The random number generator said that Those Spacecrafts was next on the list, but Norton says no. Sorry, RNG, but as many games as I’m barebacking for this trawl, I gotta play it safe. So instead, we’re gonna do:
And boy am I glad this one crossed my path. It’s a riot.
As implied, you are indeed a valet parking cars. The cars are launched at high speed from one of two parking lot inlets, and it’s up to you to guide them to a parking spot. The more cars that are plausibly parked, the more you make in tips!
Smashing cars into things is gonna kinda happen, but don’t worry, they’re indestructible. You can steer them, you can even slow them down — way to LIE to me, “No Brakes” Valet! — but what you CAN’T do is speed them back up. Once you run outta steam, you stop where you stop, and if you’re not in a parking spot, sucks to be you.
Eventually, the game decides it’s fired enough cars out of its automotive cannon and you’ll get paid. Now go get that money!
No Brakes Valet proves that you can make a game that’s at once a total joke and still a damned good game. The dev liberally sprinkled the NBV with funny little jokes, from trucks filled with chickens to exploding things that look like coffee cups to the Prime Minister showing up and needing to be guided to the VIP slot to surprise bonus levels to cars that ACTUALLY have no brakes to a pair of built-in sequels with their own little twists (the sequels being 2 Brakes 2 Valet and No Brakes Valet: Ontario Drift) to … there are just a ton of gags in here, and most of them made me laugh.
But then once the game has told its jokes, it then settles into a groove of being a fun, challenging exercise in kinetic puzzle solving. You need to have good strategy AND fast reflexes to get the cars where you need them to be.
It’s simple, it’s silly, it works. And it’s free! Play this game. You’ll be glad you did.
Will this next game have a two-player mode letting my wife and I park cars competitively?
Page 30, Game 26: Medieval Town and Country + Interiors Bundle by PVGames
“Medieval: Interiors and Exterior town tiles, characters, and more!”
Ah, an asset pack. Perhaps I could make a game about stabling unruly horses. I mean, I won’t. But perhaps I could.
You’re Lena, a member of the famed Blue Rose Templars. You’re running a bog standard escort mission, when your team is jumped by a dragon and basically wiped the fuck out.
So we haven’t even gotten out of the prologue and Blue Rose has already exceeded my expectations. My recurring complaint with other entries in this genre is that they tend to move about as fast as a sloth on horse tranquilizers. Even Animal Lover, a prior entry I was ultimately glad to have played, made a habit of stretching my patience to near breaking. Blue Rose, however, doesn’t fuck around. Click on new game and BOOM! DRAGON! What’s my name? What am I doing? Why am I here? SHUTDAFUCKUP! DRAGON! FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE!!!
Or, well, read about fighting for your life. The interactive bits haven’t really kicked in yet. But, hey, in a game like this, the really important decisions involve which pretty anime boy you’d like to bone; when it comes to petty shit like fighting dragons, you’re just along for the ride.
Anyway. The fight goes badly, and you get blasted down the first of many, many hills and receive the first of many, many traumatic brain injuries. When you come to, you are in the care of Tobias, a taciturn woodsboy who seems to hate you on sight.
What’s going on? (Stuff.) Why did Tobias save you? (Played the game to completion, still have no idea.) Did anyone else from your squad survive? (… you eventually ask after a ridiculously long time.) And most important of all: ARE THERE HOT BOYS YOU CAN FALL IN LOVE WITH?!
Blue Rose crushes the whole “pacing” issue I keep having with interactive novels. I have complaints about this game, but I give it all the credit in the world for respecting my time and NOT fucking around. I finished it in about two hours or so, and lesser games need that much time to even establish their basic premise. Shit happens here, and I respect the hell out of it for that.
What’s more, it looks lovely. These characters appear in enough story-related poses that I do NOT think the dev was using canned assets; I strongly suspect this is all original material, and the artist absolutely nails the whole manga feel. It really helps sell the story.
… when it can be arsed to bother.
Sadly, the game is often very lazy visually; we’re firmly in the land of “Tell, don’t show” here. There were WAY too many moments that would have benefitted immensely from some art to help support the story, but just presented text on a generic setting background.
Sometimes, we don’t even get that much effort. Here’s the in-game still from the huge plot twist that comes about two-thirds of the way in:
And sometimes, the game opts to neither show NOR tell. At one point, I go to a party. Apparently, my dress is very pretty. Very, very pretty. Oh so distractingly pretty.
Not only is there no picture of me in this literally indescribably awesome dress, there’s not even a rudimentary attempt at a description. So I’m just gonna have to assume it’s made out of PVC with a neckline down to my navel.
So, yeah. The constant visual punts were a recurring source of frustration.
More problematic, however, was that the protagonist’s priorities were often so bizarre that they kept kicking me out of the story. I get that her concerns are not my concerns, but seriously, I just watched my entire squad become dragon chow! Why am I obsessing over my sword and not wondering whether any of my squadmates are alive or dead?!
Later on, a Bad Mystic Thing happens which clearly has implications for a major character — a ROMANCEABLE character, if I’m interpreting the game’s home page correctly. Lena expresses absolutely no interest in this until she has to. I still have no idea what that character’s fate was. I assume it’s not good.
Also, as a Templar of the Blue Rose, I have paladin powers! Occasionally. When the plot needs me to remember that I do. One would have thought that if my crew had magic powers, someone would have busted out something flashy when a dragon was trying to eat them.
The story is honestly littered with little details that don’t quite line up, what look like early-draft plot threads (like a suggestion that somebody may still be alive but taken by the dragon) that didn’t get developed for the final version but somehow still hung around.
The non-romance bits of the story just feel weird and half-baked. But I gotta give credit where it’s due; when it’s time to start forging connections with the other characters in this story, that’s when the game comes alive.
And it even feels like a game! I kept making choices and shit! And my choices seemed to matter! Who would I like to hang with? Who do I wanna get closer to? I get to decide that!
My only complaint here is that Tobias is a romanceable option, and FUCK NO. Look, I’m a dude, and I know that women sometimes get turned on by the thrill of winning over somebody who’s not into them, but … come ON. If Tobias’s never-ending firehose of disdain actually moistens your panties, then you’re the reason why pick-up artists can respond with “But it works!” when called out on the misogyny behind negging. This guy is an incel waiting to become a domestic abuse horror story. And he’s yours for the taking.
But other than that, honestly, the romantic bits felt solid. I followed one of the options to a conclusion, and I’m glad I did. (A very chaste conclusion, I might add. Totally legit artistic choice and who knows maybe one of the other paths includes graphic stills of me getting Eiffel-towered at the inn, but if you give this a try yourself, set your expectations to kid-friendly.) My love interest wound up endangered in a way that seemed very natural for the story being told AND made me want to get my ass out there and save them! I was engaged! I was invested! Fuck yeah!
Whatever its narrative failings, it’s a romance game that handles the romance part well. It didn’t do everything it was trying to do, but it nailed its core element, and didn’t waste my time in the process. If you’re more of a fan of the genre than I am, you might actually love it, so I can definitely give it a qualified recommendation.
Is this next game gonna let me kiss somebody?
Page 45, Game 11: Those Spacecrafts by DaGammla
“A fun acrade shooter”
I’m guessing no. Unless you count kissing some motherfuckin’ aliens with my DEATH LASER! The I expect some hard-core makeout sessions!
“Whoa. Right, I need to go easy on this one, don’t I. This is clearly an early-stage alpha-ish game that the dev probably put online just for their friends or something. I’m sure it’s downloadable for free–“
Right. So. This is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up, reminiscent of Contra. In fact, in the Bad Place, all copies of Contra have been replaced by this game.
You can use the titular shotgun, which blasts a three-bullet spread, or you can use the titular hook, which does nothing. Your sprite changes to indicate you’re now holding a hook gun, but no amount of button-mashing caused it to do a single goddamn thing (and this game has nothing resembling a tutorial mode). So even though the dev considered it important enough to put in the title, the hook is not in the $5 release of the game.
The first time I tried playing this game, I found movement to be weirdly floaty and unsatisfying. There was one early mini-boss battle that I could simply rush past and ignore. In fact, when I went back to fight the mini-boss, I found it very difficult to FIGHT the fucker at all, as I kept drifting off the side of the screen and triggering loads of adjacent areas. But I stuck it out, because I wanted to see what would happen when I finally whittled down his health.
Answer: the game crashed, and rendered itself unplayable. Permanently unplayable, as far as I can tell. When I went back in to do a screenshot run, I found an unbreakable wall of indeterminate height standing between me and the rest of the game.
Can’t jump over it, can’t climb it, shooting it is pointless. Everything about this is pointless.
Perhaps if I delete and re-expand the game, it will return to a state where it’s playable. I think I’ll do the first half of that.
I find it hard to imagine this doing brisk sales. But anybody who somehow actually purchased this game deserves a refund and and apology.
Will this next game not fill me with hostility towards whoever shared it with me?
Page 11, Game 9: Blue Rose by WhiteCat
“Fantasy romance visual novel”
Oh, dear. Is this an interactive “novel”? I’ve had really dreadful luck with those. But good news, WhiteCat: after Shotguns & Hooks, there is literally nowhere to go but up. And who knows, maybe it’ll be just a straightforward piece of fiction. The ones I’ve encountered in this trawl have, to my pleasant surprise, consistently not sucked. Here’s hoping.
Some of the game assets I’ve discovered in this trawl have positively dripped with potential, and would clearly be of tremendous value to anyone developing a game matching the feel they’re trying to capture.
This asset pack consists of three .png files, which I won’t preview, because there’s just so little here that screen-capping it feels like I’m legit handing too much of it away. There are 28 background tiles, featuring some combination of “green” and “brown.” There are 16 sprites of a little knight dude that could presumably depicting him moving from a few different angles. There are four images of a very, very small cat from different angles.
There’s not much here — and according to the page, it’s intended for non-commercial use. Even though the dev is charging you money for it. Which is weird. Isn’t pretty much EVERYTHING I can find on Google available for non-commercial use? I mean, as long as I’m not making money off of a thing, can’t I just harvest images for it from wherever the hell I can find them?
Eh, whatever. This is a very, very small project. The little knight guy is kinda cute, for what it’s worth. Most of these asset pack resource type thingies are of pretty limited value anyway since you have to be a game dev looking for something very specific, but this one feels even more limited than most. Maybe someone found it really useful, though, so that’d be cool.
Will this next game also maybe feature a cute doggo or two?
Page 55, Game 27: Hooks And Shotguns by FifthEdgeStudios
Lord, I hope not. I don’t want either hooks OR shotguns coming near my goodbois. But on the bright side, whatever’s waiting for me — Pirates? Zombies? Meat packing? — I hoping it’s gonna be AWESOME.
Coulda called it quits after the last one; Octodad would have been a legit high-point to go out on. But, nah, screw it, I’ll keep coming back to these from time to time, I think, just so I can pretend I still have a creative streak or something. And I can definitely hit that #200 milestone if I push myself a bit!
As for this game, it’s definitely … a game. That exists.
The summary text describes it as “a blend of breakout, space invaders and ikaruga,” and … no. At least, not those first two. The core game mechanics superficially resemble Breakout, but otherwise doesn’t feel anything like it. The retro-style graphics are the only connection I see with Space Invaders. And just what the hell is Ikaruga? Wikipedia says it’s a vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up, so I feel pretty safe declaring us oh-for-three here.
No, the actual best comp for BREAKER is Tempest. There are shenanigans going on in the middle of the screen, you shall deal with them by rotating around the screen. However, you don’t shoot things: you deflect them! (Hence the not-totally-bogus Breakout comp.) Things in the center of the screen are shooting balls, you shall defeat them by Judoing those balls right back at ’em.
Some balls are red, others are blue. Which ones can you deflect? Depends! If you’re going clockwise, you can hit the red balls! Counter-clockwise, you can hit the blue!
And if you fuck it up and hit a blue ball while you’re red, or vice-versa? Lose a hit point, sucka. Lose all your HP, game over.
In the abstract, this sounds interesting. I don’t recall a game where I have such complete moment-to-moment control over what I’m vulnerable to. I feel like you could make a really tense, engaging game based on that mechanic.
However, “tense” and “engaging” are not appropriate adjectives here. BREAKER is more … languid. Lazy. Chill. These are not adjectives I want to hang on a game that’s clearly gunning for an old-school quarter-munching feel.
BREAKER clearly draws its aesthetic inspiration from the arcade games of my youth; the graphics absolutely look like something I could have found while bumming around Aladdin’s Castle in the Southern Hills Mall. But those games were fast and urgent; those games had a sense of PURPOSE. They all had a ticking clock baked into them somehow, somewhere; they had to keep those quarters flowing from your pockets into their innards. Get out there, do something, or … or the invaders from space will complete their slow march to the bottom of the screen and you’re done. Or those damned ships will scoop up all of your people and turn into mutants and scream and fucking wreck you. Or the drones will finish building that stupid huge face that taunts you as it bites you in half.
BREAKER has none of that. If you’d like to progress, swoop out there and swat those balls back to the center of the screen. Or you can … not do that. There’s no penalty for just hanging out and watching the various bullets pass you by, or even avoiding them entirely. You’re not protecting anything, there aren’t any immediate threats to worry about. Go whack those balls, or don’t. Whatever. If they just go drifting off into space, it’s nothing you need to worry about. It’s all good, dude.
Some of these games are very difficult to take screen shots of. In the time it takes me to hit [Shift]-[Win]-S and then [Ctrl]-v that sucker into GIMP, I’m used simply dying. A proper old-school arcade game will, when you simply wander away from the console, kill the hell out of you.
In BREAKER, the game barely seemed to notice. Unless I was in a boss battle — which DID generate some of the tension the game so desperately needs, though not enough of it — I could be reasonably certain that the game state would be more or less unchanged by the time I got back to it.
Which makes the whole thing feel decidedly “meh.” There are skills to be developed here, I think, but … who cares? The game isn’t pushing me, it’s just kinda taking up my time.
It’s certainly not gawd-awful, and as of this writing it’s free, so if it sounds the least bit intriguing there’s no reason NOT to give it a look, I suppose. But, yeah, this one is really just kinda there.
Will this next one hide an obvious modern game engine beneath a pixelated costume?
Page 58, Game 19: Outdoor Adventurer Tileset by reshmush
“pixel grass and dirt path tiles, stage characters, & a cat”
Actually, yes! Or no. Sounds like an asset pack, so the game engine is very much a YOU problem.
A hilarious piece of video game slapstick that, if the execution had been a bit tighter, would be a stone cold classic. My first hour playing this game had me thinking this might wind up being my favorite game of the playthrough. Sadly, it ultimately fell short. But it’s still a hoot and something I can enthusiastically recommend.
You are a devoted husband and loving father with a dark, terrible secret: you’re not a man, you’re an octopus, boo.
You navigate daily life without giving away your true identity — which is a huge problem, because the world was made for creatures with endoskeletons. You tend to awkwardly flop and lurch around and generally just wreck the living shit out of everything.
The game’s prologue/tutorial takes you to your wedding day, where you need to get dressed and spastically heave your way down the aisle. But how will you negotiate the various pitfalls a cruel, uncaring world has placed before you?
By just blundeing your way through them, of course.
This is the essence of the game: flopping haplessly around your environment, causing pure chaos as you attempt some ridiculously mundane task. My paltry words are utterly failing to capture the rubbery insanity of this game’s physics engine — so just for whoever the hell is reading this, I learned how to capture an animated GIF. Check out this madness:
That’s me, trying to find my tux. Note that I went back for screenshots after I’d already finished the game; that’s me moving around after I understand the controls well enough to win. If it looks ridiculous to watch, I assure you it feels even more ridiculous to play. And just in case you weren’t clear on the blunderiffic comedy vibe the game is shooting for, there are banana peels. Fucking banana peels.
Octodad’s tutorial had me giggling my ass off from start to finish.
The early stages of Octodad represent the game at its best. This represents what I’ve come to think of as a “mundanity simulator.” The game is all about taking some ridiculously simple task, but putting some sort of twist on it. The first comp that comes to my mind is Job Simulator, where you’re participating in an interactive exhibit being run by robots who don’t quiiiite get what human jobs were actually like. A game like this rewards you for playing with your environment and puts a lunatic twist on the familiar. When Octodad, purrs, that’s exactly what it does.
Unfortunately, it runs out of steam.
As the game moves on and the story takes shape, Octodad slowly morphs from Zany Physics Madness into Zany Physics Puzzle Solving. In theory, that’s a splendid idea: the game should evolve as you play it, otherwise it runs the risk of growing stale by repeating variations of the same joke over and over. But the more Octodad tries to challenge you, the more it calls attention to its own limitations.
Heaving yourself bonelessly across the screen gets less fun and more frustrating the more demands the game places on you. For instance, you’re supposed to minimize the amount of shit you wreck when eyes are on you, like when you finally stumble into the chapel and have to make your way down the aisle without annihilating the floral arrangements.
Sow too much havoc and your cover is blown, and you have to go back to a save point and try again. That’s fine in limited doses … but the same floppy imprecision that makes the game such a wonderful sight gag also makes it ill-suited for fiddly puzzle solving. And the deeper you go, the fiddlier the puzzles get.
There’s an arcade section where I still don’t know what the hell the game was trying to get me to do; I just flailed until I got the message telling me I’d won. That wasn’t fun. Levels with ladders aren’t much fun, either. When you move a leg up, sometimes it sticks to the new surface, sometimes it doesn’t, and I never did really figure it out with any degree of confidence. So, you move a leg, hope it stays put when you move the other leg, sigh and start over when it doesn’t. The game trained me to wince every time I saw ladders, because I knew I was going to have to do a lot of random flailing before I was able to proceed.
That floppy imprecision extends beyond just the nuances of the physics engine, though. Octodad struggles to keep its puzzles consistent, resulting in solutions that are too arbitrary to satisfy. In one section, I had to bash some crates into splinters in order to proceed, so I picked up a heavy object and attempted to get my smash on. My heavy object simply passed through the crates; turned out my solution was to whack them with a crane. Okay, fine, fair enough. But then the very next section told me I had to smash a different crate to proceed — and this time, I had to pick up a heavy object and get my smash on.
At one point, you need a set of disguises to get by some folks who, earlier in the game, you had to avoid entirely because they weren’t fooled in the slightest by a much better disguise. Your chief antagonist is a marauding chef who wants to turn you into sushi — at first. Then all of a sudden his goal is to expose you as an octopus. A silly cartoonish motivation feels exactly right for this game, but I kinda want that motivation to at least stay consistent.
The game hits its nadir in both fun and narrative at the third act break. A bad thing happens, which resulted in me having this interaction with the game:
Me: Is this a cutscene, or is this gameplay? I’ll click a button and see if I can move myself.
Game: OKAY FINE I’LL STOP PLAYING THE CUTSCENE IT’S NOT LIKE WE WORKED REALLY HARD ON IT OR NOTHING GAWD HERE NOW YOU CAN PLAY AGAIN YOU IMPATIENT PRICK
Me: Huh? What’s happening?!
The cutscene bailed, and I was on a boat. I figured I’d been yeeted back into the ocean, and had boarded a fishing vessel to try and make it back to my family. All I had to do was sneak past the fishermen — because when you have a game based around pratfall mayhem, what it really needs is a fucking stealth section.
But, no, I eventually figured out this was a FLASHBACK. This was how I met both my wife and the evil chef. Which raised so many questions! Why was I on the boat? Why was my future wife? Why was the chef? What were ANY of us doing here? What the hell does anybody want?!
The story just kinda turns into weird mound of babbling gibberish. I was no longer having fun attempting to untangle my limbs from the furniture; I was simply confused. And perpetually getting kicked back to prior savepoints because someone saw me. Again.
From there, I managed to flop my way to the end of the story. There were some more good moments to be had, but for the most part I was glad to be done with it. Octodad had worn out its welcome.
But then when I was poking around the main menu, I discovered the “Shorts,” and the game made me fall in love with it all over again.
Octodad includes two bonus mini-adventures. In one, he’s on his first date with Scarlet, and in the other, he’s working as a nurse. Both minigames dump the puzzle solving aspect almost entirely and have you performing tasks by flopping maniacally around a restaurant and a hospital, and they’re hilarious and wonderful.
If this is what the game had been from start to finish, it’d almost certainly be my favorite of the trawl thus far. It should have made the puzzle-solving aspect optional. If you WANT to go the precision platformer route, then the game should have given you a cookie — I dunno, here’s a nice tie or something, you mastered the octophysics, yay you. But for me, the most fun I had by far was when I was lurching ineptly through the world, leaving wreckage and chaos in my wake. The deeper I went into the game, the more I felt like it was punishing me for enjoying myself.
The good parts of this game are wonderful, enough to make me wish it had managed to sustain that loopy energy from start to finish. But honestly, even the “bad” bits are tolerable; frustrating, sure, but I found enough wit and energy in them to get me through to the end.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is clearly not the best version of itself, and that’s a bummer, because it could have been something amazing. But it still manages to be unique and funny enough to make me very glad I played it. It’s not my fave, but I can definitely recommend it just the same.
Will this next game leave me wishing that the Lovecraft references had been part of the plot and not just funny one-off jokes?
Page 25, Game 15: BREAKER by Daniel Linssen
“a blend of breakout, space invaders and ikaruga”
That’s a bunch of stuff mashed together, so who knows, Dread Cthulhu just might show up.
There are some interesting ideas here. I’m not 100% sold on the execution, but it’s got a great old-school look and feel to it. If you love Nintendo-era platformers and would like to try something a bit different, this one might be worth your time.
You are a robot — according to the game’s page, you’re the titular Blitz. You wanna GTF outta that lab for some reason. (Look, mad science is clearly going on. Whatever it is, it can’t be healthy for you.)
There’s a problem: you can’t run. But you can jump. But more importantly, you can fuckin’ FLY!
Move in a direction. You will go screaming across the screen in that direction until you hit something. At that point, you’ll be free to move in a completely new direction — assuming whatever you hit didn’t kill you.
When I found a groove in this game, it was a fun kinetic puzzle solver … once I got the basic rules figured out. One of the big problems with Blitz Breaker is that it’s very sloppy about teaching you its core conceits. For instance, it took me a hot minute to realize that once I chose a direction, I was locked in until I hit something. Basically, if you’re a ball (like the above screenshot), your gonna go until you hit something, and all the wild flailing on your controller attempting to execute a mid-air direction switch won’t do a damn thing.
Now, once you hit a non-fatal thing and turn back into a robot? THEN you may choose a new direction to go.
There are also coins and other extras you can collect. What are they? Why do you collect them? I eventually figured out that the coins will add to your countdown timer, which is occasionally quite merciless. But there’s other stuff that I only figured out I could grab because the game hid them somewhere hard to reach. WHY do I need to collect some of those other items? No idea.
Naturally, as the game progresses, the environment gets deadlier and deadlier, until there are spikes and sawblades and other such bullshit waiting for you to impale yourself on them.
This game is all about figuring out how to get where you need to be, and then executing the split-second timing necessary to make it happen. Despite placing some very strange limitations on the player’s mobility, this game is absolutely a member of the Brutal Precision Platformer brotherhood.
That’s not my genre. A game has to truly excel to get me to enjoy all those fiddly jumps and death after death after death. Blitz Breaker, sadly, didn’t make the cut for me.
I definitely had stretches where I enjoyed playing this game; it’s hardly a complete waste. But there were too many frustrating stretches where I didn’t QUIIIIIITE time that jump properly and exploded on contact against some spikes. Bah.
What’s more, the game’s go-until-you-hit-something mechanic meant there were often moments where I did the wrong thing, KNEW I’d done the wrong thing, was utterly helpless to correct it, and just had to watch my avatar die yet again. Granted, I wasn’t waiting long; I can’t accuse the game of being slow to get me back into the action. And to a degree, that’s true of other platformers; botch a jump, and you’re falling into that pit and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But for some reason, that split second of “And now I need to go down FALL down FALL GOD DAMMIT WHY DID I THROW MYSELF AT THOSE SPIKES” felt unusually irksome. Make the wrong split second move and you’re just fucked, beyond the reach of any quick double-jump to get you back to safety.
Looks great, though. I wish the game did more to tell me its own background story, but it looks and sounds like a very solid 80’s platformer. Kudos for the artistry on display here.
This is another game that’s not for me, but if somebody told me they thought it was the bundle’s biggest hidden gem, I’d be pretty sure I know why they love it so much. If it sounds like your jam, absolutely give it a play.
Is this next game gonna leverage my Pavlovian response to coins in a video game by assuming I’m gonna go grab those fuckers even if I have no idea why I’m doing it?
Page 10, Game 21: Octodad: Dadliest Catch by Young Horses
“Loving Father. Caring Husband. Secret Octopus.”
With a description that weird, coins are a definite possibility. As is … everything, basically.
please don’t be hentai please don’t be hentai please don’t be hentai please don’t be hentai….
I put up this blog so I’d have somewhere to put all the reviews I was doing for Itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice. It’s been fun, and I think I’ll keep doing it sporadically, because why not. But there’s no reason to JUST review that occasionally infuriating sporadically beautiful collection of oddities. If a game I purchased the normal way strikes my eye, my readers might like knowing about that, too!
I stumbled across this one a while ago, likely when somebody on Facebook linked to it. I remember reading an article about how this was someone’s attempt to make the concept of “race” in Dungeons and Dragons less #problematic while still preserving the tropes of elves and dwarves and orcs and shit, and I was like “Huh, that sounds worth doing” and then probably clicked on a video with cats or otters or something.
But it DID stick around in the back of my mind, and my most recent Justice Review brought it to the fore. My random number generator sent me to One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk, a perfectly serviceable set of ideas for putting some fresh spins on the old favorites. It made me think of Ancestry & Culture because the short description that serves as my first introduction to these games made explicit mention that it was a racism-free product.
And it was, I suppose, but that really wasn’t the focus of the project; it was more interested in establishing races that had heads where their torsos ought to have been, or dwarves literally carved out of magic rocks, or cold-blooded elves, or other such things. Fair enough, but that left me kinda disappointed. There’s a lot of shit from D&D’s early days that’s pretty damn uncomfortable in a modern setting. I explore that thought in more detail in my One Page Lore writeup, but seriously, a race of elves who have black skin because the gods cursed them for their irredeemable evil? Even the Mormons had to back down from that bullshit.
There’s a lot to say on the topic. So I figured, why not take a look at a product that was expressly designed to de-yikesify Dungeons and Dragons?
tl;dr: it’s good. Falls short of greatness, I think. But I think it achieves what it’s trying to do. If I ever get a D&D campaign going again, I think I’ll use these rules.
As implied by the title, the rules simply bifurcate the normal process of selecting a character’s race: your ancestry determines what kinda body you’re born into, your culture determines how you were raised. Nothing revolutionary there, just plain nature versus nurture. If you’re an elf raised by elves, the end result is pretty much indistinguishable from just writing “Elf” in the race slot. But if you’re, say, an elf raised by orcs, things start to get a little different than what you expect.
For starters, you get fuckin’ SWOLE, bro.
Basically, every race gets its traits split between the “culture” and “ancestry” buckets. Some of this is what you’d expect, but some of it isn’t. For instance, our elf girl whose family moved to East Orklandia when she was a toddler is going to have the size, slender features, keen senses, disregard for sleep, etc etc you’d associate with elves. But because she grew up in a culture that put a premium on physical strength and conditioning — orc PE classes are fucking INTENSE, dude — she gets a +2 to her Strength and +1 to her Constitution. She’s also proficient in Intimidation, and gets a bonus damage die to her critical hits; Self Defense was NOT an elective, and her instructors taught her to go right for the nutshot.
Basing stat boosts off of culture instead of ancestry is, I suspect, the most counter-intuitive decision in Culture & Ancestry, but having sat with it for a while, I’m on board. As the author explains in a sidebar, “This choice allows us to move away from the problematic notion certain ethnic groups have higher strength or intelligence, as those notions are often at the heart of racist attitudes in the real world.” And … yeah, I think he’s right. You CAN argue that in a fantasy world with ogres and trolls and dragons and shit running around that it’s perfectly reasonable for some races to be inherently stronger or smarter or whever-er than others. But most playable races map so tightly to humans that going that way brings with it some baggage that has been used to promote some profoundly horrible shit in the real world. The notion that some races are inherently better than others has been used to justify full-bore genocide. Sure, you can claim that orcs are habitually stronger than other races as a consequence of the Dark Lord breeding them for war, but it’s honestly just as plausible that it’s because “One who skips leg day” is a pretty sick burn in orcish society.
When you come to a fork in the trail with two equally viable paths, I say take the one that doesn’t have fuckin’ Nazis on it.
You can take it a step further and just mix and match within the categories. With ancestry, you’re limited to two; you’ve got darkvision because Mom is a full-blooded wood-elf but you’ve also got stupid-good luck because Dad’s a halfling. Or whatever. It’s all good. You also have a ton of freedom in defining whatever culture it is you grew up in, largely decoupling it from the notion of race entirely and getting very flexible grab-bag of options.
“But doesn’t that make the whole think pointless and lend itself to min-maxing the shit out of everything?” Yeah. Yeah, it kinda does.
And I’m fine with that.
Minmaxers gonna minmax. Some people play fantasy RPGs to immerse themselves in a made-up world that reminds them of stories they’ve loved, others go into it treating their character as a series of numbers defining an engine for slaying monsters. As long as you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes, there are tons of valid ways to play the game. If you’ve got a player who honestly doesn’t give a flying fuck about all that “PC crap” and just wants to loot the shit out of some undead-infested tomb, then their reward for going along with your efforts to scrub some of the racism out of your game is that they have an easier time creating the treasure-harvesting machine they want to play.
The players who care don’t have to squirm at the icky implications of elves being inherently smarter than everyone else, the players who don’t care get to kick more ass and loot more treasure. Everybody wins.
The book only covers the “basic” races, but they give guidelines for converting other races using these mechanics. For any race not covered here, it’ll take a DM all of five minutes to sort out which bucket to toss each trait into.
The ideas here are so simple and so easy to put into practice that the book winds up having a bit of trouble justifying its own existence as a book. The core rules only take up 25 pages or so. More than half of the book is padded-out with some diversity-themed adventures that explore some of the ideas presented in the crunchy sections without getting too obnoxiously heavy-handed.
Of the two, I’m more intrigued by Helping Hands, where the party is given the opportunity to help a town deal with a forest fire. It winds up feeling aggressively kid-friendly; if the party fails to rescue a guy trapped in a burning building, for instance, he doesn’t die, he’s just seen recovering from smoke inhalation the next day. I’m not sure I want my adventures to be THAT rigorously low-stakes, but if you’re running a game for your kids, I definitely see the appeal.
I do wish that the adventure setting wasn’t so woke right out of the gate, though. The PCs need to go to other nearby settlements to request aid and supplies, and even though each village is predominantly settled by one race, they already get along fabulously. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if there were some simmering tensions there? Like, they’re reluctant to suggest the PCs go to the orc village because, you know, orcs? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling if the players had the opportunity to help bridge some divides rather than just walk into a setting where everybody’s already got their shit figured out?
Eh, I’m being nit-picky. Bottom line, it’s a damned solid product, even if the content is a tad thin for my liking. As of this writing, it’s available on Drive-Thru RPG for $5. If it sounds like the sorta thing you and your group would be into, I can definitely recommend it as being worth your time.
I like using the short description of my next play to, for comedy purposes, make some wild-ass guesses about what’s waiting for me next. But this one worked against me:
“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”
The “without racist undertones” clause is what threw me. I’ve been a gamer nerd for a whole lotta years, and yeah, there are some Issues with races that are “inherently evil.” I mean, it all goes back to the source. I’m having trouble finding it (so perhaps I’m misremembering it), but I definitely remember hearing a quote from Tolkien that orcs were based on the “less desirable” aspects of Asian cultures. And even before him, there’s a long line of creatures in folklore that were simply irredeemably evil, alien, other.
The heroes have to slay SOMETHING, you know.
I’m not gonna sit here and wail on The Old Ways just to try and earn some cheap Internet wokeness points; fuck that noise. Popular culture is a mirror, reflecting both the best and worst a particular time has to offer. A thing does not have to be perfect to be worthy of love, particularly when its flaws are so clearly rooted in simple human failings. Lord of the Rings is awesome, and enriched my life immensely. Dungeons and Dragons and the myriad of games that followed in its footsteps have brought me more joy, more connection with friends and loved ones, than I can possibly recount. They are also, in presenting imaginary races that are inherently evil beyond redemption and exist primarily for the forces of Good to remorselessly slaughter, a bit fucked up. The former does not excuse the latter — but the latter does not negate the former.
We’re all just doing the best we can with the world as we understand it. If our understanding grows in a way that tells us that hey, maybe some shit we embraced yesterday without a second thought actually has elements that are not so cool, that’s called “growth.” Feeling like you understand the world a little better today than you did yesterday is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes you see some things you love a bit differently. Quite the opposite. It’s an opportunity to embrace the good bits, and figure out how to move past the bad. It’s a chance to do better.
So based on that simple-ass three-word clause — “without racist undertones” — I was actually looking forward to a bit of a deeper dive into what drives said racist undertones, an exploration of how they can sneak into our fantasy worlds without our knowledge or consent. Hell, I’m taking a stab at writing a fantasy RPG right now, at least when Covid-depression isn’t kicking my ass (which it is more often than not, unfortunately). This sounds super relevant to my interests! In fact, didn’t I see something about a supplement like that a while ago?
Yup, it’s called “Ancestry & Culture“, and I’mma buy that sumbitch as soon as I’m done writing this up.
Because with those three words, “One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk” wrote a check it didn’t really cash.
Look, it’s the Year of Our Lord 2021, and this is an indie RPG supplement I downloaded from a site that ISN’T trying to indulge racist chuds. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, a D&D supplement that dealt with races in a consciously even-handed way would have been notable. But in context, a supplement that is “not racist” is about as meaningful to me as a movie that’s “in color” or is a “talkie.” It’s just what my entitled ass expects nowadays; I’d really only notice if it WASN’T there.
Anyway. This is a perfectly serviceable fantasy RPG supplement — yup, after all that ranting, I’m going straight middle of the road in terms of how much I actually liked this — offering up system-agnostic ideas for how to give fantasy races a little more flair without going into gonzo bugfuck territory a la Troika! or Penicillin. (And as promised, it is in colorfeatures talking actors not appreciably racist, so, yay.)
We’ve got everything from twists on old faves (Elves are cold-blooded! Dwarves are literally carved from stone! Halflings are totes narcoleptic!) to Kirkland-brand versions of ents and furries to straight up weird shit I don’t think I’ve seen before, like fungus people or people whose torsos ARE their heads. There are even a few classic monsters like liches and skeletons in there, because fuck it, why not?
Each race comes with a two-page description — which means you can print it on a single sheet of paper, hence the name of the book — describing what their deal is. Translating their deal into stats for your game is your problem, but hey, that’s what I’d expect.
There are some weird assumptions baked into the book, like the fact that pretty much everything can interbreed with everything else. Okay, fine, half-elves and such are totally a genre staple, but if you’re gonna go this far to make everything race so unique, I’m not sure that works particularly well. Like the Formless (Kirkland dopplegangers), whose flesh is a kind of non-Newtonian fluid. The description indicates their transformations are into other creatures are no more than skin-deep, but their reproductive systems are somehow compatible?
Does this weird universal interbreeding extend to, like, EVERYTHING in this implied universe? Is a turducken the result of a regrettable barnyard orgy? Does the threat of human-faced lambs keep lonely perverted shepherds from doing anything nasty?
Eh, whatevs. It’s all perfectly fine. The copyediting is a little sloppy in places and there are examples of “This is clearly an X but with the serial numbers filed off” than I would consider ideal, but what the hell, it’s a perfectly cromulent indie RPG product. It didn’t dazzle me, but if you’re looking for some ideas for how to give some tropes in your RPG a little more weird kick, it’s very likely to be worth your time.
And it’s totes not racist. Even though it lists reasons why Gnomes are an innately apathetic people. Which, given that it’s telling me why a personality trait is actually an inherent part of a sentient race’s physiology, is just a teensy bit yellow-flaggy to me. But there are no monoculture races devoted to the destruction of all that is Right and Good, so I’m pretty sure it cleared the bar it was setting for itself.
Up next: Ancestry & Culture. Just downloaded it. Boom! Totally gonna give that a good read-through.
But I gotta have a justice game to check-out next, too. Will this next one invent a word like “craniothorax” and then use it so often it actually becomes a weird distraction?
Page 11, Game 18: Blitz Breaker by Boncho Games
“A fast paced platformer without…running?”
Ooh. Somebody wants to break one of the core rules of their genre. I’m intrigued.
That was quite thoroughly pleasant. Which is way, way more than I feel I have any right to expect of a self-published novella. (Complete with perfectly competent anime-esque illustrations from the author!)
This is the story of M, a young adult largely adrift in life who stumbles upon a strange opportunity: let a witch transform them into a demon, and then spend three months living with a different witch. See, in this world, witches and magic are totally a thing and it’s no big deal. M tried magic a while back and really sucked at it, but they’re not torn up about it or anything. Witches often have demon (think made-of-magic demons, not hellfire demons) familiars who are a BIG help in doing magic stuff, particularly when it comes to artificing work.
Penelope is a witch who really knows her shit, and her kid sister Amanda is getting her magic feet under her. Problem is, Amanda kinda sucks at magic too, and can’t hack even a simple familiar-binding spell. (Why? I don’t think the story really explains that; she seems perfectly capable-ish. Maybe demons just think she has lousy taste in footwear and get all snobbish about that stuff?) So, Penelope’s solution: demonic ringer. Pay-off a regular ol’ mortal human to get transformed into a demon critter, and let Amanda summon a beastie that is getting paid to do whatever it takes to help her out. What could possibly go wrong?
Whatever complications you think might arise from that scenario, you probably don’t need to worry about it, because it’s not an issue. Yes, even that one. And that one.
I’ve mentioned it before, but since I have no reason to believe anyone other than me reads these in chronological order (or, like, at all), I’ll mention it again: I’ve read a LOT of unpublished/self-published fiction. Writing stories of any length that don’t suck is HARD, much harder than than anyone who’s never dipped their toes in those waters would believe. Most of the un-/self-published fiction in the world is hidden behind impenetrable gates for a very, very good reason.
So, yeah, when I say that this novella doesn’t suck, no bullshit: I mean that as praise. When I say it was actually pleasant and enjoyable to read, please recognize that as very, VERY high praise indeed.
It’s enjoyable. The prose flows smoothly, the characters are sympathetic and engaging. It’s all very pleasant.
Overbearingly, suffocatingly pleasant.
Ruthlessly stripped of conflict to the point where the characters occasionally don’t even register as recognizably human pleasant.
Yeah. When I call this motherfucker “pleasant,” that is actually far and away my biggest beef with the whole thing.
The story’s big hook is that it’s actually trans allegory. Our protagonist M is … is there a word for someone who really needs to dump their current gender identity but has yet to truly grapple with that reality so is just grudgingly going by their assigned-at-birth gender as an awkward default? What pronouns are appropriate for that person? Whatever. M is male-ish, neither happy about it nor willing to confront it; but when they find themselves in the body of a female demon-mouse (who gets named Emilynn by pure coincidence), it’s liberating in a way they — she — has never experienced before. This is a story about discovering and creating a new identity for yourself, about cannonballing into a completely new world and finding love and acceptance within it. Those are the parts of the story that work. Those are the parts that charmed me.
The problem is, as mentioned, that this process of discovery feels shockingly devoid of any sort of risk or stakes, and it’s taking place within a world that’s only barely sketched with the broadest of outlines. I mean, there’s some really hefty ethical shit going down here, but most of it barely gets mentioned let alone explored. Setting your sister up with a faux-demon familiar without her consent? That feels like one hell of a violation of trust! To say nothing of learning that your adorable new familiar is actually a male-bodied human in demon-mouse drag!
And all of that is, from a storytelling standpoint, good. VERY good! This feels like the sort of thing someone with big-time magic power might do, overstepping boundaries to act in (what they perceive as) the best interests of someone they love. That’s interesting. That’s a rich vein of drama just waiting to be mined.
But, no. Conflict of any sort just doesn’t fit the novella’s oppressively wholesome tone. So everything that might be worrisome, that might make someone question their actions or choices, will at best be mentioned and glossed over. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Very, very, very fine. So fine.
And that’s honestly a damned shame.
The novella is also very, very light on the sort of details it needs to truly come alive. For instance, in one scene, Amanda is preparing breakfast. What kind of breakfast? Can Emilynn smell sausage cooking in a pan? Is Amanda chopping up veggies for an omelet? Is she a Cap’n Crunch kinda witch? No idea. It’s Breakfast. Just some perfectly ordinary Breakfast. Don’t worry about it.
This lack of detail permeates the novella, to its detriment. More problematically: Amanda wants to be an artificer, to craft magic objects. WHY is she so intent on being an artificer, even though prior to Emilynn’s help she was quite rubbish at it? No idea. WHAT sort of magic devices does she want to create? Well, erm, bolts that glow, I guess. Oh! And a hairbrush that can make your hair different colors! That’s one’s really dope, actually! That was a really compelling, interesting detail!
As far as I know, Amanda’s goal is to open a magic shop that exclusively sells light-up hardware and brushes that make your hair different colors. I’m really feeling like she needs to stay on Magic Etsy until she diversifies her stock a bit. But that’s just a detail, and this novella doesn’t really bother with nearly as many of those as it needs to. (Yes, it’s possible to go way too far the other direction and get bogged in superfluous details. At this stage in the author’s career, that is emphatically not a worry.)
If I were in a critique group with this author, this is someone whose work I’d genuinely look forward to reading while completely understanding why she keeps getting form rejections from all but the semi-est of semi-pro markets. There’s a lot to like here; reading this novella is not a chore, and “Not A Chore” is a mountain all too few amateur writers ever manage to conquer. But to be really compelling, to write stories that I’d want to seek out, this author has some growing of her own she yet needs to do.
I hope she manages it. The best version of Alex Zandra Van Chestein is absolutely an author I’d want to read.
And, hey, it’s self-illustrated! I’m not an Art Guy, but the anime-inspired illustrations all helped to solidify and ground the world in a way that the prose sometimes struggled to accomplish, and were a welcome addition. This lady has some chops.
Will this next entry in the list feature a surprise subplot with a polyamorous demon-cat?
Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse
“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”
Hmm. Fantasy races stripped of racism? As a middle-aged nerd who now holds some small degree of embarrassment at having been attracted to chicks cosplaying in Drow-face (oh, yes, sacrifice me to your dark spider god, baby), you may consider my interest piqued.