This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Phoenix Point and Bug Fables.
Well, 2019's been a pretty poor showing for games, but there might still be one or two gold teeth floating around its piss-sodden ashes, so let's do one more indie double-bill before 2020. And the running theme for these two games is "games that are blatantly another game and cannot be arsed to pretend otherwise", starting with Phoenix Point, which I could call "a hybrid strategy game pairing turn-based tactical squad combat with global exploration and base management", but I'm a busy man with a lot of ashes to urinate on, so let's just go with "XCOM clone". Importantly, though, it comes to us from the original creator of XCOM, Julian Gollop, who didn't work on the remake XCOM or XCOM 2, so now, with the power of crowdfunding, Gollop can take the Bloodstained/Mighty No. 9 route to re-establish his original vision for the franchise, which it turns out ends up looking an awful lot like XCOM 2.
In fact, if you have your own quantity of ashes that urgently need widdling on and can't stick around, I would summarize Phoenix Point as "XCOM 2, but more complicated". Now, more features and more complexity might appeal to you smarmy, strategy game-liking, university-educated Warhammer enthusiasts, but us down-home, regular science-fiction novelists can be left a bit cold by it. In fact, it was the relative simplicity of the XCOM remake that gave it its appeal for generally non-strategy-game-playing me: here come the alien monsters who want to kill all us humans, kill all the alien monsters.
Phoenix Point has to go around the houses a bit to get to kill all the monsters: the human race threw one too many Capri Suns into the landfill, and the virolocaust happened; a bunch of people went paddling and came back as mutant crab monsters; you're part of a secret peacekeeping organization that someone put in place ages ago because they ate too much sushi one day and had a prophetic vision of the crab monsters; now kill all the crab monsters. But do so while staying mindful of the three warring human factions who now run the world, some of whom are in on killing the crab monsters, but some of whom think mutations are the tops, so we need to learn to coexist with the crab monsters hand-in-pincer.
So now, as well as the tactical missions and the globe-exploring and the resource management, you have to worry about if your attitude to traditional marriage is offending the lobster-fuckers, and then I saw a negative user review of Phoenix Point complaining about the lack of mustache variety in the soldier customization, and I wonder if Phoenix Point's complexity is missing the seafood restaurant for the California rolls, so to speak. I feel there are many features I wouldn't have missed if they'd left them out, like the V.A.T.S.-esque targeting of a specific body part; I only ever want to do the thing that makes enough of an enemy's health go away that they stop trying to blow my best sniper's nads off, and whether or not I used body-part targeting didn't seem to make much difference in that, although it was instrumental in helping me figure out which bit of the visually-disastrous seafood platter was the head and which the arse.
I look at the various blurbs surrounding Phoenix Point, and I see a lot of talk about the complex procedurally-generated world and faction layout and the enemy evolution system that will make your standard enemies spontaneously grow a third arse if you prove to be particularly afraid of arses, etc., and I wonder how much all the big talk about behind-the-scenes guff matters when weighed against my initial experience of the game; that is, I flew around Africa for a while and got into eight or nine "protect the resources" combat missions that all seem to be taking place in the exact same junkyard. Still, you probably already know if you're the sort of person who will buy Phoenix Point; you like complex strategy to the point of getting weirdly defensive about it, and you're not one of those people who shuns Epic Store exclusives because you've picked that as the arbitrary "bridge too far" for an industry that has been mired for years in anti-consumer practice so greasy that coin-op arcade game designers feel an urgent need to shower.
So, our second game this week is Bug Fables by Moonsprout Games, which is Paper Mario. There's no being coy about this one; it's a new game in the "Games Exactly Like Paper Mario" genre. The main appreciable difference is that you're a party of insects adventuring in an insect kingdom. "Ah, so would you say it's Paper Mario crossed with Hollow Knight, Yahtzee?" No, I'd say it's Paper Mario crossed with Paper Mario; same mix of puzzle-platforming and turn-based combat where you press timed buttons to do the combat slightly more so, same cartoony world, same menu, same badge system, same cooking system. It even does that thing where the characters spin on their axes to turn around like they're paper cutouts, even though they're not supposed to be two-dimensional in this context, unless they all recently escaped from a mad entomologist's book of pressings.
But I'm sure pointing out that Bug Fables is Paper Mario would prompt the developer to say, "Yes, we know; that was the idea. The last official Paper Marios were a pair of dehydrated shit-balls rolling out of Nintendo's loose, uninterested anus, so we made a game just like one of the early good Paper Marios to slide craftily into the niche left behind like a sneaky finger up the nostril of secret treasures!" Which is fair enough, but an indie game attempting to evoke Nintendo at its prime had better be pretty fucking confident in itself; Paper Mario 2 might look simplistic, but there are boatloads of little skillful touches you would only notice if they weren't there, and I certainly noticed them in Bug Fables.
A lot of the peas and carrots of the ground-level gameplay show some iffy design. Some of the combat minigames are a bit wonky: "Press left and right to build up your power bar!", so I rubbed that analog stick back and forth like a wedding scratch card with an engorged clitoris, and somehow, it still doesn't take. And then there's puzzle-solving; one of your characters can turn water drops into ice blocks, but can only do it in the very brief moment before the water drop hits the ground, so it's like playing fucking Whac-A-Mole. And then one of your other characters can hit the ice block around, but if you're trying to get it into a specific spot, it's like playing golf with a bent snow shovel and a box ottoman.
But what makes Bug Fables fail to hit that engagement button is that it's just not that visually appealing. Here's a good time to bring up Hollow Knight again, because Hollow Knight somehow managed to give its characters a sense of emotion and visual personality, despite them all being insects with black, empty eyes instead of relatable human expressions and harsh, chitinous bodies instead of hilarious slogan t-shirts. I think Hollow Knight managed it with animation, because Bug Fables doesn't have very much; that's another subtle thing Paper Mario was full of: little organic movements. Even when standing still, Mario's feet would pulsate like they were about to give birth to a brood of spiderlings; Bug Fables' characters are generally static paper cutouts, and the onus is on us to determine which bit of their simplified insectile face is the mouth and whether or not it's giving us a friendly smile.
Is it fair to diss Bug Fables for not being exactly like Paper Mario? YES! Because that's literally what it was setting out to do! But it is better than the fucking void that is the actual Paper Mario franchise these days, so if someone says to you, "Sorry you can't fuck pigs anymore; try this pencil case full of bacon," it's up to you if you're going to get offended or start looking into the best ways to launder grease out of your underpants.
- Has a massive case of crabs: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Of course the other connecting theme is that one game was about crabs and the other was about bugs but I was afraid of lowering the tone
- See you in two weeks when I will dismiss 2019 further