Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon [Steam store page]
This one intrigued me because it looked like a story-driven game where you play as a spider roaming around a mystery-filled estate, spinning webs and eating bugs. And it sort of is, although the story isn't actually told to you through cutscenes or at a fast pace - you have to slowly discover details in the background and piece it together yourself.

I found this a little less engaging than it would have been with a more explicit story, especially since it's difficult to tell what details actually matter. It's almost more in the vein of an Augmented Reality Game, than a story-driven experience. It's a weird mix since the actual gameplay is pretty casual - spinning webs to catch certain types of insects, and jumping directly to eat others.

In fact I actually enjoyed this part - particularly the ones you can eat directly, since spinning webs can sometimes be a bit awkward. There was a good variety of enemies, some that even try to attack you, or the grasshoppers that you actually have to chase into your webs rather than just waiting for them to fly in on their own.

The game has seven explicit mysteries that you can unlock, although these don't reward you with a cutscene or anything. Each one requires you to find clues on other levels, and these will help you solve the puzzle. For these (unlike the overarching story) it actually does pop up a message when you find one, and saves it in your notebook.

Some of them do seem to require replaying the levels multiple times though, using different combinations of weather and time of day - there are four combinations for each level, and they don't really seem to change much besides the ambiance.

So overall I thought the gameplay was decent, but I was a bit disappointed by the lack of an explicit and well-paced story to accompany it and keep me engaged and coming back for more. I also didn't really see the appeal of playing the same level multiple times. For me it would have been better as a shorter and tightly refined experience, revolving around a cool story.

Synopsis:Decent mechanics but I would have preferred a more direct story, rather than having to infer it from the level environments.

Morphopolis [Steam store page]
This game has about an hour of content, maybe a bit less if you're really good at puzzles. The main hidden object part of the game is extremely rough though - because you don't even know what items you're looking for initially. You have to randomly click on suspicious looking plants or bugs, and hope that a bubble pops up, showing the item to collect.

This happens throughout multiple screens, and since moving your bug character around the predetermined paths is so slow and finicky, this can be a painful process. You can't collect "Bug 4" items from the first screen until you've actually discovered and clicked on "Bug 4" on the third screen. This obviously makes for a lot more backtracking than would be necessary if you just knew what you were looking for from the start.

It takes longer to navigate the bug around than it does to actually find most of the objects, and this ruins what could be a short but pleasant experience. There's also a variety of minigames interspersed throughout, each one triggered by turning in a full set of the hidden objects - and most of these are quick little puzzles and brain teasers. Unfortunately this decent gameplay and the relaxing art and music are ruined by the clunky interface.

Synopsis:Pretty but short (less than an hour), and the pathing is very rough - I think I spent more time moving around than collecting the hidden objects.

You're running a pharmaceutical company, sending out researchers to find new ingredients, refining and possibly combining those into different types of medications. Each step in the refining process has the potential to make the medication more valuable as well - but you have to decide if it's worth the effort to upgrade one of your current assembly lines, or if an entirely different drug combination would be more profitable.

This management game actually has a lot going for it - they have a nice balance of building, research, and puzzling - but a couple elements really frustrated me. One is the lack of a faster fast-forward, since many of the campaign levels have an "Expert" score where you want to build on pause and then let it run for a long time. This means 10-20 minutes at the end of the game just waiting for your score to get high enough, once you have an optimal layout. Give me a 10x speed - that type of waiting is unacceptable.

Second, all the campaign levels are based around a score, but the actual maps are random sizes and layouts. This means some generated maps will be significantly easier than others. I also found that even the biggest rooms often aren't large enough for dual assembly lines if you want to make a level 3 or 4 cure. It's frustrating when you spend an hour building a layout, just to get to the end and find you need a couple extra squares to fit your final machines. And without those machines, everything else you've done is useless.

Even though the puzzle element of oddly sized rooms is interesting, I think they could still do that with a building that you could make infinitely larger in any direction. It already expands in odd chunk sizes anyway.

I did find the loan aspect of the game a bit odd as well - because the game allows you to have a negative bank balance while still paying off your loans. So it's actually really effective to hire a bunch of researchers to make your materials and machines cheaper, and even though their payroll is hundreds or thousands in the red per week they never get fired.

This allows you to streamline your entire company without really costing anything, and if you stagger the loans correctly you'll usually have a bigger one available to pay off your debt and build more machines before being bankrupt again. In other words, the most efficient way to play the game seems to be always being constantly unprofitable. It's a weird mechanic that should probably be rebalanced.

Overall though I really enjoyed the building and research aspects of the game - they're strangely convoluted since the machines don't have standard inputs to line up nicely - but in the end this made it more interesting. At first I was frustrated at having to constantly play a tetris-like game of arranging my machines, but I realized afterward that it would be a bit more bland if you could just line everything up in a single row.

I do wish they let you put machines back to back though - right now you have to use one conveyor in between them, even if the exit and entrance to the next machine line up perfectly. That seems like a strange restriction. It could also use the ability to copy or move an entire layout of machines at once (much like Infinifactory) - to make it quicker to duplicate a working solution.

So if they fix a couple issues I think this game would be excellent - but right now I find it a bit frustrating when arbitrary restrictions block my complex machines. If you're just trying to win the challenges, and not get the "expert" award then it will be perfectly fine though - there's plenty of space for basic gameplay. Some of the harder ones just may not be possible with every random building.

Synopsis:Needs a faster fast forward, and has a few annoyances if you're trying to get Expert achievements - but the normal gameplay is fun and well designed.

This is a random-battle simulator where you fight other mechs using match-three combat. The story, style, and characters are pretty well done - and there are some encounters that don't require combat if you talk your way out of them, but these are few and far between. Each of the other encounters has a specific goal, like collecting a certain number of resources, destroying an enemy, or just surviving a certain number of turns.

There are plenty of match-three combat games, but this one avoids the common design flaws - it keeps your game board separate from the enemy's, and uses each color as a different resource rather than just using each match to deal damage. This makes it a bit more strategic - although it isn't a particularly difficult game once you learn the mechanics.

That was my main complaint, it gets a bit repetitive after an hour or two - gaining enough energy to defend yourself by raising shields, and then hammering away at your enemy's shield reactor using an FTL-style targeting system. The enemy AI isn't nearly as competent or powerful at targeting your important systems, so it's pretty easy to win up until the bosses. These have much more powerful weapons and shields than you do, and as far as I can tell it's only really viable to fight them with one specific mech type.

You unlock these mechs by leveling up over multiple games, and by the time I was consistently reaching the first (of two) bosses I still didn't have this best mech unlocked. You also get extra permanent perks as you level up, which makes you more powerful over time. I'm not a big fan of this style of progression, since winning is mostly dependent on time spent rather than your strategy. If you go into a boss fight with stats that are too low you just straight out can't win, since you can't disable his systems fast enough to survive.

The only random element that may sometimes get you killed is if you just can't get enough of a resource that you need on the board - usually coolant or ammo. Ammo is obviously used to damage the enemy, so if you can't get it you can't kill them - but the coolant is used for every type of action. So if you run out you can't even raise your shields or shoot without inflicting damage on yourself.

There are mods you can buy at the shop after each fight that modify how your weapons work and also give you extra special abilities, and some of these will fix this issue - giving you a free full bar of coolant every 6 turns, or maybe turning all of one specific type of resource on the board into a different specific type.

So overall it isn't a bad game, but I do wish the main gameplay was a bit more challenging - I enjoyed it at first but it didn't keep me engaged once I started wiping out all the enemies with impunity, and that didn't take more than a couple hours and a very basic strategy.

Synopsis:Better than a lot of match-three combat games, but a little bit too easy once you're used to the mechanics. Also requires leveling up to beat the game.

The gameplay in this one may remind you of Port Royale or Pirates. Up front I want to say I'm mostly analyzing this as a single-player experience, and the design feels much more geared toward co-op or multiplayer fun - you can take your ship from one game and join a completely different map. There's also an option to auto-level enemies so that your new map is still a challenge when using a higher-end ship.

Unlike Port Royale you only control one ship, but you can still trade, fight, and do quests that level up your towns. That said, the trading is much different and weaker than Port Royale 3 - you only have a few "cargo" slots on your ship - and these are occupied by one item of cargo, or one quest. (notice how in the next gif, each time I accept a quest it puts a passenger or cargo item in one of my 4 cargo slots - the rest of my inventory is only used for ship equipment)

This makes it impossible to do a lot of quests and trading at the same time, and trading really doesn't give you much money anyway. The quests are more lucrative and have a unique set of additional bonuses - like going to an extra town before reaching your destination - which should make them more interesting. But in the end they're mostly just take X to a location, whether X is people, cargo, or a mysterious letter.

There are a couple exceptions, like hunting down pirates or taking settlers to another zone to make a new town, but those are few and far between. The settlers are crucial if you want to conquer the whole map though, because there are dead zones between the factions with no towns to capture, and the game won't let you capture a zone unless you own an adjacent one. There is a setting that turns that restriction off in the game setup, and it's probably a good idea to use it unless you're playing some sort of competitive multiplayer. (or really want to put settlements in empty zones for some reason)

The one thing that makes capturing zones particularly hard is the way the game spawns AI ships, both friendly and enemies. They seem to spawn at a set pace, regardless of how many towns you have. Which means that if there are 7 towns in a zone, and you capture 6 of them, then the last town will be pumping out enemies at a rapid pace. Even with a decent ship I was running into situations where I'd kill one enemy near the town, and another would spawn in before I could reach it to start capturing.

Here's an example of two towns next together - while I'm trying to capture one the other next door is spawning ships constantly and blocking my capture. It spawned eleven in a row before I was finally able to capture the town.

That's one neat element - you can't capture towns if an enemy or guard tower is near it - they defend the town and have to be taken out first. I actually really like the combat in this game, it's simple but fluid - giving you around 5-7 different abilities to take down your enemies and keep yourself alive.

The only part that gets a little weird toward mid-game is the distinction between sails and health on your ship. Since I was using a civilization that has fast but fragile ships, it was pretty deadly when I could barely move after one or two special attacks. I wish they weren't destroyed quite as quickly, since it's a bit frustrating to have 90% health left and die because you can't turn your guns to face the enemy quickly enough. Sailing into a headwind also slows your ship down significantly more on higher difficulty levels.

I say this talking about normal mode though. If you raise the difficulty then the enemies tend to just sail around in a big clump of 6-8 ships and completely wreck anything they run into - including your allies. At this point taking over a map as a single player just becomes a game of cat and mouse - trying to capture and recapture towns faster than the AI until you eventually have all of them.

This was usually a slog until the last few towns, at which point I could pick off the respawning ships coming out of port - while the friendly AI threw themselves at the larger clump and eventually killed them off. Because of the weird spawn speed issue I mentioned earlier it's actually best to allow an ally to take over a town in the area. This way both you and your ally each spawn one ship for every pirate that spawns.

Overall though, I found the normal-difficulty combat much more engaging than other pirate type games - I just wish the questing was less repetitive and earned you gold much quicker. I was able to afford a small fighting ship quickly, but the mid-size ships are absurdly expensive and it took 5-7 hours before I could afford one - which is far too long to be a satisfying leveling experience. (I played for about 16 hours total)

Unfortunately you can't sell ships you've purchased, you're basically just unlocking that ship type, which means you have to start all over when you're collecting gold for the next biggest type. It made me skip several types just because I didn't want to waste two hours of gold collecting on a ship that was only marginally more powerful. This is a huge flaw and is the factor that really ruined the game for me. So unless you really just want to sail around with friends I'd give this one a pass.

Synopsis:Earning enough gold for a high-end ship type takes an incredibly long time. Good battles but the questing is bland and trading isn't designed well.

Vampires: Guide Them to Safety! [Steam store page]
The graphical style really put me off, so I didn't play this one long. It runs at 60fps, but the vampires are the only things that move that speed. Everything else is instant flip or in the case of the menus it simulates a much lower framerate - moving the objects once every 5 frames or so instead of at a smooth framerate.

I guess for precision speed it's good they're instant, but visually I find it distracting that it's teleporting the vampire around the puzzle piece as it rotates instantly. The puff of smoke as it rotates probably doesn't help, if they just flipped instantly with no obscuring effects it would probably be easier on the eyes. Just a weird combination of choices that felt offputting to me, but others might not mind it as much.

Synopsis:The graphical style really put me off - instant flipping tiles are obscured by smoke while your vampires are still running around at a rapid pace.

Squarecells [Steam store page]
Made by the same developer as Hexcells - and although I don't like it quite as much it's still a really solid puzzle game, and plays very similarly. If you aren't familiar with the genre, they're like Minesweeper turned into a legitimate puzzle game.

Obviously your board is made out of squares instead of hexagons, but the way the game hints at the contents of each row is fairly similar. One huge benefit is that it greys out the hints automatically as you satisfy the requirements for the row - and this feels like a much smoother experience. I never minded crossing out the hints on Hexcells rows, but I also didn't realize how satisfying it would be for it to be done automatically.

So while it isn't the exact same game, this will probably satisfy your itch if you're looking for a few more hours of carefully crafted Hexcells-type puzzles.

Synopsis:I like Hexcells better, but these mechanics are similarly satisfying and it's very nice that the row hints grey out automatically as you progress.

I was given a review copy for this one. It's a puzzle game that I find it hard to wrap my head around. The concept is simple - hexagons that you maneuver like a Rubik's cube - putting the colors back in their proper places after the computer has jumbled them all up. In theory that should be easy, but the art of skillfully swapping the last few pieces of each puzzle continues to elude me.

The game concept is solid though, the only complaint I have are the "three star" versions of each puzzle, which give you a time and number of moves to beat in order to get extra stars. These stars don't really do anything, they're just for your own gratification - but it isn't very gratifying because each jumble is random. On some of the simpler puzzles I would miss a star and go back to try again and get a much easier jumble that took literally half the amount of time or moves as the previous version.

Because of this I think the main puzzles should be pre-determined instead, with a carefully tuned time and move goal assigned to each one (like Hexcells for example). Obviously there could be a purely random mode for infinite play, but when there are timed puzzles I want my skill to win it - not an easy mix of the puzzle pieces. The normal sets don't have move or time limits though, so this minor complaint doesn't impact half of the maps.

Synopsis:The overall concept is a solid, I just wish the timed challenges were carefully tuned rather than random, it would make those ones more satisfying.

I've only played this game for a couple hours, and normally I like turn-based strategy games with a bit of randomness - but this one is definitely not for me. And when I say turn-based strategy, you only control one character for the entire game - this is more of a one-piece board game, not a squad or grand strategy genre.

Before we get more into the gameplay, I should mention that there are no graphics options to turn off things like SSAO unless you type commands into a console window - which seems pretty ridiculous to me. I guess it isn't a huge deal except for the rather terrible depth of field effects that they added for no particular reason - there should at least be an explicit option to turn that off.

Now gameplay wise this game has a lot of variations of strategies and win conditions, but they aren't really all viable in normal gameplay. Maybe once or twice to get an achievement - but you probably won't try to win a "Rot Victory" when playing with other people. In fact the Prestige victory is much easier than any of the other three options. To get it you merely have to earn the more prestige than anyone else by the time the king dies (roughly 18 turns into the game).

This is much easier than racking up enough health and attack to actually kill the king, or running around the board collecting four magic stones to cleanse him. Keep in mind you not only have to reach the stones before any other player, but there isn't one on the board all the time - they just randomly appear. So if other players are also collecting them, or actively trying to stop you from reaching them, then that victory becomes even more difficult.

The nice thing about cleansing the king is that you don't actually have to fight him, so your stats aren't a big deal, but you do still have to survive several obstacles in the castle. I tried to reach the king three times in a single game, and twice it killed me - with the king dying one move before my third attempt.

Part of this is because of the length of time it takes to move around the board, you typically only go three tiles per turn, which means that reaching destinations often takes 3 out of the 18 turns in the game. (my quests often spawned all the way on the other side of the board, very frustrating)

The second part is the castle itself - just entering it you have to face a peril, which most likely uses some of your cards since failing means you lose health and get kicked back out. Once you've won that challenge and are in the castle, you lose all your action points. This pretty much guarantees that you'll also get attacked by one or more guards before your next turn - probably losing health and potentially dying (especially if you're low on dice because you spent your time hunting down magic stones instead of building up your stats).

On top of this you also automatically lose 1HP each day in the castle, and there are occasionally random harmful events that only apply to those in the castle. For instance, one of my deaths was from a lightning strike cast by the king before my next turn. I guess the answer to most of these is just to stack health, but it seems a lot more difficult than just winning by default as the prestige leader. Breaching the castle successfully (for any of the other three win conditions) is much harder than just passively preventing other players from completing the game.

This is especially true with certain cards you draw, which allow you to inflict damage on other players without being anywhere near them (although certain cards do inflict more damage the closer you are). These cards, combined with the low amount of movement make the game feel a lot less engaging between the players - since you're not frequently getting into direct conflict with other people. Most of the fights you play out will be with AI hazards like guards and dragons.

My final small complaint is the combat itself. The dice have six sides, each with a different symbol. And they also scatter wildly around the board, tending to flop around a bit after they should have stopped rolling. This was pretty confusing and made it hard to read and get a quick idea of what had just happened in the battle, compared to other dice games. I think this is one thing the PC version of the Witcher Board Game does really well.

There are a lot of complications and randomizations that I haven't detailed here, from extra uses like "burning" the cards to how the "rot" mechanic works compared to normal health. But this should at least give you a general idea of why I feel like the game is far more flawed and far less engaging than it should be. I really wish the game mechanics were as polished as the visual style.

Synopsis:Pretty game, with atrocious depth-of-field effects and an unbalanced set of win conditions. The low movement speed seems to ruin multiple game aspects.

Dead Effect [Steam store page]
This game is kind of a mess of balance and timing issues that make it feel bland and sloppy. I'd highly recommend buying something like Killing Floor instead.

The slow bullet travel time makes it feel a bit like playing a multiplayer-FPS with laggy internet - the zombies can often move a few frames before your bullet reaches them. It takes 6 frames at 60 frames-per-second for the bullet to travel roughly 30 feet - which means it's only traveling about 300 ft/sec. A typical handgun is 3-4 times that fast.

Here's a comparison between Killing Floor and this game - note how the KF bullet hits immediately, but even the tracer is 50% faster than the DeadEffect projectile.

For me this made the game feel like the bullets were often missing when they should have been a hit, combined with the slow death animations for headshots. For example, if you shoot two bullets in a row the second bullet will hit around the same time the head explodes from the first shot.

I'm honestly not sure if the accuracy problem was even due to this bullet lag - it may be from bad hit box calculations. You can see how blood sprays from weird spots on this slightly tougher zombie as I shoot him multiple times.

On top of that the reloading is incredibly slow, as is the grenade throwing animation. This can be particularly deadly since grenades explode immediately on impact, regardless of distance tossed. So if you accidentally throw one at your own feet you'll just blow yourself up.

Synopsis:The aiming isn't particularly accurate, but the lag on the death animations for headshots is really what wastes a ton of ammo and ruins the experience.