Cortex Command

I'm guessing that planet is pretty small, if I can see the elevation of a single peak and the outlines of individual trees...

Cortés 2099, by Data Realms, is a 2D shooter mixed with some strategic turn-based elements in which space mining companies fight for the control of precious resources, much like a 22nd century gold rush, if you will. We are greeted at the title screen by the only planet we will ever see and by a sci-fi score, nothing out of this world (haha, j0k3), but it suits the experience. The best way to describe Terminator Attacks! is by reading the reports of one of those mining companies, RAM OVERLOAD, which in 2072 decided it had had enough of this blogging bullshit and publicly stated “screw you, guys, I’m gonna go dig for gold on other planets.”

We're in a gold rush, but this gentleman can go first, because he is player 1.

We’re on a gold rush, but this gentleman can go first, because he is player 1.

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The moment we decided to land on one of the mining sites (those shiny dots on the planet’s surface, presumably because there’s so much gold there it can be seen from space), a rival company decided to do the exact same thing, on the exact same site. “Dem bastards!” we said, and lo, they now had a name.

They came, they saw, they opened a can of whoop-ass on us, they probably came multiple times later from all the gold they inhaled off the desert’s surface, and so RAM OVERLOAD had to admit defeat. This was, however, in the sands of the Burraki Desert, the shiny dot to the west. There was another place to the east, the Dvorak Caves, and that’s where we crossed paths again with Dem Bastards.

Flying dicks, fossilized turd-tentacles? I shall name thee Freudlandia.

Flying dicks? Fossilized turd-tentacles? I shall name thee Freudlandia.

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So, in Gold Huffing, humanity no longer inhabits their own bodies. Instead, it transplants its brain into a robotic body which can also control other robots telepathically. Only one robot can be controlled at a time, but they also have an AI able to follow simple commands… from your cerebral cortex. Get it? Get it?

Ahem, in a nutshell, if, during an expedition to a mining site, that little pink brain-in-a-vat-on-a-body gets blown to pieces, you’re done. You have a total of 10 available brains in a campaign, which for the purposes of this game we will ignore as belonging to human beings with a past, a life, probably a family, ambitions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, etc. They should have read the fine print.

As I was saying, we crossed paths with Dem Bastards in the Dvorak Caves, and this time our marksbots managed to shoot the enemy’s brains out (literally) before they did, which is in essence the whole point of the game.

The planet’s two mining sites were now evenly distributed between RAM OVERLOAD and Dem Bastards. Sounds nice, fair and square, right? Fuck them, I want EVERYTHING!

Well, shit.

Well, shit.

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We failed spectacularly at trying to take over their base, which had been fortified by now, since they distributed their funds between this and trying to take over the Dvorak Caves in the previous turn. Every turn you get a chance to distribute funds between expeditions, building (thank heavens for auto-build), and planetary surface scanning. I recommend you never overlook the latter, lest you fancy landing at the bottom of a cliff, or on a sharp peak. The AI doesn’t fuck around in Tripping At Every Pixel, so get ready for some serious resistance.

When it comes to invasions, however, I’m either pretty good at defending myself or the AI decides to enter retard mode. Dem Bastards decided to do the exact same thing and take the Dvorak Caves from RAM OVERLOAD, the result was humiliating (for them).

I keep seeing the red icons as big fat zeroes, and now you can't unsee it.

I keep seeing the red icons as big fat zeroes, and now you can’t unsee it.

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So, nothing chang- Oh but what’s that? A third mining site? Psyche! RAM OVERLOAD victoriously crushes the brain of its rival and claims the Metankora Highlands for itself. With double the income, we’re bound to take over their base easily.

Here I come to Rambo the shit out of you, bitc-

Here I come to Rambo the shit out of you, bitc-

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-ohhh... snap.

-ohhh… snap.

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Yes, it’s the same dune. Our adventurous brain-in-a-vat-in-a-body probably rolled down the dune more than it had time to walk. The obvious retaliation is easy to foresee, and the next five turns can be summed up with the following picture:

Except instead of cats it’s soulless corporations, instead of paddles it’s money, instead of ping pong balls it’s brains, instead of a table it’s a planet, instead of…

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They came to us, we blew them to pieces, we went to them, they blew us to pieces, repeat ad infinitum. Eventually, however, private 3V3RYM0M3N71L1V315460NY entered the stupidest backdoor ever built, took out all the guards in his/her/its way (except for Laurel and Hardy up there) and reached the enemy’s brain.

Headshot! Is there any other?

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The moral of this story is never nail your brain to the ceiling. Nothing good can come of that.

Now, you might be thinking “this looks like an awesome game!” You would be correct, in theory. There are little things that make this more frustrating than fun.

The most glaring issue was that every single fucking pixel of terrain can make you trip, block your path, or prevent your jetpacking up a shaft (which, by the way, only works at top speed if you have no guns… and no legs). And it’s not just the pixels, it’s the movement itself. The puppetry, the controls, the weight, etc. The kind of quick thinking that Hasta La Vista Brainy requires is definitely not compatible with very buggy movement and puppetry systems. “Oh but it’s not a bug! It’s a feature! Because the physics syst-” Screw the physics system. A game has to FLOW first and foremost. If your movement is being hampered to a bothersome degree of frustration, your physics/movement relation is weak. This isn’t QWOP. We’re supposed to be focusing on shooting, digging and defending bunkers, not on whether our robot is able to put one foot in front of the other.

Granted, the website clearly states that this is an alpha. It has been out as such for a long time. Movement, however, is a basic function that in my opinion should be tweaked before anything else. If the flow of the game does not improve, I’m afraid that despite all the neat features and ideas to be added, the final version will still feel like I’m trying to wrestle out of a quicksand pit every time I take a step forward.

4/10

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A Nation of Wind

Beanland.

Too easy a prey for fart puns.

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Some games are good mashups. Some aren’t. This one isn’t.

It’s not really about what genres are mixed, it’s more about how, and that’s where Flying Fartresses constantly misses the point.

The game begins after a very short ellipsis-obsessed intro that couldn’t be vaguer if it tried. Something something something clouds, something something something broken capital, something something something reunite people, and it’s as elucidating as it gets.

If you make a little effort, you can hear Christopher Walken narrating.

With a little effort, you can hear it in Christopher Walken’s voice.

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But we’re not here for the story. We don’t need it right away, it adds to the mystery. This is, after all, supposed to be an engaging experience of both strategic planning, city-building and action, right?

Wrong.

After a briefly informative tutorial, we appear as HMS Satan’s Bathtub amidst floating chunks of land, some as little moldy turds that can be pushed around for no apparent reason, others as big, solid, floating generic-RPG-overworld-meets-Minecraft continents. So solid, in fact, that a flying ship is unable to go over or below them. Go figure.

What is this "third dimension" you speak of? Heresy, I say!

What is this “third dimension” you speak of? Heresy, I say!

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In order to proceed through Flying Orange Penis,we’re supposed to take control of several obelisks by building temples to the four elements around them. Why? Dunno. But you can see right there a temple to Flatula, god of wind, gas, beans, and cheap lowbrow humor. So, why don’t we just build them temples and get on with it? Because we need resources. Farms supply food, forests wood, mountains stone, villages money, and all that jazz.

Seems straightforward. Plant a bunch of buildings, wait for their daily outcome, and… Hey, where’s my resources? And what are these balloons floating towards… Oh, I have to fly by the buildings to collect the resources? I see. Well, that would be interesting if the ship didn’t steer like a fucking walrus having a stroke on a skateboard. In addition to my having to go all the way around the islands because a vehicle capable of flight seems to have forgotten the notion of altitude, SS Poodle Dick’s controls are not only incredibly clunky, but the ship also takes ages to accelerate, assuming it hasn’t suddenly stopped because of a stray pixel. Correct me if I’m wrong, but even if there are movement upgrades along the way (I didn’t go very far, for fear of damaging my sanity), I don’t think “shitty controls at the beginning” is recommended anywhere as a game feature.

Why did I even get in here?

Why did I even get in here?

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It gets worse.

Where would a strategy game be without enemies? Random creatures of all kinds come through strange rifts, or whatever they’re called, along with some weird eggs we’re advised to take to safety and “hatch with food.” I’m sorry, I don’t feed food, thank you. If anything, I’d hatch them FOR food. At any rate, in the style of arcade shooters, we’re supposed to prevent these monsters from destroying our colonies, the defense capabilities of which are equal to jack shit. Ok, fine, there are turrets and walls, but that’s like expecting machine guns on top of the World Trade Center to have prevented 9/11. Most of the time, we need to roam around the entire map to check for attacks of various sorts, while hoping that our hard work hasn’t been pulverized by a dragon or eaten by giant ants. This is especially annoying at the beginning, when we might not be able to afford enough lighthouses to warn us of hostilities should we not be around a particular bit of floating ground.

This, however, is not the issue. The issue is directly connected to Titanic’s little brother, Tiny Tit, having awkward controls and being only one ship. Because when you have colonies sprawling all over a map, are thinking about how to optimize the output of your buildings, and counting the resources you need for expansion (a system which, by the way, could use some color coding for when you have enough or not), there is nothing better for your blood pressure than to be needed at three different places at the same time, having to decide which is both more important and more doomed at the moment, and having to fly there on a motherfucking manatee on drugs.

That’s exactly how it feels. It doesn’t feel like you’re commandeering a ship. It doesn’t feel like your empire is being attacked and you need a preemptive strategic thinking. It doesn’t feel like you’re amounting to anything. It feels like you’ve just heard a noise in the kitchen at 3 AM, you get up from the bed half-conscious and clumsily stumble down the stairs with a pair of scissors in your hands, hoping that when you trip, if you trip the right way, you’ll land on the burglar and stab him wherever.

It’s panic. Panic and an encouragement not to multitasking, but to ADHD, surrounded by a fluffy layer of boredom and frustrating controls.

Many ways to express your despair.

It does offer you many ways of expressing your despair.

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Also, the music, by Saskrotch, needs a lot more variety. A 2-minute loop that is repetitive in itself will drive anyone insane while playing what is supposed to have RTS elements.

My problem with Flight of the Cockords is that it constantly succeeds at frustrating any attempt at enjoying it. I just didn’t manage to go on for much longer. Maybe I’m a bad strategist. Maybe I’m acting like someone who can’t bear with a steep learning curve, but first consider that despite all of its hardships, I manage to enjoy Dwarf Fortress, for example. Granted, I used a graphics pack and didn’t go far yet, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t get addictive. This doesn’t. This gets tiresome. After completing one level, the last thing on my mind is to go over the same thing.

Yes, I know, it’s just Jameson Wilkins making the game. I am in no way demeaning the work put into this, which is also visually gorgeous (never have I been betrayed so strongly by such nice visuals), but rather the final result. I know there’s turrets you can tow to strategic places, for example. There’s ways of getting around some of the problems I mentioned. But why is the way there so confusing? Where’s the little pull, the kick out of it? Many games are even fun to lose, why isn’t this one? Because the base itself is flawed: Too sprawled a game, too clunky controls. With those two core aspects fixed, this can go from exasperating brainfuck to addictive masterpiece. Right now, it remains the former.

3/10

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SSTTP: Eufloria

Isn’t there a flower shop with that name?

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Three words: Space gardening.

I was hoping for a third one as well, but it just stopped there.

Euflopia is a real-time ambient strategy game by Alex May, Rudolf Kremers and Brian Grainger in which you send seeds to colonize asteroids and plant Dyson trees to get more seeds, as a reference to Freeman Dyson and his hypothesis that tree-like lifeforms could grow on comets. That’s where the reference ends, because what we actually get is seedships firing lasers at each other.

PEW PEW PEW

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This minimalistic and quasi-ovarian take on space pollination looked promising until I realized that it was just the same thing over and over again spread across 25 not-that-procedural levels with increasing difficulty, accompanied by a flimsy “diseased seed invaders” storyline, the moral of which is that plants are dicks. Maybe I’m not suitable for this sort of games, but I can say that I had more fun with other flash games similar to this.

The environment is calm, perhaps a bit bland, hardly eufloric, and Brian Grainger’s music suits it perfectly. The little jingle that plays when you order your seeds to orbit another asteroid, however, is maddening. At least include an auto-send command so I don’t have to keep dragging every single little shit that is born light years away from where I am instead of leaving the matters of common sense to the modders. It’s like Nintendo expecting ROM hackers to come up with Z-targeting for Ocarina of Time.

Also, the main menu includes an “Unlock features” button. One would assume it’s the typical fresh new game gallery of question marks over things you have to unlock yourself, but no! It’s a menu where you can lock and unlock features at will, and even access all levels of the game. Talk about encouraging laziness. At least it allowed me to cut to the chase and realize that the biggest unlockable is just the same game, slightly harder and with a cooler background on all the levels. Maybe the whole game should have looked like this in the first place.

ÜNTZ ÜNTZ ÜNTZ

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4/10

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Faster Than Light

Right, where was I?

There we go.

For The Lulz is a roguelike space travel and battle simulator by Subset Games. Now, before your brain archivist crams this amidst stuff like Eve, Evochron, Freelancer, Space Rangers, etc, look at the interface:

Surprise, motherfucker.

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Doesn’t look like your typical first-person dog-fighting simulator, now, does it?

This game’s focus is on managing your ship’s systems. Power management, weapon charging and timing, all that jazz. I only truly started puking rainbows when I realized you can control any door on the ship individually and extinguish fires by opening the airlocks. It’s tremendous fun, assuming you remember to lock your crew in oxygenated rooms elsewhere.

You start seven sectors away from your home sector, to which you must bring vital information about the rebel fleet that is chasing you on the way. The rebels are the bad guys for once! Violent, racist little rebels, they are. It is my firm belief that this is what Jehovah’s witnesses will become if we do not stop them now. Buy a sledgehammer today and do your part.

Anyway, meet Captain McBob and his two lovely assistants, Rama and Lama, which sadly cannot be customized to fit a slave Leia costume (I figured the sooner I get on Anita Sarkeesian‘s show, the more views I’ll get, so REDIRECT ALL POWER TO THE SEXISM DRIVE). I expect a patch to fix this very soon, Subset Games! Also larger pixelated boobs, preferably usable as an emergency oxygen supply.

So let’s see how Captain McBob and his two wenches fare in their odyssey.

Nebula, nebula, or nebula?

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Decisions, decisions. Let’s go with nebula. It’s a gut feeling, I’m telling you.

The kitchen’s on fire!

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One jump and the ship catches fire with a single shot from a shitty auto-scout. We’re off to a good start. I feel like during my first years of playing chess. The fun thing about combat in FTL is that you have this engaging real-time pressure telling you that every decision matters. For example, if I had told Rama to go give the Captain a blowjob, there wouldn’t be anyone left in the room to put out the fire. I’m so smart.

Oops.

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The battle is over and the crew collects fuel and scraps from the debris. Oh, Rama! McBob hadn’t professed his love for you yet! So young… so disposable. I guess She should have gone to the COCKPIT(!!) after all.

Oh well, Lama’s way better in the sack, anyway. But now it just sounds disturbing.

The other kitchen’s on fire!

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Straight to an asteroid field. The day keeps getting better and better. Luckily, Lady Gaga over there surrendered and I chose to accept a bribe for their lives, although it’s also lots of fun to terminate their shields and watch the asteroid field do its job. I chose to be kind, this time, mainly because my ship caught fire. Again.

If this keeps happening, I’ll eventually evolve to breathe fire.

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Really? Of all the empty room there is in space, we warp directly in the vicinity of a star? The radii of the danger zones around all the stars in the entire universe combined doesn’t add up to the volume of a frog’s pubic hair lost somewhere in Russia, and we manage to jump out of light speed here? The ship’s navigation drive must have been made by Apple. By this time I had entered Fuck It mode, and somehow managed to blow that genius to pieces and escape before my balls caught fire.

Because the first thing you do in direct range of a solar flare is fight with someone else.

Store. For space potatoes and shit.

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Like a first-rate coward, I ignore the distress signal and move straight to the exit of this sector. I mean, look how close the rebels are! I can’t put my whore crew at risk. Captain McBob is a responsible commander and didn’t get to that post because his daddy was a captain as well, and went to the same school as his daddy, and snorted buckets of coke, and knocked-up some cheerleader and needed an intergalactic excuse to dump her.

No sir.

More like… Fireland!

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Seriously, what’s up with this ship always catching on fire? After another battle right at the exit beacon, McBob lifts his ass for the first time. I bet he never noticed the rest of the ship was on fire. He then orders Lama to go make him a sandwich after she’s done scrubbing the floor.

It means welcome in Gangbangian.

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As soon as the ship reaches the new sector, it’s invaded by a barbershop quartet who promptly interrupt Lama mid-sandwich. They want a sandwich too. She says there isn’t enough jam for everyone. An intergalactic incident occurs. McBob’s humming the Star Wars theme and going “pew pew pew” at the window.

He’s a very sad man.

Damn it, Lama, I told you to knock!

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In an attempt to advise the visitors to leave, Lama opens all the doors and airlocks and runs for the COCKPIT (!!), where she and McBob lock eyes, perfectly aware of their incoming doom. Between sobs, she tells him she loves him, the violins come in, he tells her to turn against the wall, because there’s something he wants to try before he dies.

Lil’ Bobby died happy. That’s all that matters.

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The game is permadeath. So although you can save and quit, you can’t load to go back to a certain point, and when you’re dead, you’re dead. You start over.

After all this, do I feel like stopping? No. Not even after dying ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred times. That’s the beauty of Fuck The Lebels: Losing is half the fun. The fact that you can manage your systems and give orders to your crew with total freedom is what makes this thoroughly enjoyable. It definitely gives me the feel of being in charge of a ship, and it’s often quite fun to come up with strategies to beat specific foes or get out of sticky situations. Luck is always a factor, obviously, and McBob’s short-lived adventure was in easy mode! Granted, he was very unlucky. No other restart so far got this bad, and there’s no hard mode. I assume it’s because normal mode can get so hard that the only possible mode after that would imply having your ship spontaneously combust every five minutes.

If there’s any flaw in this, I’d say they could have made the backgrounds not look so blocky. I know the game’s aesthetic is pixelated, but frankly, the nebulae look like shit. Small thing to complain about, I know, but hey, as a CRITIC I’m an asshole by definition.

Along with all this, there’s achievements and unlockable ships with different alien races (with a second unlockable layout for each ship) to make the feeling of novelty take ages to go away, if it ever does, since the roguelike elements ensure that no game is the same. Also, most achievements make you feel like you had to work to get them, they don’t pop about all the time like in many other games where you get achievements for scratching your left nostril with your right hand.

The game’s modest soundtrack by Ben Prunty is well built to accommodate the necessary repetitiveness of the gameplay. It isn’t too stale or too invasive, it’s just right.

As a fan of persistent, evolving and long-lasting game sessions, it’s hard for a permadeath game to please me, but this definitely did it. Very well, in fact. This is another kind of persistence, and it works because the gameplay is simple enough to feel pleasurable without being a chore, and complex enough to keep you interested. It’s a delicate balance many games do not achieve. For 10 bucks, this is a miracle.

To give you an idea, I only got to the final boss once, in easy mode, and was promptly raped. So it’s a hard game. And by hard I mean hard. I mean so hard it rivals those long NES and Genesis games without save files (Link’s Adventure, I’m looking at you).

Either that, or I suck. Very likely.

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