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Gamebox 2.0: Games of April 2023

April showers bring May flowers and a new sprouting of new video games are here.  We got to play titles like the retro pulp of Varney Lake, the old school shooting of Supplice, the movie-making management MovieHouse, and more.  Check out our reviews and impressions of everything we played this month below.

Rendezvous (Zach): Coming from Hitcents and Pendopo Creations, Rendezvous is a cyberpunk sci-fi adventure game where you play as Setyo, a former criminal who works as a security technician at a big corporation.  Approached by an old associate, Setyo has to return to Neo-Surabaya, a futuristic take on the real-world Indonesian city of Surabaya, to find his sister Arum, who has joined one of the most dangerous Cyberrunner gangs in the city.  The game has a look that calls back to games like Another World and Flashback from back in the 16-bit era, especially in the character designs, but the environments are dense and layered with details.  The game has a very cool look where there is lots of layering and parallax that makes everything pop and the lighting in particular is especially great and really gives the game that futuristic, cyberpunk vibe.

The game is very story driven and you always have a clear objective to accomplish, which helps keep the plot moving and lets you know where you need to go and what to do.  The story is interesting and keeps you invested in progressing to see where it’s going and what the next big story beat will be.  There are environmental puzzles to solve and some mini-game-style puzzles to complete when you are hacking or trying to enter combinations into locks.  There is also combat but it seems like from what I’ve played that you may want to avoid combat if possible.  It’s not particularly bad but the combat is fairly simple and involves shooting or attacking with a melee weapon and occasionally rolling out of the way to dodge.  There’s no cover mechanic or anything more in-depth and that feels similar to games like the aforementioned Flashback, where you stood and shot at enemies and hoped they died before you did and whoever shot first would usually survive.  Rendezvous is a solid sci-fi adventure and if you’re looking for an interesting cyberpunk story in a cool setting, definitely check it out on Steam.

Gripper (Chris): When a powerful A. I takes over an outer-rim colony, one determined biker is on a mission to rescue his parents in Gripper. Developed and published by Heart Core, Gripper is an action title that centers around fast-driving segments and big boss battles. Set in a neon-soaked cyberpunk atmosphere, Gripper takes place in the far future where mankind has begun setting up colonies terraforming distanced planets. None, the son of a small family out in an isolated colony, has returned to his home after many years away and discovers Zero, a manic A. I program has taken over. Armed with his motorcycle and assisted by the family’s robotic helper, None rides off to defeat the guardians that protect Zero and find a way to save his parents.

Gripper features two gameplay styles. There is a linear driving selection where None is traveling down tunnels and pathways to his destination. The ground will be littered with objects and gaps that need to be dodged to avoid damage. This is something like the bonus stages of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Battle Toads. The game has a few cheap tricks that won’t be easily avoided on first attempts. Luckily, there is a checkpoint system and re-spawning does not affect the game. Then there are arena boss battles where None is allowed to move in full range. None can explore a small battleground but has limited fighting capabilities. The motorcycle is fast and nimble, but can’t tank damage. The bike is equipped with a grappling hook that can lock on enemies and various environmental items. Once hooked, these objects can be ripped from the ground or torn apart from enemies and hurled as projectiles. There is an interesting mechanic of grabbing objects by pulling them in the right direction. None is open to attacks while trying to rip out objects, and the player has to be cautious about all the stuff on screen.

The game is essentially a series of boss fights but takes its time to add some additional RPG elements to upgrade None and explore the small cast of characters. From the introduction of None, he is a loner biker with anime angst. He is aided by Cat-Kit, a childhood robotic plaything that has been upgraded to be a mechanical assistant. With each guardian None takes down, Cat-Kit can create new abilities from their hearts and upgrade None to take on Zero. Boss fights can be replayed with new abilities to unlock new rewards and perks that can help make fights easier. However, I do wish that these were optional side quests set elsewhere than the same boss fights again.

Overall, Gripper feels like it needed to be polished up a bit more than the initial designs. The linear driving selection can get frustrating but can be memorized and end right before they get too annoying. The vehicle combat is fun, but the lack of a solid lock-on targeting system for the grappling hook means a lot of missed attempts or grabbing something you didn’t intend, then driving in a circle to try again. The world and characters are interesting once you start digging in. But the game feels like you really have to work for those experiences. It may not be the right game for some gamers, but it does offer a fun, but brief challenge for those with the patience to try. Gripper was released on March 29th, for PC and Nintendo Switch.

Varney Lake (Zach): The second game in the Pixel Pulps series following up last year’s Mothmen 1966Varney Lake is another great visual novel adventure from Chorus Worldwide Games and LCB Game Studio.  Taking place in 1954 and 1988, you play as various characters and explore what happened in the summer of 1954 as three friends, Jimmy, Doug, and Christine, meet a vampire in the quiet town of Varney Lake.  In 1988, paranormal investigator Lou Hill is trying to get the truth from the adult Jimmy and Christine.  Just like Mothmen 1966, Varney Lake features a visual style that calls to mind classic computers like the Commodore or Spectrum.  The graphics have a limited, CGA-style color scheme but they still do a great job of portraying what is happening and feature some excellent pixel art.  The game plays out like a Choose Your Own Adventure, where you will read some of the story and then decide on what you want to do next.  Each choice affects how the story progresses and there are branching paths that let you replay the game and make different choices.

The game puts you in the shoes of different characters in each chapter, so you get to be inside each character’s head and get a sense of what they think about the other characters and the situation and the writing is excellent with a great mix of humor and creepiness.  My one minor nitpick with Varney Lake, especially compared to Mothmen 1966, is the emphasis on puzzles and card games.  One of the main trio of teens, Doug, is obsessed with creating puzzles and games, usually to use as a scam to trick people out of money, and you play a number of them throughout the story.  You can’t directly control the cursor in these games, which makes them more tedious than they should be but you don’t have to complete them and can bail at any time, although completing them will unlock trophies and achievements in the game.  If you are a particular fan of the game’s Super 10 solitaire, you can play it right from the game’s main menu.  Other than that, Varney Lake is another great visual novel in the Pixel Pulps series and if you were a fan of Mothmen 1966, this is a no-brainer to check out but you can jump right into Varney Lake even if you didn’t play Mothmen, as the series is an anthology and each entry stands alone.  Varney Lake is out now on Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4/5.

Suffer the Night (Zach): Set in 1989, Suffer the Night is a new horror game from Tainted Pact and Assemble Entertainment.  You play as Stacey Linden, who paints horror movie and horror novel covers and posters.  One night during a massive thunderstorm, Stacey becomes the target of a creepy stalker, the Pale Man, who forces Stacey to play a disturbing computer game called Suffer the Night.  After seemingly completing the game, Stacey finds that horror has just begun and she is kidnapped and put in a real-life version of the game and has to fight to escape.  The game plays out in the first-person perspective and should be familiar to horror fans who have played similar games in the past.  The game starts out as a bit of a slow burn, tasking you with doing fairly mundane takes like making breakfast or doing laundry, before ramping up the horror.  The actual game within the game is pretty disturbing, although it’s a bit simplistic as you only have a few options on each screen but it’s more for foreshadowing what the actual meat of the game will be when you get put into a version of the game for real.  Once trapped in the Pale Man’s game, you find a scanner that allows you to reveal hidden objects and items, which you will need to progress, and you eventually find weapons like guns that you can use to fight the grotesque creatures waiting in the depths of the maze.

The game does a great job of subverting expectations, making you think that most of the game is going to be spent playing the computer game and occasionally dealing with creepy things happening around you but it really opens up after that opening act and becomes something bigger and grander than you might expect.  There are homages and references to classic 80s horror but the game also has more modern horror stylings as well, like Saw.  The environment is interesting and almost feels like a grotesque version of Colossal Cave, as you continue to plunge deeper into the depths and find more and more disturbing areas.  The voice acting in the game is solid and the Pale Man is a great antagonist, constantly taunting you in a calm manner that occasionally bursts into rage.  If you’re a horror fan, Suffer the Night is a cool and interesting entry in the genre that starts out with a unique idea and really does a great job blowing it out a short time into the game.  It’s out now on Steam.

Moviehouse: The Movie Studio Tycoon (Chris): The glitz and glamour of creating movie magic are now something gamers can attempt Moviehouse: The Movie Studio Tycoon. Developed by Odyssey Studios and published by Assemble Entertainment, Moviehouse is a movie production sim that puts the player in charge of operating their own movie studio. From hiring employees, selecting scripts, and managing cost, you are in charge of ensuring that your own movie studio cranks out great movies, or at least ones that are financially great.

Taking place in the 80s, you are given a small budget to begin the studio. While it’s limited, you can customize the name and logo of your studio. With a relativity unknown brand in the movie market, the first few films will be shorts and indie projects. The first few films won’t define your whole career, but they do affect your path to success in Moviehouse. A restrictive budget means you can’t hire the best crew at first, but you can build up their value while your studio grows too.

The main game loop starts with creating a script. Having or hiring a good writer is the first step. You can play around with the time limit to rush or dawdle the writing process which affects the quality of the final result. As the owner and executive, you have control over the name of the movie, the genre, and the type of plot, hero, and antagonist. Then the script is turned into a movie by choosing a director to start production. Here, you have to set a budget that affects the overall options for the movie. Then hire actors, pick the filming location, and help out with a little movie-making decision. One instance can be deciding to use extras or the type of camera angles for a shot.

While at first, it makes seem like the movie production side will greatly expand, the overall scope doesn’t extend too far. Once the movie studio has advanced in projects under its belt and built up a sizable budget, the game loop stays the same. You can juggle multiple projects at once, and scale staff as needed, but the game is on autopilot by then. Even creative movie decision-making gets to be a chore that feels auto-calculated before the movie hits a general audience. Every decade that time has past does bring new creative ideas to be incorporated into the studio, but you have little control over the fun small details you want to experience.

Moviehouse is a very casual tycoon simulator, but the game has its moment that adds some challenges. The player has to maintain resources in health levels so the studio avoids bankruptcy. You can accidentally overspend or releases movies at the wrong time. This affects the reputations of the cast and crew. Time is money in the movie business and you can waste a lot of it by not deploying the writers, director or crew to be producing something. For film buffs, this is an interesting simulation to explore. You get to create some funny-sounding movies and see how it stands in film festivals and distribution, but you wish for a little more hands-on customization options or decisions along the way. This might not be for everyone to pick up, but if you love movies and want to manage them, this isn’t a bad title to try. Moviehouse: The Movie Studio Tycoon was released on April 5th and is available on PC.

Cannon Dancer (Zach): Available on home consoles for the first time ever, Cannon Dancer is the latest retro re-release from ININ Games.  Known as Osman in Western markets, Cannon Dancer is considered by many to be the spiritual sequel to the original arcade Strider, as it was developed by the same designer, Kouichi Yotsui.  You play as Kirin, a mercenary known as a “Cannon Dancer” who is recruited to stop Abdullah the Slaver, an evil sorceress who wants to take over the world.  The game will feel extremely similar to Strider fans, as it has the same style of action and similar level design and enemies.  One of the differences is the setting, which takes inspiration from the Middle East as opposed to Strider’s Russian style.  The other big difference is that Kirin mainly attacks by kicking and doesn’t have weapons like Strider Hiryu’s sword.  You can find power-ups that will allow you to create duplicate versions of Kirin that can help you dish out more damage but it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as powering up Hiryu’s sword to blast across the entire screen. The duplicates are also a bit confusing to use at first and it takes a few games to figure out how to use them effectively.

Along with getting the ability to create duplicates, you also have a special ability that sends Kirin flying around the level and dealing massive damage, but you only have a limited amount of supers to use.  The game looks fantastic and has that timeless cool factor that Strider has and you travel to unique and interesting locales across the game’s six levels.  There is almost a Bayonetta style to some of the bosses and the craziness that ensues and there is almost non-stop action from the second you start playing.  You can play both Cannon Dancer and Osman and each version has enhancements that you can turn on and off to do things like be invincible while jumping or increase your number of lives.  There is a special challenging mode that plays more like the arcade original and that is the only place you can earn trophies/achievements.  One issue with the game might be the price, as it’s $29.99 for basically one 90s arcade game.  The game has never seen a home release in the 30 years since it originally came out, so this is the only legal way to check it out outside of the actual arcade cabinet, which is as rare as hen’s teeth, but if you’re interesting you might want to wishlist it and wait to see if it drops in price a bit.  The game is a fantastic old-school arcade action game and definitely has the same cool factor and non-stop action of Strider and fans of that game will definitely want to check this out.  It’s out now on PS4/5, Xbox, and Switch.

Supplice (Zach): Taking inspiration from the Doom modding community from back in the 90s and running in the GZDoom Engine, Supplice is a throwback for fans of classic FPS action. Developed by Mekworx and published by Hyperstrange, Supplice is set on an off-world colony that was in the process of being terraformed for colonization.  Bio-mechanical horrors overtake the facility and you are the only one left who can fight off the terrors and try to get a distress signal out to get help.  While the game plays and looks like a classic FPS a la Doom, one interesting aspect is that the game’s levels are massive and expansive and you get specific objectives to complete to progress further in the game.  There is an AI that runs the facility that becomes your main ally and that is what is giving you your objectives and sending you out to specific points around the map.  As you progress, you can unlock shortcuts that seem similar to games like Dark Souls that will let you quickly go back and forth between earlier and later areas of the world and there will eventually be 30 maps in total spread across 6 episodes.

Supplice has a wide and varied arsenal of weapons to wield with classics like shotguns and machine guns alongside flamethrowers and industrial tools, like a mining drill.  Each weapon has an alt-fire mode that offers up another use, like the flamethrower allowing you to generate a flaming blast, and they all feel extremely satisfying to use.  The enemies are interesting and varied as well and their mechanical/organic look sets them apart from the more demonic enemies of the games that inspired Supplice. One nitpick would be the music, as there seemed to be only one track playing in the time I spent in Supplice so far and one thing that defined classics like Doom was its soundtrack.  The game is in early access, so maybe more music is on the way but the one song can definitely get monotonous after playing for a while.  The game looks great, with that classic 90s FPS style but with modern designs and ideas that set it apart from other retro shooters and the objective-based gameplay is definitely an interesting change of pace from just finding keys and exiting the level.  If you’re a fan of old-school FPS games, Supplice will definitely scratch that itch and it’s out now in early access on Steam.

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