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Gamebox 2.0: Games of July 2021

It’s been a busy month for gaming here at Everything Action! Between checking out demos from PAX Online and playing a bunch of VR games, we stacked up a pile of games to review for this month. You can check out what we thought of games like Secret Agent HD, The Protagonist Ex, Within the Blade, Highrisers, B.ARK, and more!

Secret Agent HD (Zach): A cult favorite from the DOS gaming days back in the 90s, Secret Agent is back, remastered, and with a brand new episode for PC and Linux.  Original publisher Apogee Entertainment and Emberheart Games have brought back Agent 006, who infiltrates and takes down enemy bases while collecting valuables and intelligence.  The game plays similar to other DOS platformer classics like the OG Duke Nukems or Commander Keen and it also retains the old-school difficulty as well.  Even though 006 can take a few hits from enemy fire, there are tons of one-hit death traps and obstacles that will send you immediately back to the beginning of the stage, where you’ll have to collect everything again and fight all the enemies too.  It’s how the games actually were back then but it can be fairly brutal if you’re not used to it.

There are four episodes included with Secret Agent HD with the three original episodes that came out in the 90s exactly as they were and a brand new fourth episode 30 years in the making.  The episodes send 006 through lots of different environments like Egyptian pyramids, technology-filled bases, and even outer space and there’s tons of old school platforming where you have to collect keys to open doors throughout the level, fight enemies with your gun and collect tons of different bonus items and special abilities, like night vision goggles that will allow you to see previously hidden platforms.  Secret Agent HD is a fun throwback to a great platformer that keeps all the charm and challenge it always had and the new level should be a treat for anyone who remembers adventuring with 006 back in the day in DOS.

The Protagonist Ex-1 (Chris):  When an invading alien force appears in Earth’s orbit, humanity sends fleets of soldiers to take them on. But against humanity is fighting against superior technology and devises a plan to send a small strike team to infiltrate into the core of the alien space station. However, the plan goes wrong and the team is captured. Worst yet, the team leader Angel awakens with her memories wiped. Now Angel must fight her way thru the maze-like station to find her team and stop the alien invaders in The Protagonist Ex-1. Developed by 3Mind Games and published by All in! Games, The Protagonist Ex-1 is a sci-fi, turn-based RPG that is inspired by the combat of XCOM but filtered thru the aesthetics of Mass Effect.

The game has a very broad opening of the events that lead Earth to be invaded by the mysterious alien invaders, who seem more interested in dissecting humanity than conquering it. Angel awakens from an experiment with no memory of how she was captured and is aided remotely by a soldier with the codename Pilot. By hacking into the station, Pilot is able to guide Angel and lead her to find members of her team. Certain team members will automatically join Angel when discovered and a few are optional to recruit.

The gameplay follows a tactical RPG system that lets the player control make decisions based on action points. It cost points to travel, attack, or do support moves. Every character in the strike team has a class that lets characters have different abilities and access to certain weapons. Angel has a strong focus on hacking, and hand martial arts, which grants the ability to convert enemy robots or use powerful unarmed combat moves. The Protagonist Ex-1 introduces a martial arts combo system that lets the player string attacks together. Based on the available action points, players can deal a lot of damage with few interruptions. There is still a level of chance in the attacks, but it’s sometimes safer to fight the enemy up close than risk missing from afar.

Early on, Angel finds her teammate Radical, who is generally a brawler class, with higher stats to be a tank than a distanced fighter. There is a playful dog named Buddy that has stronger defensives abilities to buff and heal other characters but can still hold his own in battle. There are a handful of generic soldiers that can get assigned a specialty class when recruiting to round out the team. All of the characters have unarmed fighting and a few melees weapons, and most can wield stronger ranged weapons. The game pushes to have a mixed team that can handle the range of enemy encounters but allows the player to customize their team as they seem fit.

The game’s plot has a decent pace that unfolds the story thru the gameplay rather than exposition dump. Elements of the lore can be found on computers files that have to be hacked or told thru dialogue during certain interactions. Angel and Radical initially buttheads with each other, and there are dialogue options to escalate the tension. There is a lot of personality behind the characters that look really interesting to explore.

The Protagonist Ex-1 adds some fresh look at tactical RPGs but doesn’t reinvent the genre. Combat can be quick and fast with the right tactics or can be drawn out a bit with one miscalculation. The game’s martial arts combo system is neat but feels a bit underutilized at the moment. The tactical elements are not deep enough to make many fights a brain teaser. I found myself relying on pistol weapons, picking off enemies at a distance most of the time. The generic futuristic white and blue hallways can be a bit hypnotic to stare at and I am not sure if that was intentional or not. However, the gameplay is solid enough for smooth combat and instant progressive features that make it feel like you are getting better with each encounter. The Protagonist Ex-1 has that good mix of indie designs with AAA packaging any sci-fi RPG fans can pick up and play. The Protagonist Ex-1 was released on July 18th for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, and Xbox One.

The Procession to Calvary (Zach): One of the most interesting adventure games in recent memory, The Procession to Calvary from publisher and developer Joe Richardson puts you in a quirky world of Renaissance art.  You play as a bloodthirsty female warrior whose country has just won a brutal war against the tyrant, Heavenly Peter.  Peter managed to flee and you manage to convince your new ruler to allow you the chance to hunt him down and finish him.  As you make your way toward Peter’s palace/church, you will encounter a slew of classic point and click adventure problems, which you need to figure out the solution for.  Some require specific dialogue choices while others require combining or using different objects.  The interesting thing about the game however is that you also have a sword and you can decide to just kill anyone or cut anything you see.  You can progress that way and the game is a bit diabolical as it will let you progress extremely far, only to reveal that you got to a bad ending but it’s more of a funny “you got me!” moment than a frustrating “I wasted my time” moment.

As you can tell by the trailer and screenshot above, the game has an incredibly unique and interesting art style where your character, the NPCs, and the settings are all taken from real Renaissance-era paintings from masters like Rembrandt, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and more.  The game combines and twists them into a Monty Pythonesque parody that is full of wacky characters and odd situations, made even more absurd by the iconic classical songs that are playing in the background as well.  The game has a simple-to-use action menu that allows you to talk, take or look at people or objects and a simple inventory system that lets you drag the items onto whatever you want to try and use the item on.  There’s also a dedicated button for your sword and you can draw it at any time, which changes your take button into a sword button.  The sword is useful for some puzzles but, as mentioned above, go to kill-crazy and you won’t get a very good ending.  If you enjoy Monty Python absurdist humor and point-and-click style adventures, definitely check out The Procession to Calvary.  It’s been out since last year on PC and it just recently arrived on PS4.

Within the Blade (Zach): Coming from Ratalaika Games and Ametish Studio, Within the Blade is a pixel-art action platformer where you take on the role of a ninja fighting your way through enemy troops and infiltrating their villages and lairs.  The game has a great, fast-paced feel and there is a ton of techniques and weapons at your disposal.  I would highly recommend playing the tutorial even if you think you know what to expect from a game like this because there are specific moves that could mean the difference between progressing or not that you might not even realize are available.

The game lets you go all out with action but there are also strong stealth mechanics as well, as you expect from a game about ninjas. You can hide in grass and perform quick kill executions if you can sneak up on enemies undetected.  The main goal of each level is to make it to the end but each level throws bonus objectives at you that you can try to complete, like finishing the level undetected or performing a certain number of assassinations. The more bonus objectives you complete, and the better your combos and stealth takedowns throughout the level, the more points you get and the higher your experience will go up. As you level up, you can unlock new skills, weapons, and traits and there’s also a robust weapon crafting system as well, so you can make things like smoke bombs, spikes, and grenades.

The games look may not be as detailed as other pixel art-based action platformers but they still look great and there’s plenty of detail, like heads and limbs slicing off after you attack enemies and fires burning across the stage if you set things on fire.  It kind of looks and plays like a more stealthy, less chaotic Broforce but also pays homage to video game ninja classics like Ninja Gaiden. The game was previously out on PC and is now out on Switch, PS4/PS5, and Xbox/Xbox Series X.

B.ARK (Chris): When the galaxy is under attacked by the cybernetic fish armada known as the Dark Tide, it’s up to four furry friends and their spaceships to save the day! B.ARK is a colorful take on the shoot’em ups by the developer Tic Toc Games. The game features hand-drawn artwork, challenging bullet-dodging gameplay, and 4-player co-op. Players take up the role of one of the animals, who were placed in an escape pod by their owner as the Dark Tide began to conquer Earth. They are found by the B.ARK and trained to be an ace pilot. There is Barker the Dog, Felicity the Cat, Lucio the Bear, and Marv the Rabbit. Each of these pilots has a unique spaceship with different abilities. Barker gets an extra wingman, Felicity gets a spread shot, Lucio gets more explosive rockets, and Marv gets homing missiles. These pilots zip across the galaxy to liberate planets, stopping the Dark Tide in their wet tracks.

The gameplay sticks to the classic 2D Schmup designs. Waves of enemies fly across the street, with bullets to dodge and level obstacles to avoid. Defeating enemies levels up abilities to become stronger and be greatly effective in combat. There is a health bar system, so it’s not an instant death by taking any damage. But it will lower the level of the ship’s weaponry. Getting the ship’s health completely down and it’s game over. However, in co-op mode, the other players can quickly scope up the fallen pilot and let them recover, even letting them fire shots in their tiny pod form.

B.ARK packs a ton of charming designs to attract gamers in its brief run time. It does suffer from typical Schmup elements like not being able to tell between background images and safe objects to collide with at times, so it’s a trial and error on the first play thru. Each level has different difficulty settings that suit all skill levels, so it’s perfect for families or incoming gamers. Overall, B.ARK is a fun shoot’em that nails the arcade shooting action in a compact experience. The world and characters are fun to watch and it’s an excellent co-op title to try with friends. B.ARK was released on Switch and Steam on July 29th.

Highrisers (Zach): Although it may seem at first glance like an action game, Highrisers from Solar Powered Games and Assemble Entertainment is actually a crafting and resource-gathering RPG. You control a squad of four whose helicopter has crashed on the top of a massive skyscraper.  You’ll need to gather different resources to repair the various parts of the chopper and you have to push farther down the building to find better and more useful items.  The catch is that the world is infested by mutants that come out at night, so you have to prioritize your time and make sure you are ready to fend off attacks because you definitely are going to need multiple days to fix the chopper and escape.  Each member of your squad has a different specialty and at the start of each new day, you get skill points to upgrade their stats and gain new abilities and items to craft. For instance, Ike is your pilot, so he should probably be the one who is tasked with repairing the chopper but all the squad members can do all the skills, it might just take certain ones longer to finish than someone who is better at it.  There are different crafting tables scattered around the building as well that will let you make things like weapons and valuable resources and you can also build and craft weapons and structures, like barriers to keep the mutated at bay.

The game has a great art style with highly detailed pixel art and full voice acting, although the voice acting gets a little grating at times, especially since the characters say something every time you select them and they repeat them quite frequently.  The controls are also not as intuitive as I would have liked.  There’s a weird decision where you have to click on the character’s portrait on the side of the screen to select them and then command them where to go and what to do.  If you click on a character and you have another character active, instead of switching to them, you’ll get context menus for the active character to assist them or go to them, which can result in wasted time or having to click on the portrait of the other character and then get them to do what you wanted them to do.

I think I’ve mentioned it in previous Gameboxes but I’m not really a fan of survival games where you gather resources and craft items, so unfortunately Highrisers didn’t really click with me.  I found the resource gathering and slow build-up of useful resources tedious instead of interesting and I would have greatly preferred a game in this world with this art style that was more of a roguelike action game where you have to press into the building as deep as you can and fight the mutated so there’s some sort of risk/reward from escaping back to the roof or going further but maybe losing everything you collected.  I’m sure the actual gameplay style will click for lots of people and if you are into more slow-paced, resource management games, Highrisers may be worth a look.  It’s out now on PC.

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