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CandidWillow

I'm a 26-year-old engineer from England with a fondness for visual novels, puzzle games, and a good mystery! My favourite platform is the Nintendo Switch, but I'll happily play on anything I can use a controller with. You can find me on Twitter at @CandidWillow

Embracelet Review (PC)

  • Genre: Adventure, Indie
  • Platforms: Steam, Nintendo Switch
  • Developer | Publisher: Mattis Folkestad | machineboy
  • Age Rating: PEGI 12 | ESRB T (Teen)
  • Price: UK £10.29 | US $12.99
  • Release Date: 24th September 2020

Mattis Folkestad (who we interviewed back in August 2020) was kind enough to supply us with a review code, but all opinions contained within this review are my own.

Story/Characters

Embracelet follows the coming-of-age story of Jesper, a lonely and moody teenage boy who lives in the city with his mother. He’s friendless and lacking direction, at least until his grandfather gives him a task: travel to Slepp, grandfather’s Norwegian home, and return this mystical bracelet to it’s rightful owner. Yep, good old Grandpa has a magical bracelet that can move objects. After some back-and-forth with his mother, Jesper finally hops on a boat and heads due North.

New friends and misadventures await Jesper on Slepp. Each villager has a distinct personality, all affected in some way by the decline of the small fishing village. You don’t tend to interact with the other villagers much, with the exception of Karoline and Hermod, the only other teenagers on the island. 

I found Embracelet’s story interesting, however, it was one of those games that I wasn’t eager to keep picking up, but was really fun once I got going again. There’s a lot to learn on Slepp, though sometimes I was forced to take actions that I didn’t agree with! Jesper, Karoline, and Hermod are all at that awkward age where they disagree with the world, but have no power to change anything. While they were relatable, I think I am possibly a little too mature to really connect with the characters in the way that was intended.

Don’t get me wrong, I spent a lot of time smiling and occasionally laughing at their antics, and seeing the relationships develop was fun. However, I did find myself getting annoyed with the typical teenage immaturity at times.

Gameplay

Embracelet played nicely both with keyboard/mouse and with a gamepad, though I confess I preferred using the gamepad. The majority of Embracelet is running around talking to people, and occasionally interacting with items to use the bracelet, so being able to sit back in the chair while I played was nice. There are a few scenarios in which you feel like you have to rush, but the majority of the game is nice and laid-back with no sense of urgency.

Unfortunately, despite the controls being very relaxed, I do have a couple of gripes. Controlling Jesper felt like a chore – every movement felt sluggish and clunky, like I was trying to drive a tank. Also, I understand the reasoning behind the limited camera angles and movement, but having to run in an awkward circle to turn my view was annoying. During one scene, it took me ages to find the object I was supposed to interact with purely because spinning the camera was so fiddly.

Graphics, Sound, and Performance

Embracelet embraced (there’s a tongue-twister for you!) the polygonal and bright aesthetic with open arms. I loved the fact that everything looked like it could have been a piece of very advanced origami, which lent an almost whimsical tone to the design. The basic nature of the scenery was refreshing, too – I was never having to peer closely at the screen just to find something.

The sound design is absolutely on point. Light-hearted at times, dramatic at others, the basic nature of the world is steered towards different moods based on the music. There aren’t any complicated or overwhelming tracks, in fact they’re quite simple, but they provide a perfect accompaniment to Jesper’s journey.

Conclusion

Embracelet is possibly a little pricey, considering it only took me about 5 hours to finish and the drive to launch it isn’t particularly strong. However, once you get into it there’s a good amount of fun to be had, with some very emotional sequences that made me smile with a feeling of self-indulgency. Beautiful graphics and even more beautiful sounds make wandering the paths of Slepp a truly enjoyable experience, barring the few gameplay irritants.

Verdict
While not a perfect game, Embracelet is nonetheless an enjoyable coming-of-age diversion.

When the Past Was Around Review (PC)

  • Genre: Adventure, Casual, Indie
  • Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, XB1, PC
  • Developer | Publisher: Mojiken Studio | Toge Productions
  • Age Rating: PEGI 3 | ESRB E (Everyone)
  • Price: UK £5.79 | US $7.99
  • Release Date: 22/09/2020

Many thanks to Toge Productions for the review code!

I get easily emotional, so I tend to avoid games that I know are going to make me cry. However, When the Past Was Around has such a deep and soul-touching premise that I just had to give it a go. Warning – emotional times inbound!

Story/Characters

When the Past Was Around follows Eda through a meandering series of memories, starting with losing her passion in her early twenties. She soon meets a wonderful man, Owl, whose kindness and love can help her find herself again. I don’t want to delve any further, as spoiler-free is definitely the best way to experience this beautiful tale. I do recommend keeping the tissues handy though – Eda’s journey is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, and those tears tend to sneak up on you.

Gameplay

Ah, point-and-click. Such a classic mechanic, and yet, so well implemented. As each memory consists of a series of mini puzzles, the controls work perfectly to keep overthought to a minimum and allow you to simply enjoy the experience without arguing with the mechanics. Once collected, items sit in an inventory bar at the bottom of the screen, and using them is as simple as dragging them on to the appropriate object.

Graphics, Sound, and Performance

When the Past Was Around has an absolutely beautiful hand-drawn style that lends itself well to the evocative nature of the story. Every scene is beautifully designed, with a subdued colour scheme that serves to highlight the emotional nature of the game. The transition between pleasant memory and sad memory creates a huge contrast in a scene, and makes me excited to see more of Brigitta Rena’s work.

The sound design is, in a word, mesmerising. With the exception of the menu button, the volume of which can thankfully be turned down, every sound is so soft and delicate that it simply carries you along. There’s true emotion laden in every note of the soundtrack, and trust me when I say you’ll want headphones on for it.

Difficulty

I’ve come across my fair share of illogical and infuriatingly obscure point-and-click adventures, but am glad to say that When the Past Was Around is relaxingly simple. As long as you’re paying attention and using some small measure of logic, nothing should stump you for too long – for example, finding a knife in a room full of taped boxes would generally suggest using said knife to open the boxes up. There are situations where an item will be found but not used until later, or even only found on revisiting the previous location, but these make sense as you encounter them.

Unlike in some point-and-click games, interactable items aren’t drawn differently. They appear exactly the same as everything else in the environment, but still managed to catch my attention easily. If you’re really struggling, there is a hint button that highlights interactables, but I didn’t find it necessary.

Conclusion

When the Past Was Around is a showstopper in it’s genre. Balancing joy and sorrow, overlaid with the haze of nostalgia and the clarity of growth, it’s a journey told in subtlety and delicacy. Granted, it’s probably too subtle to appeal to younger players, but it feels more aimed at young adults through to older generations. I was left light-hearted but teary by the end of the short experience, and felt a whole new appreciation for the wonderful things in my own life. You never know when you’ll lose something, after all, and should make the most of it while you can.

Verdict
The perfect way to fill an afternoon, I’d recommend this soft and heart-stroking experience to anyone and everyone.

Vera Blanc: Full Moon Review (Nintendo Switch)

  • Genre: Adventure, RPG, Simulation
  • Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, Playstation, PC, Android, iOS
  • Developer | Publisher: Winter Wolves Games | Ratalaika Games
  • Age Rating: PEGI 12 | ESRB T (Teen)
  • Price: UK £4.99 | US $4.99
  • Release Date: 13th November 2020

Review code used, with many thanks to Ratalaika Games!

Vera Blanc is a series of interactive comic books with paranormal themes. Full Moon is the first of the series to make the leap to Switch – has it whet the appetite for the (hopefully) others to follow?

Story/Characters

Vera Blanc is a rich girl with a secret – she can read minds! And yes, that is as cool of a mechanic as it sounds. She started out as a very clever, but very unfortunate young woman; a brain tumour put an end date on her short life. After a ground-breaking surgery – that I’m not entirely sure was legal, but I suppose money opens all kinds of doors – she found herself with this new ability. Instead of using it to get ahead in business, or take advantage of others, she decided to try and help people.

Cue Brandon Mackey, an experienced FBI-agent-turned-PI with a vested interest in less-than-ordinary cases. Rumours of a lupine serial killer lure the pair to a quaint town in rural Germany, where everyone seems to have a secret. Is the mysterious bombshell, Ava, more than she appears? Or could the short-tempered Mayor be behind the suspicious goings-on? In a paranormal-hued adventure where death is waiting around every corner, can you solve the mystery of the werewolf?

Vera Blanc: Full Moon was a bit of a strange one for me, story-wise. It reads like an epic adventure but plays as more of a B-movie thriller that somehow manages to be excessively corny and predictable, yet simultaneously amusing. Think along the lines of its-so-bad-its-good. I personally loved the story, finding it almost addictive and easy to consume in a single sitting. The characters were full of personality, and there was plenty of humour to be found in the somewhat serious adventure.

Gameplay

Vera Blanc is an interactive comic book, and a great way to spend an hour or so with a cup of coffee. Pressing A will advance the scenario, or there’s even an Auto button so you only need hands on the controller for making a choice or playing a minigame. These are the two progression mechanics. 

Sometimes, you’ll be presented with a number of options and only be able to perform one, or make a number of choices. This may take the form of investigational options, such as examining different aspects of a scene, conversational options such as which questions to ask, or action options like hitting an opponent or running away. Depending on the scenario, this can result in a death situation, so save often!

Minigames consist of either spot the difference, remembering numerical sequences, hangman, or finding pairs of numbers. These are sometimes timed, and failing the minigame will result in a failure of the task e.g. if you lose too many lives during a mind-reading session, you’ll fail to decipher the message and lose the opportunity to attempt anything else. Again, failure can also result in death, so keep those saves up to date.

There are 2 final endings, and a variety of ways to die, so some replayability is available although there’s no way to track which endings have been achieved.

Graphics, Sound, and Performance

The old-school comic book art style gives Vera Blanc a lot of charm. I suspect the game would feel disappointingly corny and lacking in substance if designed differently, but the graphic design really pulls it together into an oddly nostalgic experience. If this were an actual comic book, I’d be buying it in a heartbeat.

The punchy 90s soundtrack keeps the nostalgic theme going, and had me bopping my head with a silly smile on my face more often than not. It switches up dependant on the scenario, meaning that the somewhat repetitive tune changes before it gets annoying.

There were no noticeable performance issues in either docked or handheld mode, though I wouldn’t have expected any considering the static nature of the comic strips. Also, although the text size was a little small in handheld, certain minigames were much easier – I accidentally quit out of a timed pairing game multiple times because I moved the control stick a fraction too far.

Conclusion

Vera Blanc: Full Moon is a relatively short game that’s full of cheesy character. Despite the charming art style, amusing characters, and perky music, I suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Breaking up a thriller comic story with kooky minigames sounds like a bizarre idea on paper that should ruin the entire vibe of the game, but it somehow works in this fun little interactive comic.

Verdict
A quirky experience that shouldn’t work on paper, but has me eagerly anticipating a sequel.

Even The Ocean Is Coming To Consoles!

Ratalaika Games and Analgesic Productions have announced their upcoming narrative-driven platformer, Even The Ocean, is coming to consoles next week! 

This platformer/visual novel/exploration game centres around the story of Aliph, a power plant technician in the alluringly futuristic Whiteforge city. After a routine maintenance trip goes askew Aliph must work with Mayor Biggs, learning how to use her new power and associated influence to save the city from an unknown menace. She must learn to use these new Light and Dark energies to stabilize the threatened city while also navigating a host of environmental issues, not to mention the small matter of the fate of the world.

Beautiful and diverse environments await as you navigate Aliph through the geography surrounding the city, meeting a whole slew of friends, allies, and travellers along the way. The combination of 2D levels and top-down maps promises to give you a glimpse into a beautiful fantasy world full of unique characters and a variety of locales.

Included in Even The Ocean are customizable difficulty settings. You can play the Complete version, Story-Only version, or Gameplay-Only version, aiding in making the experience unique each time.

Even The Ocean will be coming to PlayStation 4 America on 18/08, Playstation 4 Europe and Xbox One on 19/08, and Nintendo Switch – for both NA and EU – on 21/08. It’ll be priced at $14.99 for all platforms, so it’ll be equally accessible no matter what your favourite console is! 

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin Golden Harvest Edition Announced

Developed by Edelweiss, this Action/Simulation game looks to use a combination of side-scrolling platforming and 3D farming simulation to charm players, with the limited Golden Harvest edition being announced for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. The standard edition will also be available for Steam on November 10th 2020.

Golden Harvest edition, as announced by Marvelous Inc, will contain the same beautiful contents regardless of whether you go for Switch or PlayStation. There’s the physical game, a 132-page artbook, the game’s soundtrack split over 3 CDs, a double-sided poster, and a classic collector’s box. At £49.99 from the Marvelous Store, it’s a steal!

In the game, you’ll take on the role of Sakuna, a spoiled harvest goddess who’s been banished to a dangerous island with a group of outcast humans. There, she’ll explore beautiful and forbidding environments, fight demons, and maybe even find a home. Bettering the lives of humanity and harvesting rice are key to proving herself, and Sakuna will have to work hard if she wants that title back!

Join fallen goddess Sakuna on her adventure to regain her holy status on This Holiday season!

Gaming Square Exclusive – Interview with Mattis Folkestad

We got in touch with Mattis Folkestad, developer of award-winning point-and-click adventure Milkmaid of the Milky Way, about his upcoming game Embracelet. I personally can’t wait!

ND: Hi Mattis! Thank you for speaking to me. How are you doing with this pandemic?

MF: Hi! I’m doing all right, all things considered. I have a decent setup for working at home, but I do miss being around other people and leaving work physically after a long day.

ND: Did the Coronavirus affect the development or publishing of Embracelet at all?

MF: When the pandemic started, I had to work from home while also taking care of my kids. Productivity dropped quite a bit, and I lost a bit of momentum when I was planning to finalize production. Also many festivals and conferences where I’d planned to show off Embracelet were cancelled, and the uncertainty of everything at the moment makes it a bit more scary and difficult to release a game.

ND: Could you tell us a little bit about Embracelet, and what inspired it?

MF: After I made Milkmaid of the Milky Way in 2017, I spent some time travelling to conferences and festivals and ported it to a lot of different systems. Summer of 2018 I felt inspired to start an even more ambitious project. I’ve long thought the north of Norway where I grew up to be a great setting for a game, and started working on some different ideas. I also started playing piano again, and some of the themes I created actually inspired the story and feel of Embracelet. I wanted to create a mellow, melancholic game about the transition into adulthood and the joys and pains of growing up. I was also inspired to make a game in an art style I’ve never done before, so when I got a grant from the Norwegian Film Insitute I was overjoyed to start working on Embracelet full time.

ND: Obviously you developed the entire thing on your own, which can’t have been easy! What sort of problems did you come up against, and did you have any support from other developers in the community?

MF: Making games is incredibly, ridiculously hard! But the challenge is also super rewarding, and since I’m fortunate to have worked on a lot of creative projects both on my own and in teams I have quite a lot of experience in a wide variety of fields. There have been many problems and technical challenges, and many funny bugs throughout the development process. But the most difficult has been to create so much content in such a short timespan. Embracelet has lots of characters and sceneries, and around 27000 words of dialogue and in-game text. It’s not a big game compared to games released by studios, but for a solo developer it’s been a lot of work.

Before the pandemic I shared offices with Hyper Games and Krillbite here in Oslo, and though they didn’t work on the game directly it was very helpful being around so many talented game developers. I’d love to have a bigger budget and a team of people one day – that would be the dream!

ND: If there’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to develop a game on their own, what would it be?

MF: I’d encourage them to find some unique idea or vision to follow, and not make something too big. Even a small game is a lot of work, and actually finishing a project – or at least getting it to some playable state for others to enjoy – is such a rewarding and great learning experience.

ND: Do you have any other game ideas or projects you’d like to share?

MF: Not until I’ve released Embracelet! But I’d love to plug Krillbite’s Mosaic and Hyper Games’ upcoming game Mörkredd.

ND: What sort of games do you like to play?

MF: When I’m in development I rarely get to time or have the energy to play other games. I’m quite genre-agnostic and enjoy any game with some sort of uniqueness, either in visual style, gameplay or story. I can’t wait to release Embracelet and finally get to play all those incredible games that have been released the past two years!

ND: If you could think of absolutely any game to appear on the market, what would it be and why?

MF: I’d like to see more games discussing real world issues and creating game mechanics that can teach us about ourselves. I also think there’s room for more comedy and romance in games!

ND: It’s been lovely talking to you! I can’t wait to get my hands on Embracelet, which launches on Steam and the Nintendo Eshop in September 2020. To whet our readers’ appetites, here’s the official trailer:

Rune Factory 4 Special Review (Nintendo Switch)

  • Genre: RPG, Action, Simulation
  • Platforms: Nintendo Switch
  • Developer | Publisher: Marvelous Inc/Neverland/Hakama Inc | Marvelous Europe/XSEED
  • Age Rating: PEGI 12 | ESRB T (Teen)
  • Price: UK £32.99 | US $39.99
  • Release Date: 28th February 2020

No review code was provided, and any opinions contained below are my own. I actually went all out and bought the Archival Edition – I couldn’t help myself!

Rune Factory is a series that sits near and dear to my heart. As the first series to really get me into gaming, and one that I’ve followed religiously (the handheld variants, anyway) for many years, I was delighted when Rune Factory 4 got a fresh coat of paint for the Switch, but did it live up to my lofty expectations?

Story/Characters

If you haven’t played a Rune factory game before, they generally have the same premise; the protagonist rolls into town with no memory of who they are, where they’re from, or why they’re here, and with the assistance of the pushy but kind-hearted townspeople end up with a home and a very overgrown farm. After a short time of peace, something goes wrong that causes you to investigate one of the dungeons that lie nearby, and so begins your quest to fix whatever calamity has occurred and therefore save the town you’ve come to love. It’s a very basic premise that allows for a lot of variation, and differentiates Rune Factory from it’s combat-free sister series Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons.

The characters you’ll encounter along the way give the game much of it’s charm; from the wonderfully reliable Volkanon to the exuberant Procoline, each townsperson has a very distinct personality and background that really emphasises the fact that you’ve just been dropped into the middle of these people’s lives. As your relationships improve with various people you’ll learn more about their pasts, and gain insight into their current problems. Selphia really does feel like an organic town, and provides a wonderful escape from the outside world. 

Gameplay

Anyone familiar with the Harvest Moon series will be familiar with the majority of the mechanics in Rune Factory, but they’re nice and simple. You have one active equipment slot on B for weapons or tools (such as swords, hoes, and seeds), four ability slots (X, Y, R+X, and R+Y) for spells and rune abilities, left control stick to move, and A to interact. + is your bag, level tracking, and settings, while – is your quest list – if there’s a limit on how many quests you can have active at once, I haven’t encountered it yet. You collect quests from either talking to villagers or picking them up from Eliza the talking request box.

Combat is hack-n-slash, using both your equipped B weapon and rune abilities/spells. The higher you level in the associated skill, the lower the RP cost will be, but the higher your weapon level the higher the RP cost e.g. you could forge a Lvl 10 amazing short sword at Lvl 99, but if your Short Sword skill is only level 20 you won’t get many swings out of it before your RP is gone. Monsters each have an associated strength/weakness from the following; physical, fire, water, earth, wind, light, dark, and love. Figuring out these weaknesses is key to defeating higher-level bosses, as with the right equipment loadout you can make all damage nullified or even heal you for a small amount.

Farming is also primarily done using the B button, in combination with A. B uses the equipped tool, for example a hoe or watering can, and A is used to pick something up. Depending on the seed, each type of plant may only grow in a certain season, or take a very long time to grow (dungeon fields are a saviour in this case) so think strategically when planting! Rune Points are also used when doing farming tasks, so during the early game you won’t be able to do a huge amount during a day – interactions don’t cost RP though, which is nice!

Crafting is broken down into 4 sub-categories; cooking, chemistry, forging and crafting. Each has its own set of tools, for example cooking is performed on a selection of tools such as the knife, steamer, pot, oven etc, and a chemistry set, forge, and crafting table are available relatively early in the game. Each recipe has 6 ingredient slots, though I haven’t yet found a recipe that uses all 6, and recipes can be learned by eating recipe bread obtained from either the restaurant or winning festivals. If you know a recipe but haven’t got a high enough level in that skill, or have a high enough level but don’t know the recipe, then an item will cost more RP to make, whereas if you’re both too low a level and don’t know a recipe, then you’ll just fail. These skills are very important when you prepare for combat.

Relationships are the final cornerstone of Rune Factory. There are three primary types; friendships with townspeople, romantic relations with townspeople, and monster friendships. Not all townspeople are marriageable, so some will have a friendship meter while others will have a love meter (essentially the same thing, but a love meter indicates a character with whom you can begin a romantic relationship if desired). These levels can be raised by speaking to people daily and giving them gifts – if you want a quick guide on what to get whom, and when their birthdays are, there are loads of websites that list it all nice and neatly! Monster friendships work in a similar way. Once you’ve built a barn, and tamed a monster (usually by throwing lots of stuff at it and brushing whenever it isn’t trying to attack you) it’ll move in. You can then take it as a companion on adventures, receive things like wool and milk, or set it to work on the farm once your friendship is high enough.

Both monsters and townspeople can join you in exploring the nearby dungeons. For characters their relationship level must be high enough though; you then start a conversation and press either L or R. Once the conversation is over, you’ll have a few extra options – this is also how you confess your feelings to an eligible bachelor or bachelorette, so it’s a handy one to remember! No matter who accompanies you out in the field, they’ll gain combat experience and level up accordingly. Gifting equipment to humans will make them equip it, so be sure to load them up before [ in the item description) will increase their base stats. 

Graphics, Sound, and Performance

This game looks beautiful, especially when placed alongside its 3DS predecessor. The graphics are still rather simple, but the game oozes charm with the uncomplicated animations and vivid colour scheme. Each character feels truly unique, with completely individual designs and voices (with a choice between English and Japanese!) and are easily identified on the zoomable mini-map. Whether in handheld or docked or Lite, the graphics retain their nice clean edges and everything is easy to see.

The music has had a slight upgrade from the 3DS version, having been cleaned up and made smoother, but the only major change is the intro song. Personally I preferred the original, but the new one is a good fit for this relaxing yet challenging game and really seems to fit the town you’re in.

Also – no performance issues in any mode, win!

Difficulty

Difficulty options galore! Along with the traditional Easy, Medium, and Hard, Rune Factory 4 Special gained an additional difficulty; Hell mode. I haven’t tried it personally, because I love to play on easy and just enjoy the game, but my friend plays on Hell and she’s found it a major headache – it’s called Hell mode for a reason! Even on easy, it isn’t the easiest game; I breezed through the first ⅔ until the final major dungeon absolutely destroyed me, not to mention the challenge maze you can unlock! It’s definitely a grind-y game, but enjoyable enough that the grind doesn’t feel like a huge problem.

Conclusion

Rune Factory 4 Special had big shoes to fill. I’m delighted to admit that it filled them and then some; it was a thing that I didn’t know needed to happen until it did, and I’m so glad that we’ve got a Rune Factory 5 confirmed, even if we don’t have a timescale yet. The classic story has been updated with some adorable married life content, the graphics and soundtrack got a beautiful overhaul without losing the charm of the original game, and the Another Episode DLC is a very cute little add-on, but I may be biased as I got it for free during the launch promotional period.

Verdict
A must-try for any farming sim/RPG fan, Rune Factory 4 Special is a worthy successor to the DS and Wii titles. It may be nostalgia speaking, but it’s my favourite game at the moment and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
10/10