Birthday Backlog Bonanza!

I’m a lucky guy. Steam’s annual summer sale coincides with my birthday. Thanks to this, generous gifts from my close relatives, and a few “gifts” for myself, it’s a time when I get to stock up on new games. Admittedly, it’s an indulgent and largely unnecessary practice. My games backlog is big enough as it is. But I decided to turn that into a positive this year. As a celebration of my birthday, and out of gratitude for the games that my mom bought for me, I spent a day sampling all my new games.

I don’t think I’ve ever played so many new games in a single day before. It was a unique experience that I had a lot of fun with. I spent about an hour with each game, and often didn’t want to stop at the sixty-minute mark. It’s clear I have a lot to look forward too as I continue to play these games. The following is a list of the strong impressions I was left with.

Ace of Seafood

Ace of Seafood

I’m so glad I found this one. It’s a spiritual successor to a bizarre little Japanese fighting game called Neo Aquarium. If you want an idea of what that game was like, just imagine realistic crustaceans that blast the living hell out of each other with neon lasers. The moment I discovered Ace of Seafood in my Steam queue, I knew I had to try it, if only for the novelty of playing a crab armed with phaser cannons.

Before I dive too deep into this one (ha, ocean puns), I’ll admit I played it ahead of time. I planned to give it a test run before my Birthday Backlog Bonanza day, but I got swept up in the current of a joint playthrough with my little brother. We took turns playing and finished the game early. So, this entry might read more like an informal review than early impressions.

Ace of Seafood shifts Neo Aquarium’s absurd aquatic action to a single-player open world with a much larger variety of playable creatures beyond crustaceans. It plays something like an arcade space shooter, except with marine life. You lead a squad of various sea creatures on a campaign to conquer reefs occupied by rival fish, crustaceans, and a few surprises. It’s a simple-though-satisfying loop that kept me engaged through its Pokemon-like collection hook.

Nearly every reef is occupied by a brand new species. So as you continue to fill out the map and conquer each reef, you will collect the genetic material of many different marine animals. When you gather enough of a specific species’ DNA, you can breed it for your own squad. And my favorite part? You can name every one of them! I formed attachments to the noble fish under our command, especially my puffer fish named Melissa. By the end of the game, our squad felt like a ragtag family that fought with heart and soul to achieve greatness.

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Something impressive is that each species has unique abilities. There are no simple model swaps to be found here. While not every attack is unique, they usually vary from creature to creature. And the attacks that are unique are the most fun to test out. My favorite is the puffer fish’s laser eyes. The differences between species extend to movement and the standard melee attack as well. Fish glide through the water with ease, while crustaceans are more suited to crawl along the seafloor. As an example of a unique melee attack, the Red Frog Crab can tunnel straight through the ground, allowing for shortcuts. The variety in playable species and abilities is one of Ace Seafood’s greatest qualities.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to that variety: it’s poorly balanced. I’ll be frank. There are several species that feel useless, or at least far under-powered compared to others. That’s because not all attacks are created equal. Most bullet-type attacks fire too slow to be effective in most situations. However, homing shots are almost always a sure bet. I was a little disappointed by how many of the game’s challenges were best solved by launching endless streams of homing shots from long range. With attacks like that, the reality is that some species get the short end of the stick. It’s hard to compete with a fish that can both spawn a school of decoy fish and fire homing shots, after all. Thankfully, there is just enough variety in effective attacks, and situations that require different strategies, that it doesn’t quite get boring. But why should I charge in and get myself killed as a melee-only species when homing shots are an option?

Ace of Seafood has a decent map size for such a small-budget game. Sadly, there’s little interest to be found in the way of exploration. Outside a few strong moments, filling out the map is as simple and shallow as following a locator to each new reef. Despite this, I appreciated that we had the freedom to take whichever path we wanted from the start. Progression was defined by difficulty instead of linearity. My little brother and I were at the mercy of seemingly unstoppable schools of fish before we figured out a manageable way forward. I enjoy that type of trial-and-error progression.

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When we found the final boss, it was one of the game’s best moments. I won’t spoil it, but know that the setting took a surprising turn. Quickly dispatched by the beast, we knew we were outmatched. After we cleared the rest of the map and made our final preparations, we challenged it again. Several attempts later, my little brother was the one to vanquish the creature. The victory was sweet, though tainted by a feeling that we got lucky and didn’t really figure it out. The drastic shift in setting made it a memorable final battle, though, and the music was equally so. That brings me to my next point…

Ace of Seafood’s soundtrack is better than it deserves to be. Props to composer “DEKU” for these catchy themes. The main battle theme is especially cool. I always wanted each battle to last as long as possible so I could hear the full song. Even if my opponent was a lousy school of sardines, those techno beats would kick in and I’d feel like a total badass as I wiped the floor with them. Why is the tiny soundtrack for an obscure indie game about fish probably the best game music I’ve heard this year…?

All in all, Ace of Seafood is a rough, quirky little game. The arcade shooter action is entertaining, though shallow and poorly balanced. Combine that with an overworld almost devoid of true exploration, and you get a game that relies heavily on its few strong points. Thus, I can only recommend it to gamers who would have fun with its goofy premise. I know I did.

Clustertruck

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If you couldn’t tell yet, I enjoy games with absurd premises. Of course I had to try Clustertruck, an oddball platformer that challenges players to leap at high speeds across hordes of speeding semi trucks.  It’s a game of joyous chaos as the trucks swerve, crash, smash, and fall across treacherous roads and ridiculous obstacle courses. If Sandy took Spongebob out to play “the floor is lava” for Prehibernation Week, it would’ve looked something like this. Come on, how can that not sound fun?

What I expected of Clustertruck was a fun novelty game with some challenge to it. I was right, but to simply call it a novelty game does not do it justice. There is clever platforming on display here, which surprised me. Some levels are as simple as a rough road that makes it difficult to land on the trucks, and a few others are so hectic that I’m not sure how I beat them. But many levels feature fun and interesting spins on the game’s core premise.

Even during my short time with this game, I saw a great variety of ideas. On some levels, the trucks get suspended in an anti-gravity field, so you have to jump truck-to-truck in midair. There’s also a specific level where wooden barriers hang directly over the trucks’ path. To dodge them as you not only remain on the trucks but also move toward the goal is tricky. And one of my favorite levels blocks the path with gigantic blue blocks that slide left and right, crumbling when they smash into traffic. In addition to this, the trucks drive off a few cliffs and descend upon more trucks. I enjoyed figuring out the timing of the blue blocks and the drop-offs, as well as the fun platforming opportunities created by debris and crashing trucks. I expect the developers had a great time with this game as they cooked up its outlandish, challenging scenarios.

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I was worried Clustertruck’s high degree of challenge would be a problem due to the simulated physics of the trucks. If they often drove in somewhat different directions than before or crashed in unexpected places, levels would be too unpredictable to be fair. Time will tell if it becomes an issue later in the game, but most of the levels I played retained very much the same patterns on each retry. Thanks to this, short but sweet levels, and instantaneous restarts, my countless deaths rarely frustrated me. I couldn’t help but have fun with the game’s thrilling speed and momentum even if it killed me on almost every attempt.

I can’t wait to get back into Clustertruck. It’s by far one of the best games in my birthday backlog. The high-energy platforming and comedic chaos of this game is entertainment in one of its purest forms.

Proteus

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Well damn. I am impressed. Proteus may be the walk-iest of walking simulators, but it’s also one of the best I’ve played. Normally, this type of game is used as a medium for narratives. Players might take a kind of tour of the game’s story, or unravel a non-linear tale told through clues in an open environment. Proteus, on the other hand, has no story to be told. It’s nothing more than a relaxed walk around a randomly generated island. That’s what I love about it.

I say that because I’ve never played another game with such a firm focus on beauty. Everything Proteus does is to provide the player with something delightful to see or hear. The island is a place of simple, natural elegance, rich with color. The night sky is cast in a deep royal blue, forests blossom pink in the Spring, and the sunset births a vivid range of orange hues in the clouds. Players with the patience to explore will find lots of small but pleasant surprises. These little discoveries made me stop and think, “wow, look at that…,” or “ha, that’s cool!” The ambient soundtrack that accompanies it all is whimsical, serene, and sometimes melancholy. I also enjoyed how the music reacted to my surroundings, such as notes created by falling petals. As Proteus eschews story and traditional game objectives, it cements the core of its experience right where it should be: in its excellent presentation.

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I can already cross this one off my backlog. It only took a little over an hour to play one full cycle of the game. I want to return to it, though, for the same reason I return to Journey and single-player Minecraft. It’s profound and reflective, like they are. When I finished Proteus, it was as if I woke from a soothing dream. If that sounds like the kind of game you enjoy, I definitely recommend it.

Rabi-Ribi

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I’m sorry. I have no good excuse for why I picked this game other than that it was a Metroidvania with “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Steam. That rating hasn’t led me wrong on Steam yet, so I figured I would take the chance. Also, I enjoy anime, so I was fascinated by how anime it looked. And as you can see above, boy oh boy is it anime. I could feel the very cells in my body slowly adapt a new weeb form as I played. It’s a good thing I only allowed myself about an hour to play these games. If I spent any longer than that, I may have experienced a complete transformation.

I’ll be honest. Early in my time with Rabi-Ribi, I thought to myself that maybe I made a mistake when I picked it. The environments were generic, the gameplay wasn’t quite what I expected, and I was worried it would be too anime for my tastes. Then as I continued to play, I found that I enjoyed it more and more. My click moment with Rabi-Ribi was the first boss battle. The bullet hell/action-RPG combat is where this game shines. The patterns are intense, attacks are punchy the way I like them, and I love how the camera zooms in when you land a powerful combo. There’s also a constant sense of progression because each ability levels up as you use it. In my short time, I already unlocked a few fun new attacks this way. Despite my earlier reservations, Rabi-Ribi proved to be worth my time.

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In addition to the combat, I began to enjoy the writing. Its endearingly silly personality was hard to resist. I especially liked the introduction of an organization of obsessed rabbit fans dressed in bunny ears as a common enemy type. I kinda dig the bubbly soundtrack, too. And even though the environments are generic like I said before, at least they’re colorful and appealing. I never imagined I’d play a bullet hell Metroidvania game about a rabbit who wakes up one day as a sexy anime bunny girl, but here it is. If it keeps this up, Rabi-Ribi could become my new guilty pleasure game.

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil

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I went into Turok 2 with high expectations. Nightdive studios’ great PC port of the first Turok introduced me to this series, and I had a lot of fun with it. Unfortunately, Turok 2 hasn’t grabbed me yet. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the gameplay felt routine. Challenging, quick-paced firefights against laser-armed dinosaur creatures? Check. The excitement that should be innate in such a scenario? Not much.

I can’t shake the feeling that what I played was average and hollow. Maybe it’s the new level structure. The original Turok thrived on levels that were open yet linear. It was a classic tactic to keep progress consistent and fun while providing just enough space for the player to explore and uncover secrets. However, Turok 2’s first level is a large, non-linear affair populated with a checklist of objectives. It wasn’t long before I grew tired of circling through the drab, brown stone to kill the same dinosaurs several times over until I found the next switch to pull or little girl to save.

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Turok Girl

Thanks Turok

THANKS, TUROK!!

I think Turok 2 has the gunplay and secret-collecting necessary to be a great Turok game. For this reason, I hope that the weapons and level design will grow more interesting as I progress. It would be a shame if the Cerebral Bore weapon I keep hearing about went to waste.

Dead Cells

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On my Birthday Backlog Bonanza day, I wanted to save the best for last. That was Dead Cells. Though all of these games were brand new to me, I’ve had a strong feeling about Dead Cells for a while now. I like rogue-lites and Metroidvanias, so it was a shoe-in to be something I loved. Now that I’ve played it, I gotta say… whoa! This game is like the Metroidvania/Dark Souls/Binding of Isaac mash-up I never knew I wanted! Once I got the hang of the mechanics, I quickly settled into the combat’s breakneck pace. The sheer speed and fluidity combined with the cathartic crunches made as I tore through my foes was magnificent. The thought, “haha! This game is amazing,” as I played was a good sign that it must have been pretty damn fun.

Dead Cells is more than speed and flashy battles, though. The combat is strategic and challenging in a way much like Dark Souls. Enemies telegraph their attacks, and deft dodge rolls and attack timing are necessary for success. What’s great is that the strategies you employ to achieve this change greatly from run to run. The varied catalog of weapons and skills can each come with affixed special properties that are different every time. For example, a pair of daggers might deal extra damage to a bleeding enemy. Or you could find a greatsword that freezes nearby enemies each time you kill something with it. Imagine a run where you get the ability to light the ground on fire as you walk, as well as a sword that deals extra damage to a burning target. Even that combination is a tame example. But nothing I found in my time was strictly overpowered. I had a few deaths that were deserved because I got overconfident in a weapon combo I assembled. Dead Cells happily finds the sweet spot between how to make the player feel powerful and how to engage them with challenge.

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At first, I was hesitant to try Dead Cells due to its Early Access status. As it turns out, there are a few nitpicks I hope will be worked out as development moves forward. For one, the game will occasionally break its own thoughtful pacing when it throws an over-sized horde of enemies at you. I also felt that the price for permanent progress appeared too steep in some cases, which could result in padded length. I mean, why did it expect me to invest 50 dead cells (the titular currency) for another 5% of extra damage with a single type of sword? But even though I might regret that I didn’t wait for the completed product in the long run, I’m happy that I have it now. It’s easy to say this is one of my favorite games I’ve played so far this year.

Thanks, mom!

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2 thoughts on “Birthday Backlog Bonanza!

  1. Games that maybe aren’t that mechanically solid but try new things are pretty damn great in their own way. So kudos to you Ace of Seafood.

    Cluster Truck looks fun. Maybe I’ll give it a whirl sometime. And you can’t go wrong with a good Metroidvania. Proteus is nice after a stressful work day. Dead Cells looks the business.

    And lastly Turok: you know how all those pixel SNES games age really well graphically? How pixel art holds up? I don’t think polygon graphics manage that. At all. I know how good they were at the time (playing Resident Evil was great, but now they look, well, not great). And if the game play doesn’t show up, well, argh. That’s the saving grace.

    Oh, and happy belated birthday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      I agree about old-school polygon graphics. They’re so fugly these days. It helps that the Turok 2 port has HD resolution, though, that way it’s easy to tell what everything on screen is. Also, I might do a follow-up post on Clustertruck. Some later worlds really tried my patience because they became too chaotic to be fair in most cases. But then there were also a few worlds that were REALLY fun. I’m worried the final world will be the former.

      Like

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