(Mini) Game Review: Grapple Dog

I think that I have said this before, but sometimes, I put a review request in, just based on the title of a game alone. Grapple Dog, from developer Medallion Games and publisher Super Rare Games, is one of those instances. I honestly had no idea what the game was about. The option to put in a review request popped up in my emails and even before opening said email, just from the title alone, I knew I wanted to review this one. Then I saw the trailer and I was sold.

“Jump, Swing and Zip your way through colourful worlds and exciting challenges in this unique 2D action-platformer! Master the power of the Grapple on your adventure to save the world!”

I never had a Sega Master System growing up, I was a Commodore 64 kid. Still, I had a school friend who owned a Master System and I did get to play on it regularly. Oh man, I spent hours playing platformers like Psycho Fox, Land of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and of course, the Alex Kidd games. That is what the trailer for Grapple Dog put me in mind of, classic Master System platformers.

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The story is that you (Pablo the dog) has to find five mystic relics to stop a big bad from destroying the world. The plot is very typical 80s platformer fare, all that is missing is a kidnapped princess. During the intro/tutorial for Grapple Dog, you get given… wait for it… a grappling hook. Now armed with said grappling hook, you set off swinging to save the world.

What you get here are six worlds and thirty-three levels of platforming action. Levels are semi-explorable and often have a few hidden secrets to find. The main aim is to nab some (or all) of five gems that are on each of the levels. The more gems you have, the more levels open up on the map. Each world is themed and split into multiple levels and each world ends with a boss battle. It is all very typical, very 1988-like which is not a bad thing at all. Visually wise, Grapple Dog is a real treat for the eyes. Bright and colourful graphics with some nice animations and background details help add to the fun.

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The levels are wonderfully crafted and designed with plenty of opportunity for you to use that grappling hook. This is great because using the hook and swinging through the levels is an absolute joy. There’s some great variation between levels too, to keep you on your toes. Basic swinging over gaps and between platforms is a given, but you’ll also be using it to defeat enemies and even some of the more trickier platforming aspects. It all feels really satisfying too with simple and basic mechanics (jump, wall run/climb, stomp, swim and swing) that just work really damn well. Brilliantly and clearly designed levels that leave you to explore and find secrets, but never feel too big or confusing. You’ll know where you need to go and what you need to do to keep moving forward, even if you do choose to leave the more obvious route through.

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The difficulty curve is just perfect too. Starting out with simple and basic platforming, while using that grappling hook. The levels steadily increase in difficulty and start throwing more and more for you to deal with. When you are swinging across an insta-death pit of spikes, dodging fireballs and landing on moving platforms to get to the other side, there’s a real sense of accomplishment. The best thing is that you’ll not even notice how tricky the game gets later because by then, your platforming skills have been finely tuned by the steady difficulty curve.

There are plenty of generous checkpoints to restart from that really help with some of the more difficult areas of the levels. You’ll never feel frustrated, even when you fail. Grapple Dog also offers up a load of accessibility options. I’m a big fan of good accessibility options because it does open up the game to those who may struggle with certain elements. Effectively, you can make the game as easy or as tricky as you want. Grapple Dog can get a bit difficult later on, but never unfair. Topped off with boss fights that are fun and will often have you revisiting moments from your when childhood playing similar titles.

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£12 is how much Grapple Dog is going to cost you. I adore this game. It’s a loving homage to classic platformers with wonderfully cheery and colourful graphics, some great level design and tip-top gameplay. That £12 price tag is worth every penny. If I had to pick a niggle or two. I would have preferred a dedicated run button. Instead, Pablo starts out with a steady jog and after heading in one direction for a second or three, he then runs. But there are times when you just need to run and a dedicated run button would’ve helped. Then, the falling controls feel a bit too ‘light’. I love everything about the controls here as they are responsive and tight… except for the falling. Pablo just becomes a bit too fiddly to control when he’s coming down from a jump or falling from height.

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Still, niggles aside, Grapple Dog is a cracking platformer. Charming, crammed with character and gameplay, secrets and bonuses. A fair challenge, a not too original story but one with a great sense of humour. Oh, and you can pet the dog too.

(Mini) Game Review: Vampire Survivors

I just love it when an indie game comes from nowhere and slaps me in the face with how good it is. From developer/publisher Poncle comes, quite simply, the most addictive and playable game that I have enjoyed for a long, long time. Vampire Survivors is both bare basic and simple and yet, unbelievably varied and deep too.

“Mow down thousands of night creatures and survive until dawn! Vampire Survivors is a gothic horror casual game with rogue-lite elements, where your choices can allow you to quickly snowball against the hundreds of monsters that get thrown at you.”

The first time I played Vampire Survivors, I did have a WTF moment. I loaded up and started the game. It looked good, a nice retro 16-bit aesthetic that put me in mind of a SNES/Castlevania-type of title. I honestly didn’t know what to expect as I had managed to avoid any and everything to do with this game. Just from the opening few seconds, I thought I was playing some kind of retro RPG. It soon became clear that was not the case, it was more like a twin-stick shooter… without the twin-sticks. I was pressing all the buttons on my pad to see what they did… nothing. All I could do was move my character around as the game auto-fired for me.

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I lasted about 1 minute before dying and really thought that it was shit. I couldn’t do anything other than move around as the game did most of the work with little input from me. The gameplay was light, too light but I wanted to understand the point. So, I started again. I got to grips with the bare minimal controls and lasted a bit longer. I unlocked some single-run weapons and I managed to nab some gold to buy early permanent upgrades and new characters. That was when it hit me, I’m playing a rouge-lite, and I do love a good rogue-lite. Once that snapped in my head, I understood the point.

The aim is to survive against increasing numbers of stronger and stronger enemies. Pick your weapons carefully and experiment with different load-outs. Save up gold to buy permanent upgrades to help you last longer and longer. The premise and concept are simple, the controls even more so. You don’t aim, you don’t shoot, the game does that for you. There are no buttons to press (outside of the menu and weapon selections) and the entire game is fully controlled with the left stick alone. You can play this one-handed, or one-thumbed, to be more accurate.

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The more I played Vampire Survivors, the more I learned. I got to grips with picking out the right weapons and upgrades to use. My efforts at surviving began to last longer, I was hooked. With each successive run, I would last a bit longer, I would learn and adapt to what the game threw at me. The once tough enemies became slightly less tough. Then, I unlocked a new level, new weapons, more upgrades and the game loop sucked me in. What’s this, I found a map. Hidden items appeared on the map for the levels. What are those mysterious ‘?’ symbols? I had to find out. Coffins surrounded by loads of monsters, I died (again). I wanted to know what the coffin was, I restarted and chose different weapons and upgrades. Wait, you can power-up weapons and evolve them? Get two specific weapons maxed out and you can combine them into a new all-powerful weapon. The game just kept opening up more and more. I began to last longer on the maps.

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Then, I hit the 30-minute countdown (or up) and boom… Death himself darted onto the screen and destroyed me in a second. I didn’t even know what had happened at first. One second I was alive and dealing out some pretty impressive damage to hundreds of enemies via my powered-up weapons. The next second, I was dead. All of that power that I thought I had was nothing. What the fuck! Death, literal Death killed me. Can I beat him? I needed to know, I needed to experiment more with the characters I had unlocked with their varying strengths and weaknesses. I needed to experiment with different weapon load-outs and upgrades. I needed to kill Death.

Look, long story short, I put Vampire Survivors on for an hour just to see what it was like and 5 hours later, it was 2am and I was still playing. I first loaded the game up on Thursday last week, it is now Monday night as I write this and I’ve played nothing else since. I can’t stop playing this game. There is so much to this title that I’m still unlocking stuff or finding new ways to play. Just today, after 5 days of playing… I managed to kill Death! There’s still more for me to do too. There are modifiers that you can unlock that change how you can play the game, secrets to find and more.

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Priced at just £4, Vampire Survivors is the most generous game that I have played this year. It could even be the best game I have played this year. A horde-bullet-hell game where you are the hell spitting out the bullets against the ever-increasing horde. You start out mild and meek and will die a lot, you can become all-powerful and even kill Death himself. Even though this is available on Game Pass, I love this game so much that bought it on Xbox and Steam. In short, Vampire Survivors is gaming crack and the best £4 you’ll spend this year. Currently available on PC and Xbox only, this needs to be on all platforms as everyone should play Vampire Survivors.

(Mini) Game Review: Godlike Burger

Earlier this year, I played and reviewed the rather macabre cooking-business game Ravenous Devils. A Sweeny Todd-inspired, kill people, cook them and serve them to customers type of game. Now, I’m reviewing Godlike Burger from developer Liquid Pug and publisher Daedalic Entertainment. Guess what? Yup, it’s another game about killing and cooking your customers. Only with a less-human angle.

“Godlike Burger puts you in the shoes of a maniac chef who makes the best burgers in the universe. The secret ingredient? The customers themselves! Run the restaurant, cook delicious burgers and kill lots of aliens. But be careful – leave no witnesses uncooked!”

Set in space, you run a burger joint where you serve tasty burgers to customers, before killing the very same customers to use them as the main ingredient to your tasty burgers, to sell to more customers. And the cycle repeats. Think something like Overcooked, but with a big emphasis on murder. You wait for a customer to come into your restaurant and order some food. Grab the indigents from the fridge, cook them up and then construct the burger to the customer’s requirements. Do they want cheese, tomato, etc?

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However, you’ll need to dispatch your customers in order to keep your food supplies stocked. Now, killing folk in front of your customers would be a bad idea. Customers can and will fight back, or run away and call the police. If the police get involved, that’s a bad thing. You can travel to different planets to sell your burgers and each planet has a different race of aliens with different requirements. Moving to a new planet can also help you dodge those police if things get a bit too heated.

Throw in a load of upgrades for your restaurant’s kitchen, the ability to build traps to kill your customers and so on. There’s even a bit of a rogue-lite element as if you lose, you’ll have to start from the beginning of the game. However, you’ll keep any unlocked upgrades and (hopefully) learn something from your last run. Really, there are two sides to the business to manage here, the making and serving of the burgers and the secretly killing of the customers while trying to stay one step ahead of the police.

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Available now for PC and all the consoles, with an £18 price tag. Personally, I felt that Godlike Burger was a bit too ‘busy’ for a game of its type. Plus, I was playing this on the Xbox with a controller and everything just felt really awkward. I’m sure this plays far better on a PC with mouse controls. There is just too much to keep your eye on and the UI is way too small, something that is often an issue when porting a game from PC to consoles. This makes reading what the customer wants pretty difficult at times, leading to mistakes that aren’t really your fault. You can only hold one burger bun at a time, so when you are preparing multiple orders, it really slows the pace down. Bearing in mind that you are always against the clock here too. This single burger bun thing is particularly strange because you can hold multiples of every other ingredient.

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Overall, Godlike Burger is a great idea but with some poor design choices that hamper your enjoyment. Awkward controls, an unfriendly UI and it all just feels way too fiddly. Still, outside of those niggles, there is a good game here, it just needed a little bit of streamlining and some of the creases ironing out.

Game Review: Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed

This is a slightly late Halloween game review. I did want to cover this game for Halloween, but I got my review code a bit too late. Developed and published by IllFonic, Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed (to the surprise of nobody) is a game based on the Ghostbusters film franchise. But, of course, one always has to ask the big question when it comes to busting ghosts, does it make you feel good?

“Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed is a fun, multiplayer game perfect for all skill levels. Four proton pack wielding Ghostbusters attempt to catch a Ghost haunting unique locations in asymmetrical multiplayer battles (online or offline). As players progress, they will unlock cosmetics and upgrades for both Ghostbusters and Ghosts to evolve their gameplay experiences.”

Before I do get into the nitty-gritty of this one. My original plan was to do a co-op review with my pal Badger over at Stoffel Presents. Especially as Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed features co-op cross-platform play. I really wanted to try out how well it worked. Alas, that plan didn’t come to fruition as I had some connectivity issues. First, I had to link my Xbox account with an Epic Games one. I did, got a confirmation email and everything was fine, my accounts were linked and the Epic Games site told me as much too. So, I was set to indulge in some co-op cross-platform ghostbusting action. However, when it came to linking my account in the game itself… not so good.

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When I did try linking my account in-game to Epic’s online service, I just got the above screen asking me, very politely, to ‘please wait’. So I did, I ‘please waited’ for about five minutes or so and nothing. I decided that I would ‘please wait’ some more, just in case. Anyway, 20-odd minutes later, the game was still asking me to ‘please wait’. I hard reset my Xbox, double-checked that my account was linked via the Epic Games website and tried connecting again, I got the same thing. I eventually got annoyed and gave up. The game just would not link to Epic’s (not so epic) online service and let me play cross-platform. Ergo, my idea of doing a co-op cross-platform review ended in failure.

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Anyway, with that explanation out of the way, allow me to tell you what Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed is all about. Taking place directly where the after-credits scene of Ghostbusters: Afterlife ended, with Winston Zeddemore returning the iconic Ecto-1 to the equally iconic firehouse HQ and possibly setting up a sequel. Well, this is that sequel… kind of. I say ‘kind of’ because we all know that a proper film sequel is on the way, codenamed Firehouse, the film is set to be released in December next year. This game is a ‘what if’ scenario that works as a sequel to Ghostbusters: Afterlife but most definitely will not be part of the narrative of the next film.

Spirits Unleashed is one of those 4 vs 1, asymmetrical multiplayer titles. You know, the likes of this year’s Evil Dead: The Game, Dead by Daylight or yeah, even IllFonic’s own (and ultimately doomed) Friday the 13th: The Game. Four people team up to take out the single enemy. In this case, that is four Ghostbusters vs a ghost. Playing a the ghost, you have to try to haunt the map before the Ghostbusters catch you. You can possess items and furniture, scare NPCs and even slime the GBs themselves. If you can haunt the map to 100% before being caught, then you win.

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Of course, any Ghostbusters fan wants to play as one of the GBs and not a ghost. Here, the gameplay has you chasing and catching ghosts, closing rifts and such. Really, in terms of the gameplay mechanics, Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. This is a very typical 4 vs 1, asymmetrical multiplayer game with little to draw you in. There’s an unlockable upgrade system where the more you use your ghostbusting equipment, you’ll unlock new add-ons. Level up and unlock new cosmetics for your customisable GB character.

You get five maps to play on and none of them are from anything movie related. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it does show that there is a world outside of the films. But you just know that the devs will be releasing DLC further down the line with more movie-centric maps. There’s only one gameplay mode too, catching the ghost or avoiding being caught when playing as the ghost. There really is not a great deal of game here. Mind you, I’m not really sure what else you can do with a multi-player Ghostbusters game.

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IllFonic has done a fantastic job of bringing the Ghostbusters lore and franchise to the game. There’s fan service everywhere. Nods and references littered throughout the game and it even has Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson reprising their classic characters. Just walking around the HQ, you get a great sense of being a ghostbuster and sliding down the fireman pole is never going to get tiresome. Plus, you can collect a variety of spores moulds and fungus found around the maps, Egon would be proud. But, the game itself is just very, very ‘meh’. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just kind of exists and never does anything to separate itself from the slew of other 4 vs 1, asymmetrical titles on the market. Well, there is one thing that it does differently.

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Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed has an actual story to follow. You know, like a singleplayer driven game, only in a multiplayer game. The downside is that to advance the story, you just have to keep replaying the same five maps and doing the same thing over and over and over again. You can even play the game in single-player and have the rest of the GBs controlled by AI… really, really stupid AI. Honestly, it all get’s tedious very quickly as there is zero variation. The graphics look low-quality and ‘plastic’, especially on the character models. But sound-wise, the game (no pun) hits all the right notes. The Ghostbusters theme, the incidental spooky music and the sound of the proton packs firing up. It’s all very satisfying to the ears of any Ghostbusters fan.

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Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed comes in at around £34 and that is a bit too expensive for me. Really, this feels like something that would be thrown into a bigger and more interesting game as a bonus and not a standalone title. Just going back to the original release of Ghostbusters: The Video Game from 2009. You had a solid single-player story to play through and it came with a multi-player mode as an extra. That is what this game feels like, a bonus that should be part of a bigger game. I can’t recommend this one, but I can’t really damn it either. It’s just okay and lacks any real depth of variation. You’ll soon get bored of those five (fairly small) maps. Does busting make you feel good? Not really, more a case that it makes you feel a bit indifferent. Perhaps waiting to see if you can grab it in a sale in a couple of months would be best?

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The search for a truly great Ghostbusters game continues as nobody has got it right yet. And yes, I am including Ghostbusters: The Video Game in that too. It was good, but samey. Do you know what a really great Ghostbusters game needs? A business-sim angle. That was what the original film was about, setting up a new business. The original game from 1984 understood this had some light business management mixed in with all of the busting of ghosts, it was just limited by the technology of the day. Imagine a new Ghostbusters game where you did have to worry about profit and loss, spending money on R&D, etc. Think of Bullfrog’s classic Syndicate but with Ghostbusters and with you managing a global Ghostbusters corporation while busting ghosts.

(Mini) Game Review: Warhammer 40,000: Shootas, Blood & Teef

Okay, that’s an awesome name for a game. Warhammer 40,000 is a massive franchise… and I have no idea what it’s about. I do know that it started out as a tabletop game and that is it hugely popular and that it has spilt over into various forms of media. Warhammer 40,000 is gargantuan and a franchise that I have zero knowledge of. So then, Warhammer 40000 Shootas Blood & Teef from developer and publisher Rogueside seems the perfect game for me to review.

“Warhammer 40,000: Shootas, Blood & Teef is a hand-drawn 2D action adventure taking you on a wild ride of dakka, gore and explosions! Krump your way through the hive city of Luteus Prime; battle Humans, Orks and Genestealer cultists; and ultimately retrieve your luscious hair squig from the hands of the Warboss Gutrekka!”

Honestly, I put a review request in from the trailer alone (and the awesome title, of course). It looked utterly insane. I got big Metal Slug vibes from it, side-scrolling, OTT, shoot ’em-up action with a good sense of humour. Plus, the title of the game is amazing. The story of Warhammer 40,000: Shootas, Blood & Teef is… does it matter? You’re not playing a game like this for its plot and intricate story-telling, are you? You want guns, lots of them and loads of enemies to slaughter. So, let’s not be coy here, fuck the story and let’s crack on with how the game plays.

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Shootas, Blood & Teef is, from start to finish, non-stop action. A side-scrolling shooter with some platforming thrown in for good measure. Mix in buckets of blood and a good sense of humour and you have a stupid but very fun title. Playing as one of several selectable orks, you set out on a mission to (I think) retrieve a stolen hair squig (something to do with the Warhammer franchise and lore). Honestly, I have no idea what the plot is because I really paid little attention to it. I was too busy laughing as I mowed down hordes of humans (and the occasional ork), while using a variety of weapons.

Shootas, Blood & Teef is stupid and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. A twin-stick shooter with a very 90s feel. Imagine if Doom had been made as a side-scrolling platform-shooter and that is what you get here. Make your way through numerous levels and find in-game cash to buy new weapons at the shop. Arm yourself to the teeth, or teef, kill enemies and big bastard bosses. Simple and basic stuff, immensely satisfying and ridiculously OTT. Throw in a four-player co-op mode and enjoy the carnage with three friends.

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Warhammer 40,000: Shootas, Blood & Teef is priced at around £17 and available on PC, Switch and Xbox right now. The PlayStation version is released on the 2nd of December. I don’t think this will get me into the Warhammer 40,000 franchise that I know nothing about. Still, it doesn’t need to. Even more importantly, you the player doesn’t need to know anything about it either. All you need is an urge to play a stupidly OTT game crammed with blood and humour. Look, this is from the same devs that made the Guns, Gore & Cannoli games. ‘Nuff said.