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Gamebox 2.0: Games of February 2023

During the doldrums of a cold February, there is nothing better to curl up with a loved one and also doing the things you love, like gaming. We swung through space in VR with Straylight, went on a few dates in Ten Dates, tried to survive the dangers of Journey to the Savage Planet: Employee of the Month Edition, play some abstract chess, and more.  Read about everything we got to check out below.

Rhythm Sprout (Chris): When the invading forces of Sugary Sweets wage a war on the Vegetable Kingdom, do you have the rhythmic fighting spirit to take out candied villains and save the day? Then step to the beats in SURT and tinyBuild’s Rhythm Sprout, a fast-paced rhythmic adventure title. You play as Sprout, a noble but lazy onion knight, sent on a quest save the Vegetable’s daughter from the Sugary Sweets’ ruler, King Sugar Daddy. You’ll set off to journey through the land, jamming to the beats while you battle opponents, encounter strange allies, and face off against Sugar Daddy.

Rhythm Sprout’s gameplay involves timing the corresponding input to the music. As the levels begin, input notes will begin to flow down to Sprout, where there is only a small window of time to hit the input correctly. Hit the wrong note or missing it completely will hurt the score and Sprout’s health. There are only three main input icons to look for on-screen: a yellow icon for left input, a pink icon for right input, and a blue icon for duck/dodge input. While it may seem easy for just the simple inputs, the combinations and rate of speeds can be for higher-difficulty songs easily overwhelm the screen. One mistake can throw off your own rhythm and cause you to restart the level again. There is a special boost that can be activated only once per level, which temporarily grants invincible and a score multiplier. This comes in handy to survive tough selections in a song, particularly after many repeated attempts. But because you have to know the ideal point to trigger it, it’s more of a second-chance mechanic or score booster than a defensive ability.

Rhythm Sprout has a great charm to the presentation that feels like it wants to be a Legend of Zelda title, that got covered in the humor Katamari Damacy and should be played with a dance pad. The self-aware comedy and head-bobby music lure players to venture more. There are offers of 30 levels to tackle, with ex-modes for added challenges and unlockable cosmetic accessories for Sprout to wear. One of the biggest complaints I have is the cramped display of the input notes which can become a bit of a visual white noise when there are lots of notes at once. Harder songs clutter the display and you have to be in the zone to not make a mistake it can get kind of too much on the eyes at times. But overall, Rhythm Sprout is fun and silly, and knows its strengths to be picked up and played whenever you feel like a groovy time. Rhythm Sprout was released on Feb 1 and is available for PC, PS4/5, Switch, and Xbox.

Straylight (Zach): Coming from developer/publisher Dr BLOC, Straylight is a new VR game for all the major VR platforms that sends you racing around intergalactic environments.  Utilizing the Fling Engine, you are trying to make your way around over 20 levels in the fastest time without careening into the abyss or colliding with obstacles.  You move via two grapple guns on your arms that fire a tether of light.  You grapple onto the titular Straylights and you reel yourself in by moving your hand/controller in any manner you want.  Straylight is all about building and controlling your momentum; as you reel in, you gain speed and you need to build speed to fling yourself across gaps and around obstacles.  If you go too fast, however, you could miss the next set of Straylight anchor points and end up flying into the abyss of space.  Luckily, there are checkpoints scattered around each level and you can instantly restart at the last checkpoint whenever you want.  There are 11 basic levels and then 11 “hardcore” levels and you can add replayability in each stage by collecting orbs that will allow you to race against the ghost of your previous run or attempt to beat the Bronze, Silver, and Gold ghosts in each level that are set to certain clear times.

The game has a great minimalist look full of sci-fi, neon geometric shapes, and locations and you’ll find yourself flying through ancient structures and skimming the core of deadly planets as you race to find the goal.  The game also has a great soundtrack to drive you along by Rob “8bit” Kovacs.  Straylight doesn’t exactly have the feeling of grappling/being Spider-Man-like games like Swarm but the movement does feel great and once you get the feel of how it works, you can really fling yourself at high speed through each level and get some massive momentum for leaps.  There’s a clear path you need to follow designated by a path of Straylights but you don’t need to grapple over every single one, so you can experiment and find your own path through each level.  As an added touch, there’s a snarky voice a la Portal’s GLaDOS that comments on your progress and suggests things like trying to hurl yourself into the purple orbs of death.  Straylight is a simple but extremely fun VR game that offers up some great sense of speed and momentum and will keep you coming back to try and improve your times and beat the various ghosts for each level.  The game is out now in the Meta App Lab, Steam, PSVR, and via Sidequest.

Ten Dates (Chris): Depending on who you ask, dating can be an exciting process to get to know someone or a messy social ritual. But one thing is for certain, it really depends on the people you meet, the words you say, and what you really want in a relationship. Luckily, you can experience some of the highs and lows of modern dating in Good Gate Media and Wales Interactive’s Ten Dates, an FMV romantic comedy where the player can make connections or create chaos for one of two love-struck singles. You follow the story of either Misha or Ryan, two best friends who attend a speed dating event in London and encounter an array of people. From the artistic, sporty, and smooth-talking, the player meets five potential partners and does their best to spark an interest.

The core gameplay of Ten Dates revolves around watching scenes and making decisions for Misha or Ryan. At certain moments, you will get to make dialog options, social media actions, and a few more choices that will influence the kind of relationship you have with others. There are multiple branches in the story that lead to who Misha or Ryan connects with and how dates play out. Both Misha and Ryan have a lot of personality and self-awareness that gives them a fun starting character to work with, but the game offers some interesting options to influence them to match the player in a small way. You can be relaxed and flirt, or a bit prideful and imitating to your date. Not everyone will respond nicely to certain player decisions, so you will have to pay attention to the conversation to make the best guess on what to say.

Ten Dates is a great dating sim that offers a good amount of replayability to explore different outcomes. It may lack depth with limited game mechanics and mini-games, but the overall presentation of the title is charming and entertaining. There is a good flow of the plot and characters that make it watching the scenes very entertaining. Every date has a quirky personality that later can reveal some uncomfortable but honest truths about living in our modern time. There’s a healthy mix of wit, drama, and romantic tension that can make you root for your character to get their happy ending. Of course, you can make the worst decision to be a train wreck of a date from the safety of your own home. This is a fun title for open-minded gamers that want something to relax and laugh about, with friends or maybe a significant other. Ten Dates is now available for PC, PS4/5, Xbox One|X|S, Switch, and mobile devices.

Journey to the Savage Planet: Employee of the Month Edition (Zach): Originally hitting in 2020 on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC from 505 Games and Raccoon Logic, the vivid and weird world of Journey to the Savage Planet is now out on PS5 and Xbox Series x with the new Employee of the Month Edition.  The visuals have been improved to 4K, 60 FPS and it includes the Hot Garbage DLC that came out after the release of the previous version of the game.  The main game is still the same outside the visual improvements as you find yourself stranded on a mysterious planet and you have to explore and gather resources to repair your ship and make it back to Earth.  As you explore the planet, you find evidence of a previous intelligent alien race, despite the fact that your employer, Kindred Aerospace, believed the planet was uninhabited.

The game has a great quirky sense of humor, with video messages from the Kindred CEO Martin Tweed encouraging you to keep endangering your life for the good of the company and a sassy AI that assists you but also comments on your frequent deaths and decisions out on the planet.  There are also hilarious ads for various products that play whenever you are back on your ship and you do things like fill out employee surveys at various times as well.  What I really appreciate about Journey to the Savage Planet is that there is a defined plot and objectives and that it’s not just a sandbox/crafting survival game.  You do need to gather resources but you have goals to complete and the story of the planet to discover.  I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t really like sandbox survival games and Journey to the Savage Planet does a great job of having crafting and exploration elements but in a more focused, plot-driven manner.

The world of Journey to the Savage Planet is so vivid and colorful, even more so in this new improved graphical edition.  There are many different biomes to explore and a wide variety of bizarre and unique creatures to interact with, mostly by killing them for their valuable material resources.  As you explore and build up your resources, you can build and create a wide variety of tools to help you explore, some mandatory for the story to progress, like a grappling hook and a jump jet rocket.  There’s a great fast travel/teleportation system where you can find alien teleporters and then instantly return to your ship to deposit resources and build upgrades.

If you die before you return to your ship, you can find your previous cache of resources Dark Souls style, and recover them. When you teleport back to the planet, you can clearly see where each objective can be completed under each location you can teleport to, so you never lose track of where you are or where you need to do.  You can track and un-track missions at any time and the game lets you know exactly what resources and what you need to get to accomplish each mission.  The game can also be played in co-op, so you can recruit a friend and explore the Savage Planet together.  Journey to the Savage Planet: Employee of the Month Edition is a fantastic upgrade to an already well-received game and it does a great job of balancing progression and storytelling with crafting and exploration.  If you’ve never played it and have a PS5 or Xbox Series X, definitely check it out.  You may also qualify for a free upgrade depending on how and if you bought the original version, head to the 505 Games site to see their FAQ for who qualifies for the upgrade.

SokoChess White (Chris): Experience the strategic planning of Chess, but focus only on outsmarting the chess board in SokoChess White. Developer Daisy Games follows up their SokoChess series, with a new minimalistic game that uses chess pieces for puzzles. The chess pieces have their traditional move sets and limitations, which are then tasked to be placed in spots on an abstract chess board level. The pieces have to reach their target spots without creating no-win scenarios.

SokoChess White is all about creative puzzle designs that let players experiment with chess movement in a restrictive space. You don’t need a lot of knowledge of chess to understand the gameplay as each level slowly introduces how each piece moves and some ways to overcome obstacles. For example, pawns can move forward, but they can attack diagonally (in this case, it will bump into whatever piece or object into the diagonally adjacent space if that space is also free). Rooks can move in all four directions, bumping and moving whatever object in the same direction by one space. Same for Bishops, and so on.

The game really shines in its simple and imaginative mechanic when different chess pieces have to be carefully moved in order to shift pieces into certain positions or be used clear a pathway. Many levels can be solved in different methods and SokoChess White lets the player their time to try them all out.  Later levels have traps and giant gaps that look intimating at first but can be solved with a few smart decisions once you see what the best steps are needed to take. SokoChess White is a great indie title that is clever and casual for anyone to play. It’s not guaranteed to make you a better chess player, but you’ll get a better sense of chess patterns after completing 70 levels of the game. There is some mix of easy and tough levels that make it rewarding to complete and see how far you can make it in one sitting. It’s worth a play if you have an interest in chess and love a good brain tease. SokoChess White has a demo version on Steam now, and the full release plans to be unlocked on March 3rd, 2023.

Townsmen: A Kingdom Rebuilt (Chris): The Townsmen franchise has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a mobile app to a recently released PS5 VR2 game. Developed by HandyGames, these medieval city management titles let you create a kingdom thru proper resource balancing, taxation, and a few bribes to keep you in the good graces of the royal society. But before you either download the mobile game or strap on a VR set, I suggest checking out Townsmen: A Kingdom Rebuilt to get an understanding of this series.

A Kingdom Rebuilt places the player as an exiled nobleman, who is trying to re-establish their prestige in a tiny remote town, that is desperate for improvements. As the newly appointed governor, it’s up to you to turn the undesirable town into a thriving community. You will have to decide what buildings to erect, resources to harvest and trade, and the general well-being of the townspeople. The governor will be given demands from the townspeople that will greatly improve the community, by creating more businesses and housing or increasing morale to be a beloved ruler.

The gameplay follows and uses a simplified city management mechanic that lets you assign townspeople to different roles as needed. The average townsperson can be assigned to carry out many tasks, swapping roles to increase production in one area at any time. As the town grows, so do the technologies and different types of resources. You can selectively instantly create much-needed buildings using Prestige points, which you gain slowly by accomplishing the town’s demands. The game’s main loop is to build housing to lure people to the town, provide jobs and food to make the community pleasant, and hope nothing goes wrong. But making sure every day runs smoothly is not the only aspect of the town to monitor. There will be obstacles such as natural disasters, unexpected visitors, and rival leaders that will try to take away your success. The concern of safety and protection over the town is always present as buildings can be effect by weathering, fire, or raiders. It’s important to have fire watch towns to spot and put out fires, soldiers well prepared for a fight, and enough gold to quickly purchase precious resources.

This title features a story campaign and an endless mode, both of which can take up quite a bit of time. The game is aimed at a very relaxed casual audience, which lets different skilled players experience the game at their own pace. Kingdom Rebuilt does have lingering game design elements from its mobile platform entries, which will turn off some hardcore sim players. But for a family friend title and a glimpse of the series’ growth, Kingdom Rebuilt delivers classic simulation enjoyment for all. Townsmen: A Kingdom Rebuilt is available for PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox.

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