait a darn minute!

While I’m waiting for larger (and possibly duller) games to download, I headed over to Kongregate to pick a five-minute game to pass the time. Thankfully I found “It’s just TIC TAC TOE” whose label appears to reveal the actual contents of the game. It does. It is just TIC TAC TOE, with a bit of something else. That something else I’ll leave for you to discover, but give yourself a few minutes to enjoy this new take on a classic game…with the sound on, if you can.

I have no idea if I’m the winner…or if we’re all winners.

 

Picking up garbage is not as unpleasant as it sounds in Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7

There are seven of these games. Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7, I’m assuming, picks up where the sixth iteration of the series leaves off. I think. I have no idea. This is my first time playing this game and while a person with a tiny bit more gumption might go back and research the rest of the titles, I’m of the opinion that I will find much more of the same. That doesn’t mean Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7 is derivative, but since this will be a short review, I will proceed with the assumption that the gameplay and objectives are consistent throughout the series. Also, I don’t care.

Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7 lacks pizzazz and visual depth, but the game never pretends to be something more than a casual distraction. Produced by Casual Arts (it’s in the name), VA:PR7 (as it’s known in the industry) consists of typical hidden-object games interspersed with a variety of other puzzles. There appears to be a story about a campground, or a national park. I didn’t pay attention. What did draw my attentions were to two aspects of the overall game itself.

Look, everyone’s going to start with the catfish and the eel. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

First, it feels slow. Not slow in progression or in story line, but slow to play. One of the non-HOG games was a typical memory card-flip game (that, for some reason I had to play twice, with the exact same placements). The action of flipping cards and then waiting for them to reset to flip two more cards was tedious. I’m not sure how your mind works, but in any memory game, speed is the key for me. If you give me one or two seconds to wait to flip some more cards, I’m going to lose interest and possibly forget one of the card placements. It’s not that my attention span is that short, it’s that your typical memory game is nothing more than pattern recognition and the faster I can create the pattern (in my head) the better. The slowness didn’t only mire this puzzle, but the overall game, with strange pauses after finishing a level before giving me the screen to continue. For a second or two I found myself wondering if I really had found all the items and then, slowly, the result square appears. Even in a relatively pedestrian game like VA:PR7, pacing can make or break a player’s enjoyment.

Which hammer do you want? There can only be one.

Second, and this is a little nitpicky, most of the characters are computer generated, yet in many of the HOG scenes there are cut-outs of real photographs of people vacationing. I’m curious if these are vacation photos of the development team or image gleaned from the internet. If the latter, I hope the team obtained rights for those images, because it would be weird to find a picture from my kayaking vacation in the middle of a casual game being retailed for $6.99. Just putting that out there so we all thing about fair use moving forward.

Overall VA:PR7 is an inoffensive, but slow HOG/jigsaw/memory/etc. game. The focus on spotting wildlife and picking up garbage that can be recycled is a nice feature of the HOG games and certainly made me concentrate on those two objectives before the run-of-the-mill items. There is some potential here with a little tweaking on the pace of play, perhaps VA:PR8 will take up the challenge.

The colorful, calm complexity of the new puzzler, Colorzzle

With fifty stages, Colorzzle, the debut game from Darong Studio on Kongregate, is a completely satisfying puzzler. Moving blocks of color together in order to grow a variety of flora, Colorzzle is one of those calm puzzle games that slowly increase the level of difficulty without forcing the player into a wall of frustration. With a lovely soundtrack (that I still have playing in another tab as I write this review) playing Colorzzle soothed my soul on a wintry morning.

This is a spoiler, but I just wanted to you to know that I love you.

The levels progress smoothly and the introduction of new mechanics feels natural, with a level or two to get used to the new item and then a gentle incline for the more challenging areas. Colorzzle’s sound, design, and gameplay all fit together for a relaxing experience that at times, especially in the later levels, will surprise you with its challenge. The game is available for iOS, Android, and Steam, and you can try the first fifty levels at Kongregate right now. Beautiful.

I’ve never felt more alone than while playing Solitaire Legends of the Pirates 2

Here’s the thing, gang…I came to flower in the 1980s, pre-Internet. That doesn’t make me better, just older. And since I didn’t spend my summers in front of a computer (well, 1984 I spent in front of my TV programming BASIC on a ZX81) my friends and I had different ways of entertaining ourselves. One way was cards and the card game we played most was “Spit.” This is kind of a reverse Tri-Peaks (Golf) card game and the most important factor in the game was speed. Speed and stamina.

So when I approach a golf-card game like “Solitaire Legends of the Pirates 2,” I sort of expect I’ll be able to utilize my speedy Spit skills and skid through those early levels for a nice mid-morning distraction. I enjoy solitaire (and card games in general) and I enjoy pirates (the entertaining, cosplay pirates) and when 8Floor Games puts those two things together (in a sequel, no less) is makes for a combination of mud and meh.

See that cursor, I’m still trying to get it across the screen and it’s been four days.

Mud because, in full screen and windowed mode, the mouse movement felt sluggish as if somehow slowed down which is in direct contrast to my style of play. I’m used to racking up a combo lightning quick and when it feels like my cursor is dragging a truck tire as I play, I’m bound to get annoyed. Meh because there are unnecessary “+$499” updates as you make combos, most frequently in the middle of making the combo. There is no reason the entire screen needs to be halted with this information. These are not real dollars. There are no real consequences. Put the bonus numbers in the top corner where I can ignore them like a person.

“Solitaire Legends of the Pirates 2” is a substandard game in an underwhelming genre, one that has a few shining stars and not much else. These kinds of games are usually relegated to casino-style game sites and the casual phone app, but there’s no reason to add this title to you list of either.

Don’t forget to write a salty headline for Dark Parables: Return of the Salt Princess

The most frustrating thing about Blue Tea Games/Eipix new release at Big Fish Games, “Dark Parables: Return of the Salt Princess,” is that the game itself is absolutely beautiful. The scenes are stunningly detailed and rendered with a mystic atmosphere. The items are baroque in their design and feel like true relics of a long past, rich kingdom. The jewels sparkle, the metals gleam, and each sprite seems lovingly crafted to be a stand-alone image. What makes this frustrating is that the game, itself, is terribly dull.

I dig the premise, as I have said before, fairy tales are kind of my thing, so while some story paths are well worn, “Return of the Salt Princess,” is a nice change. After a relatively impressive opening sequence (at least for this genre) our first interaction with another character unfortunately reveals the corrosive underbelly of this magical world. The voice acting…is horrible. See the image below and picture the dialog depicted as being delivered in the same deadpan drone that your average convenience store cashier uses you to offer you a bag for your late night Certs and Funyuns 1:

There’s practically an entire house on you. Just a mo’.

Honestly, if the game would have allowed it, I would have left her there forever. The bland icing on the bland cake is that in the following scene after I have gone to the trouble to rescue her, she uses her “fire power” to blow up the rest of the rubble. The game anticipates an attentive player’s reaction of “why the f*** didn’t you just do that, then?” with a throw-away line of dialog to understand why the f*** she didn’t.

Some of the puzzles, as well, were more complicated than necessary. I’m all for leaving most of the instructions out of unusual puzzles, giving the player a chance to poke around and see what happens (“Madame Fate” is full of those), but when the puzzle, while beautiful, is so clouded in mystery that after five minutes of clicking the player gives up, more testing is needed. I’m not looking for simple game play, but I am looking for just enough feedback in a complicated puzzle (especially if it is the first in the game) to not flail around like some madman wearing magic bracelets.

This guy’s growling and grunting was the highlight of the voice acting. I felt, so, almost scared, a bit.

There was also a strange shifting of game continuity, with a cut scene happening far too early for it to be narratively dramatic. The scene, featuring ole’ Shaggy up there, happens as he attempts to abscond with the Salt Princess herself. You have to shoot him with an arrow (“ranged” weapon the text prompts) and that was fine, but all I had was the arrow; no bow. The scene appears to have been set up to check for the arrow, but not the crossbow. As the cut scene happens, I didn’t have the cross bow because I missed the cuckoo figurine in the one statue base. Yet when I took that to unlock the bookcase in the alley, I only received the rabbit amulet and a goblet. Upon returning to the main square, I used the rabbit amulet on the wolf statue (since wolves love rabbits) and found the crossbow hidden within. Look at those sentences I just wrote. Look at them. All of that fetching happened while the thrilling music was playing and Shaggy, ever courteous, just stood by the precipice while I went through several steps to come kill him.

The map system is for visual purposes only (at least in the demo) no teleporting, so you rack up those steps on your imaginary Fit Bit. As I’ve already mentioned the terrible voice acting, take note that you will have to talk to some of these characters to move the game along and one miss click or two can send you into a repetitious drab dialog hole. These are not only critiques of this game, but problems across the genre and its a genre (as far as I know) that has fewer and fewer developers churning out new titles. Until there is desire (or money to be found) to shake up this style, we’re probably in for more of the same. The same game play, the same worn-out tropes, the same unnecessary back and forth collection to make up for the lack of story. Like I said in the beginning, this game is beautiful and shiny, though that only reflects its flaws much more clearly.