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Gamebox 2.0: Games of February 2022

While huge games like Horizon: Forbidden West and Elden Ring are taking up most of the gaming spotlight, there were a bunch of smaller games that a few people might have missed. We experienced the horrors of war in Martha is Dead, fought against monsters with Elf magic in About in Elf, battled zombies pinball-style in Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes, and more.  Check out everything we got to play below in this month’s game reviews in the Gamebox 2.0.

Martha is Dead (Zach):  Coming from LKA and Wired Productions, Martha is Dead is a psychological first-person horror game that takes place in war-torn Italy in 1944.  You play as Giulia, who discovers her sister Martha drowned in a lake near their home.  Things happen quickly and Giulia decides to pretend that she is the one who died, taking Martha’s identity and having to hide the truth from her parents.  Investigating what truly happened to Martha, Giulia has to deal with her own traumas and demons while also wondering if a local bit of folklore, the “White Lady” who kills young women by drowning them when the fog rolls in, might actually be true.

The game plays similar to other first-person horror games or “walking simulators” as you explore Giulia’s home and the surrounding countryside looking for answers.  You find and collect objects for your inventory to solve puzzles and progress through the game but a major component of the gameplay is taking photos.  Giulia is an avid photographer and pictures are a vital clue to solving the mystery of what happened to Martha.  The game goes more in-depth than you might expect with the photography mechanics, having you adjust the focus and aperture settings of the camera and finding and using different types of film and different attachments for the camera.  You also have to visit the family’s darkroom and develop the pictures, where the steps are basically minigames.  There are also chase and action sequences where you have to just move in the correct direction or, like in one early nightmare sequence, correctly put together phrases that appear on paths in the woods.  The game doesn’t shy away from the horrific imagery and the Playstation versions have an option to censor the violence and disturbing imagery if you wish, with the PC and Xbox versions being uncensored.  The horrors of the war and the supernatural horrors combine to bring you a dark and troubling mystery to unravel and the game also has excellent voicework to help propel the story, including the default Italian language.  From the emphasis on photography to the historical setting and dark imagery, Martha is Dead is an interesting and compelling story for fans of horror games and it’s out now across PC, PS4, PS5, and Xbox.

About an Elf (Chris): Zoning in the abstract and peppy of game design, About an Elf is an adventure title with a strange charm. Developed by Meringue Interactive, About an Elf is mostly a visual novel with point-and-click mechanics, and a small touch of RPG elements. However, don’t expect a ton of challenging gameplay. This game’s odd choice of 3D rendering and non-nonsensical story About an Elf follows Princess Dam, a pint-size royal elf of a once-great kingdom and is on a quest to build a new utopia for elves if she can raise the candy funds for it. Dam will travel across multiple lands, making new friends and battling monsters that stand in her way.

The highlight of About an Elf is its bubbly story told by Dam, and she spins an unusual tale for all to hear. Princess Dam recounts her adventure to her friend Dido, who openly questions Dam’s story. Based on Dam’s narrated actions, Dido and Dam’s conversation changes tone and can lead to Dam collecting a reward for an interesting tale or losing her favor with Dido. There will be a few dialogues prompts during the game that can lead to Dam smooth talking to advantage or getting a negative result, which will annoy Dido.

The same concept is applied to the “battle system”. When Dam encounters an enemy, she is given a vague vision of what power orb she should use. It is up to the player to decide which orb to pick, hoping it’s the correct one that successfully one-hit KO’s the enemy. And that’s it, no second attacks or counter attacks. If you pick the wrong orb, then it’s instant defeat and a sad Dam. It’s a very basic mechanic that just barely registers as combat and gets extremely repetitive after the first 10 minutes.

About an Elf is an experimental title that feels like an eccentric joke on old RPGs. If you boil down any turn-based RPG, and completely remove any tactical combat mechanics, it pretty much is a game of who can attack best and first. About an Elf shines on the quirkiness and dark humor of its writing. At times, it reveals a lot of Princess Dam’s world and sad tragedies. While it’s not a complex game at any stretch, About an Elf will have gamers either cracking a smile or scratching their heads in confusion, but it will be something they will talk about. It might not be a title for the general audience, but if you like irregular game experiences then check out About an Elf. About an Elf was released for Nintendo Switch on February 10, 2021.

Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes (Zach):  The sequel to Zombie Rollerz, Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes from Zing Games and Daedalic Entertainment combines tower defense and pinball with a wonderfully goofy world plagued by zombies.  After picking your hero (you start with the Pyro Knight Burnjamin but unlock up to 10 more as you progress) you proceed through the world rogue-like style, taking on random maps and zombie hordes.  You battle the zombies in different pinball-style arenas, using flippers on the bottom of the screen to launch the ball and take down zombies with well-placed hits.  There have been a few other games in this genre and there’s sometimes frustration of trying to hit one specific point or enemy with the ball but having to keep trying when you miss from the randomness of pinball but Zombie Rollerz does a great job of minimizing this with constant aiming lines to show you exactly where your ball should be going off the flippers and a huge array of powers and abilities that will let you hit enemies and targets without the ball.  You can also put your ball back into the slingshot launcher that you send it from at the start of the level, although there is a cooldown on that so you can’t constantly reset and launch the ball.

There are environmental elements that you can hit to set off flamethrowers and other hazards to help fight the zombies and you can also flick them if they get too close to your tower with the flippers.  Every time you miss the ball or if the zombies attack your flippers, you lose health and when you die, the run is over and you have to start over again, although you do get abilities that will carry over depending on your characters level.  There are also levels that task you with solving a puzzle by directing the ball to specific targets or clearing out specific areas and there are special treasure boxes that you can get the ball into and earn a ton of coins.  Between battles, you make your way around a world map and you can find things like merchants selling items, treasure chests, and challenges.  Time progresses in days and each day, the zombie plague pursues you, making the path behind you inaccessible and it could cut you off from the path to something like a treasure, so you have to take a chance and pick your path throughout the map.

At the end of each level, you’ll face a boss that will require aim and timing to take down.  The game has a great art style and humor style that feels similar to something like Plants vs Zombies and there’s a meta-level of humor throwing back to the first game if you were a fan.  The powers and inventory you collect really adds a fun element to the game and gives the feel of pinball design elements like multi-ball, except here you can trigger it whenever you want if you have the power built up to use it and there’s lots of fun destruction and unique layouts in each level to keep things interesting.  If you’re a fan of pinball and want some RPG and tower defense laid on top, definitely check out Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes.  It’s out now on Switch, Apple Arcade, and PC.

(Chris): Stomping out zombies has never been so easy when you have a pinball to launch at them. Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes mixes the mechanics of tower defense and pinball gameplay, with a rogue-lite element to keep no two runs the same. The setting of Zombie Rollerz takes place in a magical medieval world where a zombie outbreak has transformed the land. It will be up to a small group of heroes to fight back the hordes with their Pinball Ballista. They will have to smash and bash their way to save the day.

Players have a selection of heroes to pick from, but in the campaign mode, you follow each individual at a time to learn to follow their backstories. Every hero has a unique ability to summon during the battle that can boost their attacks or add new defenses and can be leveled up to become even stronger. The goal of each pinball round is to survive hordes of enemies that will try to rush past the hero. There are a variety of enemies, some require more aggressive targeting to take them down. Besides enemies on the pinball field, there will be objects to break open and targets to hit that will trigger environmental effects. These environmental changes will alter the position of walls or add obstacle hazards for the enemies.

Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes has a very simplified approach to its game. It has a very good arcade feel that makes it approachable for everyone but doesn’t throw many challenges that a pinball wizard will easily overcome. I did find the pinball physics to be somewhat floaty like there wasn’t any real weight to the ball at times. Unlike a pinball machine, there are no big pitfalls or gaps areas on the boards that will take your ball out of the zone. As long as you can keep the ball rolling, it doesn’t take too long to clear out all the enemies. There are a lot of neat power-ups and items to collect that can change how you approach each run of the game and that adds a lot of replayability. For an all-ages title, Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes is a great title for easy pick-up and play fun. Zombie Rollerz: Pinball Heroes is available now on Switch, Apple Arcade, and PC.

PopSlinger (Chris): An invading force of multicolored foes arrives on Earth, turning the city into a sticky battleground and corrupting people’s hearts to carry out sinister deeds. It’s up to Ria Carbon, a newly recruited PopSlinger, and Gia, a former PopSlinger tasked with guiding Ria, to fizzle out these inter-dimensional intruders. Developed by Funky Can Creative, PopSlinger is a 2D musical shooter that tries to blend the colorful rhythmical patterns of Guitar Hero and the run-and-gun action of Contra, in a retro 90’s package. While other shooter titles have the player try to clear out enemies as fast as possible, PopSlinger encourages a more strategic approach to picking off-targets. Eliminating distinct colored enemies in certain orders will increase the tempo of the music, score bigger points and make Ria a more efficient PopSlinger.

PopSlinger’s gameplay relies on Ria’s ability to shoot and dodge around the level. Successfully eliminating four enemies of the same color begins a progression, eliminating another set of four will complete the progression. Taking damage or breaking up the color combo will reset the current progression. Finishing three progressions in a single level will unlock Ria’s dream power. Ria is first equipped with a single-shot gun that handles most enemies with one hit. Later on, Ria will get new weapons that have a three-way shot and a powerful laser blast. As Ria builds up the color sequences, Gia’s abilities to aid Ria will become more powerful. Gia can act as a turret by standing in place and shooting in one direction, adding extra firepower, or giving Ria a defensive shield against incoming attacks. That shield ability is really helpful when chasing high scores in later areas of the game. Ria’s dodge ability lets her do flips to avoid a collision with the enemy or incoming attacks.

The concept of matching colored enemies mixed with fast-paced shooting works well if the flow is balanced. However, PopSlinger has chaotic enemy placement that makes it really hard to follow the strict color matching mechanics flawlessly. Enemies can spawn too close to Ria, making it easy to bump. Enemies also tend to bunch up, which makes it extra tricky to hit intended targets. It also doesn’t help when the camera zooms up too close on the field that can easily hide enemies off-screen. You can spend a good few seconds frantically pacing up and down the screen waiting for enemies to separate for a perfect shot, and throw it all away from an off-screen enemy firing right into Ria.

Overall, the presentation of PopSlinger stands out the most from the game. Funky Can Creative nails that Saturday morning cartoon look and feel for this title. The musical score is catchy and relaxing. The hand-drawn artwork is bubbly and works well with the voice work. And there are a lot of small added details that help the retro 90s ambiance. The musical shooting aspect of the game needs more polish to give off a degree of control and mastery of the pattern shooting. PopSlinger works well for patient gamers with a love of the 90s that don’t mind rough shooting mechanics. PopSlinger was released for the Nintendo Switch on January 26, 2022.

Blinks Party Pack Preview (Zach):  We got to check out Blinks at PAX Unplugged last year and we recently got to preview two of the games that will be a part of the upcoming Party Pack, which is currently up on Kickstarter.  Blinks is not just one game but an entire system using incredible electronic hexagons that can be programmed to play a variety of different games in a number of different genres.  The base system comes with games like Wham!, which is like Whack-a-Mole, or Darkball, where you bounce a ball back and forth between players trying to get the others to miss.  The Party Pack has five games, two of which are still to be revealed but we got to check out Tangle and Mimic.

Tangle brings chaotic fun to your party as each player gets a certain type of design that appears on the Blinks.  Once everything is set, the goal is to try to eliminate all of your color/design while everyone else tries to eliminate their color/design at the same time.  As the name suggests, you will quickly get tangled up with your opponents and it can become a frantic and physical game that anyone can pick up and play.  You can easily play it like a tournament where the winner stays on or just reset and have everyone just get back in and try again.   Mimic is the other game we got to check out, which turns the Blinks into a rhythm game.  One Blinks is the “DJ” and up to four players can be arranged around it.  The DJ Blink sends instructions to your Blinks and you have to click, rotate and move your Blinks fast enough to stay in the game.  If you miss the move, you lose a life and if you lose enough lives, you’re out of the game.  You can play it by yourself as well and it plays a lot like something like Bop-It where you have to think fast and remember what the symbols on the Blinks mean and what action to do when they come up.  Both of the games are great with a group and the Blinks themselves are still as impressive as when we saw them at PAX Unplugged.  They feel great and you can tell they are high quality and the amount of colors, patterns, and actions you can do with them is just incredible.  The Kickstarter for the Party Pack (along with a reprint of the base game system) is going until March 24th and you can check out the Move38 website for more info on the other games available with Blinks and the system itself.

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