This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds.
Is it me, or is the big release period starting to pull a reverse Christmas? That is, to say, getting later every year. If all you want is ports of stuff we already know is good, then you're quids in right now, Lt. Lagsbehind! Resident Evil 4, Dead Rising 1&2, and BioShock Collection are all out on XBone and Piss-Poor this week. You'd almost think AAA publishers have become a bit risk-averse! Surely not. They always seem like such sprightly and adventurous enormous bloated mounts of fat and blood-stained money. There's that new World of Warcraft expansion that Youtube ads seemed to think is terribly important I hear about it every hour of the fucking day. But frankly, I feel like I could have a more profitable time stacking coins on a railroad track.
So, as, always, we turn to Steam - the ever-flowing cornucopia of RPG Maker games and pixel art. And this week, we'll be looking at two newborns that have cut their mouths on the jagged edges of the pixel art pacifier, starting with The Curious Expedition: a procedural explore-em-up developed by 2 blokes that worked on Spec Ops: The Line, which doesn't count for much as a selling point because a fly that buzzed into the office and shat on the gold master technically worked on Spec Ops: The Line. It also shouldn't be taken as an indicator of content, 'coz while sharing the loose theme of barging into someone else's country to - in academic terms - shit it the fuck up, there's much less horrifying gazes into the abyss of the human soul and far more gleeful nicking valuables from primitive natives in the jolly spirit of 19th-century colonialism.
You play one of a selection of real-life Victorian figures - and incidentally, I've learned to be slightly wary of any game in which Nicola Tesla is a character, the patron saint of socially awkward tech nerds - as they compete with their peers to map out unexplored lands and loot the place. And I did find it slightly hilarious that one of the playable characters is H.P. Lovecraft: that dude never left the house and thought Jews and black people evolved from jumping spiders and dog turds. So casting him as an explorer is like casting 50 Cents as Miss Marple. So what we have is the kind of Roguelike that has the feel of a pen-and-paper role-playing session conducted by a DM with very little imagination. "You have found a village of natives! They dress and act identically to the natives you met in your last expedition to an entirely different continent, and seem to be aware of what a bunch of dicks you were to them. But then Darkest Africa gets a surprisingly good WiFi signal."
You might find The Curious Expedition a wee bit uninvolving since most of the action is described with pure text, except for the combat where the characters are on screen, far away in the distance in tiny-winey pixel vision where every single action from attacking to being attacked to having an earnest conversation about the excesses of European colonialism, is conveyed by having the character hop into the air a bit. But isn't that in keeping with the spirit of things? Our sense of distance from proceedings echoing the sense of detachment our adventuring heroes have from their own actions as they steal treasure and corrupt the natives in arbitrary pursuit of personal glory? Probably not, actually.
Have you noticed that this game is called The Curious Expedition, rather than The Curious Expeditions? which might have been more honest since a standard campaign involved locking yourself into 6 successive adventures. But it turns out the title was accurate all along since this is really 6 repeats of the same adventure. You land, you collect a few colorful diseases and you find a golden pyramid. It's like reading King Solomon's Mines 6 times with the pages slightly shuffled around. And while we're on the subject, surely Rider Haggard would've been a more fitting novelist character than Lovecraft. But then I suppose you wouldn't have gotten the instant nerd cred one gets from mouthing Cthulhu and chummily waggling your eyebrows. There's yet to exist a game with truly infinite replayability except that one game where you fire an electrode into the pleasure center of your brain until you starve to death. But sadly that hasn't yet been ported from laboratory rats, the lucky bastards. In the meantime, the lastability of a procedural game lives or dies on variety, especially if the focus is on story over gameplay challenge and I just don't think there is enough. "You have desecrated my temple. Now I shall scourge the land with-" "Oh, floods or volcanos this time? Yawn-o-rama. Freshen up your material, Tezcatlipoca mate!"
So let's turn our backs on going to foreign countries and shitting them the fuck up and, for a nice of change of scene, play a game about going to one specific foreign country and shitting it the fuck up in Mother Russia Bleeds, a new game published by Devolver Digital which is best summarised by the saying it is a Devolver Digital game. It has the quintessence of such in that it's horrifying gore and extremity depicted in brightly colored pixel art like getting bloodily raped to death in a prison shower by an enormous skinhead made of Lego.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a retro-style arcade beat-em-up in the final Street Fighter rage mould where half the challenge is not standing one pixel too far north of your intended targets that your frenzied punches upset naught but passing moths and the other half is mashing buttons in the vain, superstitious hope that it will somehow make you stand up faster. You are part of a roamer community in the 1980s Russia whose simple, carefree life of brutal cage fighting with the homeless is shattered when you're kidnapped and subjected to drug experiments by Russian gangsters, prompting a quest for revenge, which is a bit of overreaction. There are Westerners who'd pay good money for weekend breaks like that. Eventually, you get caught up in revolution against the corrupt government because that's all that ever happens in Russia, isn't it? Drug crime, government corruption, and revolutions. Why don't we ever hear about the positive things, like their lovely beetroot soup?
Anyway, in the grand tradition of arcade beat-em-ups, you have four characters to choose from: the fast-week one, the slow-strong one, the in-betweeny one, and the other one for when your mom says you have to let your little brother join in. Not that it makes much difference. They all have the same moves and dialogue which feels like a missed opportunity. Maybe I wanna know if the dude in workout gear with bandaged fists and starey eyes has a more nuanced attitude to proceedings than the girl in workout gear with bandaged fists and starey eyes.
But we're not here for the story, which is probably for the best because the dialogue's consistently as stiff and redundant as a beached whale at optimal surfing time. As I say, the combat's pretty basic and I did get rather over-reliant on the sliding tackles, spending more time on my back than a nymphomaniac skirting board inspector. But the challenge is meaty enough and it's certainly cathartic. Blows land with the satisfying crunch of a big-bottomed lady sitting down on a taco platter and with roughly the same effect upon the face of the target and enough broken teeth litter the ground that the council won't need to grit the pavement next time there's icy weather.
I appreciate the subversive joke inherent in depicting such unflinching grittiness as something as comparatively wholesome as an 80s arcade brawler. It's like the Saturday morning cartoon version of Hobo with a Shotgun. And it's the extremes it goes through that make it fun: if we're gonna smash the few remaining teeth out of a drug-addicted whore, might as well do it with a severed cock sticking out of an overdue library book.
- A curious exhibitionist: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Here we very deliberately do not say the word 'Miami' in conjunction with the word 'Hotline'
- Rider Haggard sounds like a disease you get off used saddles