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Hugh Likes Video Games: Unpacking

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Unpacking
Developed by Witchbeam
Published by Humble Games
Played on PC as a part of Xbox Game Pass

The Skinny – A relaxing game about stressful life events.

Unpacking is a relaxing, low-stress pixel art game about a stressful real-world activity: Moving. Each level consists of a number of boxes to unpack in increasingly large spaces. You start in a child’s bedroom and eventually have to unpack a whole house’s worth of possessions. Almost Tetris-like, the challenge is in finding the right place for every object, and making them fit in a limited space.Each object is a detailed isometric pixel sprite, which lends the game a bright and charming air. But the sound design is where the game really shines. There are unique, realistic sound effects for every individual item in the game. Placing a mug on a counter and opening a drawer sounds incredible in high-def. Which feels odd to say in a game review, but here we are. Sure, you don’t punch aliens or soar through the air on an airship, but did you hear the way that towel sounds when you fold it and put it on a shelf? The sound effect for when you fold up an empty cardboard box is the best dopamine hit I’ve gotten in a while from a game.I guess it’s a sign that I’m growing up. Which is fitting, as this is very much a game about transitioning through life. You follow a woman through multiple moves, from her first bedroom to her first college dorm, and beyond. Each level is framed as a page in a photo album, and completing the level gives you a line of text from the unnamed character as she thinks about that day.The objects are all suitably varied based on the rooms, and while it is a challenge to make them all fit, there isn’t really a score or a timer to beat. Certain combinations or placement of objects reward you with stickers which double as achievements, but there’s not much else other than that. There are some lovely hints of storytelling through the objects themselves, though. We get hints of who this person is, and what their life is like what her hobbies are, and how her life changes from move to move over the years. Crayons give way to fancy pens and to a drawing tablet as she grows up and pursues an art career. A cane and a wrist brace appear among the objects as time goes by. A photograph of two people has a pin placed through the one figure’s face following a breakup.Unpacking is a delightful and relaxing puzzle experience. It is available for PC and major consoles.

Hugh Likes Video Games: The Solitaire Conspiracy

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The Solitaire Conspiracy: A Mike Bithell Short
Developed by Bithell Games
Published by Ant Workshop
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A tense, techno-espionage thrill built from a deck of cards.
Mike Bithell has some brilliant thoughts on game design and post/transhumanism. He’s also known for his tight, compact game design, compressing his point-of-view into tiny games. He made his mark with indie storytelling platformer Thomas Was Alone and cemented it with the robot detective game Subsurface Circular. His recent project The Solitaire Conspiracy mixes intense spy thriller action with an unlikely gameplay mechanic: a game of solitaire.
 Players fill the shoes of Spymaster, an analyst candidate tapped to save a shadowy spy network when a supervillain locks them out of their coordination software, C.A.R.D.S. Working with the last remaining analyst, it’s your job to coordinate scattered spy crews and get everything up and running, but in the world of spycraft, nobody can be trusted. 
 As you play through missions and rank up, you gain access to colorful crews of operatives, each with their own suit and special abilities. Face cards represent not only the faction but individual members of the team, and placing active cards uses their team power. This can be things like shuffling a stack or redistributing a suit or moving a card of a specific value or suit around. They are powerful twists on the game, but in fitting the theme, they can hinder you as much as help.
 The UX is where the game really shines, with the board appearing as a virtual space lit in the slick blacks and scintillating neon of a cyberpunk wonderland. The design made it a bit difficult to read at times, especially playing in handheld mode on the Switch. Fortunately, there is a zoom feature that makes everything a bit bigger and easier to see. The cool sci-fi colors, along with the pounding, synth-filled soundtrack, lends a tension to the game that traditional solitaire lacks. Missions add both flavor and drama to the gameplay. I frequently found myself playing just one more mission to reach the next rank and advance the story, or get the report on a thrilling mission.
 The Solitaire Conspiracy is a masterclass in design and proves that engaging storytelling and slick aesthetics can spice up even the most mundane gameplay mechanics. Like most Bithell games, there are only a few hours of the main story here, but they’re a thrill ride. The Solitaire Conspiracy is available for download from Steam, the Nintendo eShop, and the Xbox game store.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Eastward

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Eastward
Developed by Pixpil
Published by Chucklefish
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: An on-rails sci-fi story presented with a gorgeous pixelated aesthetic
Eastward is a beautifully rendered action RPG in pixelated graphics that doesn’t quite follow through on what it promises but is still a lot of fun. The game follows John and Sam, two refugees from a post-apocalyptic underground village as they travel by train on a quest to save the world and uncover the secrets of Sam’s burgeoning psychic powers. As they steam along, they fight their way through a series of linear, puzzle-filled dungeons and meet a huge cast of charming and wacky characters, but the chapter-based structure and frantic pace made the game feel a bit cramped and rushed.
 The game is broken into chapters, with the duo arriving in a new town, meeting the locals, and solving some dungeons before the plot pushes them back aboard their train to a new locale. The towns are probably the game’s best feature, with creatively designed and gorgeously rendered locations like a city built into the side of a dam and a film studio on rails filled with uplifted apes. Each is depicted with HD pixels in loving detail. The world is filled with faded advertisements and overgrown ruins. It is a testament to environmental design. I just wish I got to spend more time in each area before being pushed ahead. Towns are crammed full of mini-games, sidequests, and unique NPCs to talk to, and I always felt like I didn’t get enough time before being pushed ahead.
 The one mini-game that is always available is Earthborn, an in-world game that is a mix of turn-based RPG and rogue-like presented in a Gameboy aesthetic. It’s charming, and intersects with the story in interesting ways, but is ridiculously difficult.
 Dungeons are more linear than the sprawling towns and feature a mix of puzzle and combat. John has a variety of weapons that he gains over the adventure, starting with his trusty melee frying pan. Sam wields psychic energy to stun enemies or heal, but she can’t attack directly. Combat involves constantly switching between the two to keep hordes of enemies back in order to stay alive. Combat, which uses a Zelda-like formula, is clever, but fighting doesn’t feel as good as the puzzles.
 Eastward is a joy to look at and listen to, even if the gameplay isn’t quite as fun as the production. Still, it is well worth your time. You can pick up a digital copy via Steam or the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Toem

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Toem
Developed by Something We Made
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A delightful little adventure about photography and community
Toem is a little gem of an indie adventure game about photography and perspective. This comforting little puzzle box is full of puzzles to solve, characters to help, and tiny locations to visit.
 Created by Swedish indie studio Something We Made, Toem only takes a few hours to play but is all about relaxation and comfort. Designed to be played in short bursts, it is the perfect game to wind down with at the end of the day or de-stress to over a coffee break as you take missions tracking down singing goats and finding the perfect spot to photograph a forest hotel.
 The game sets you in the shoes of a young photographer on an adventure to find the Toem, with no further explanation given. The tools at your disposal are your trusty camera and a very unusual public transit system that rewards public service with free rides. The game is divided into five zones, and at the start of each one, you’re given a public service card. As you explore a forest, a city, a seaside resort, and a mountain, you are given puzzles to solve in the form of requests of each area’s inhabitants. These can range from the simple, such as taking a photo of a requested subject, to the obtuse, such as recovering lost items or even restoring a power plant. After each puzzle, you are rewarded with a stamp on your card. Collect the requisite number of stamps, and you’re free to move along to the next area. But completionists will still have plenty of challenges to complete, animals to photograph, and hidden secrets to uncover beyond the game’s forgiving requirements.
 With one notable exception, Toem is presented in a charming black and white art style, and the small, isometric levels have a diorama-like quality. The characters are quirky, and a few of the puzzles are fiendishly clever, but I never felt stuck.
 Toem is a short and cozy experience that is perfect for unwinding by a roaring fire or relaxing with a hot cup of cocoa. If you’re looking for something to chill with at the end of the year, give this game a shot. Toem is available on PC from Steam and Epic, Nintendo Switch, and PS5.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Rain on Your Parade

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Rain on your Parade
Unbound Creations
Played on PC

The Skinny – Cloudy with a 100% chance of MAYHEM!!1!

Inspired by games like Donut County and Untitled Goose Game, Rain on your Parade puts players in the driver’s seat of a mischievous cloud in a dazzling paper-craft world. Using a set of weather-based powers, players journey through fifty mission-based levels to reach their ultimate goal, the mythical city of… Seattle!

With tongue firmly in cheek, this clever little game delivers on a wide variety of challenges as you work your way across the world. The weather powers are fun to use and are constantly mixed up. Rain soaks people and can be used for other puzzle objectives like growing crops, but can be remixed by soaking up other substances, like oil which can be used to start fires with your lightning ability. Snow and tornado powers also let the player freeze objects or manipulate the environment, although both are unlocked fairly late in the game.

The levels, which range from beaches to grocery stores to the surface of the moon, are cleverly designed, although a few are VERY short. The writing in Rain on your Parade is the real highlight of the experience. It is wickedly sharp and unexpectedly varied in its targets. One mission will have you ruining a pool party by soaking all the sunbathers, but the next will have you delivering coffee in a parody of The Office or pulling off a museum heist. There’s always something new to do, with a clever twist to the mechanics in each level. The sharp, funny writing carries the game as well.

The paper-craft aesthetic of the world is also well implemented and helps to keep the game lighthearted and fun. The player’s cloud, which can be customized with hats, accessories, and a face you can redraw to your liking, is made of cardboard. The human figures resemble Fisher-Price Little People, and the settings and objects have a paper-craft aesthetic. It feels much more akin to overturning a toy box than a GTA-style rampage. This is reinforced by the brief story sections that frame the action as a bedtime story.

While the puzzles are varied, most of the levels themselves are pretty short and won’t require quick reflexes to solve. They mostly boil down to using the correct order of abilities on the right objects to solve a condition, then watching the effects play out.

Rain on Your Parade is a clever little gem of a game, perfect for unwinding, but it sits firmly into its niche as a casual toy chest of an experience. If you’re looking to relax with a bit of silly destruction, I highly recommend it.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Kunai

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Kunai
Developed by: TurtleBlaze
Published by: The Arcade Crew
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Ninja Robot Tablet Action

In the distant future, a lone robot awakens to save mankind from the AI Apocalypse. With an energy draining sword and an emoji-displaying tablet for a head, he sets out to save the small band of human resistance fighters, along with the rest of the world.
While its story is a bit thin, Kunai delivers a pleasant and fast-paced Metroidvania experience. In addition to the aforementioned sword, a variety of upgradable guns are also at your disposal as you traverse a variety of technology-infused forests, floating mountains, and futuristic cities. You travel on foot, with the ubiquitous double jumps, and with the games’s eponymous standout feature, the kunai, a pair of grappling hook-like knives that allow you to scale walls and swing along ceilings with ease. The game gives you a huge amount of freedom early in the game, delightfully disrupting the traditional gameplay loop of unreachable ledges and unjumpable pits. The controls are fun and intuitive, letting the player navigate quickly and easily.The game is presented in a faux gameboy pixel art style, with grayscale backgrounds. Enemies are painted red, while Tabby and his allies are blue. While it doesn’t have the flash of Ori and the Blind Forest or Hollow Knight, the sprites are easy to see, and charmingly designed. Backgrounds are surprisingly detailed and cleverly imagined.
The game rarely slows down, except in a few sections which involve navigating courses consisting of hazards like bottomless pits and rooms full of spikes. These parts of the game feel separate, and a bit archaic. Fortunately, they are quite close to save sections, and the game gives a Super Meat Boy try try again feel.
While Kunai doesn’t have the narrative weight or graphical artistry of some of the bigger Metroidvania titles, it is a fun and fast-pace game with plenty of charm, and is well worth your time. It is available on PC from Steam or on the Nintendo Switch from the Nintendo eShop.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Hades

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Hades
Published and Developed by Supergiant Games
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A Hope in Hell.

Hades is a game about struggling, failing, and then picking yourself up and trying again. Created by Supergiant Games, the indie game studio that burst onto the scene with Bastion in 2011, You play as Zagreus, the rebellious son of the Greek god Hades as he seeks to escape his father’s domain and reach the surface. The Lord of the Underworld sends his servants and subjects to stop you, and since you’re already in the land of the dead, if you die, you just wash up back at Hades’s house ready to try again.
When you arrive back home, you can upgrade your build, redecorate the Underworld to suit your needs, and talk with the residents fo the house for advice and commiseration. All of the NPCs have their own backstories and sidequests, and while you could, in theory, go all the way to the end in a single run, the game is designed with failure in mind. NPCs warm to you in time, revealing secrets and unlocking new missions.But for all the game’s mechanical brilliance, it is truly elevated by its audio and visual design. Jen Zee’s art really shines. Characters are cleverly reimagined from classical ideals in gorgeous portraits. The game’s voice acting is spectacular and apt. From sassy but compassionate Zagreus to the distant but matronly Nyx, to the overbearing Hades himself, every performance is stellar and charming. I particularly love the portrayals as the Olympian gods, who come off as a sort of cross between a Greek chorus and horde of self-obsessed social media influencers. Darren Korb’s metal and country infused soundtrack is just the right mix of rocking and melancholy. The game just fires on all cylinders.
Hades is a masterclass in marrying plot with mechanics. You don’t simply level up, but fail, evolve, try again and fail again. It takes the ultra-hardcore genre of Rogue-like and transforms it into something accessible and motivating. Instead of being demoralized after being knocked back to the start, it lets you breathe, chat with the House’s residents, pick a new weapon, and start again, eager for just one more try to escape your fate.
Hades is one of my favorite games of the year, and is not to be missed. It is available for the Nintendo Switch, and on PC from the Steam and Epic game stores.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Merchant of the Skies

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Merchant of the Skies
Published by AbsoDev
Deveolped by Coldwild Games

Played on Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny: Come take a trip on this airship!

Merchant of the Skies is a resource trading and management game that puts you in the captain’s seat of a trading vessel plying the skies between floating islands. The Campaign mode sets you up as the scion of a trading family, just starting out with their own boat. You buy low, sell high, do a few favors for your Uncle who is trying to set up a postal system, and gradually discover the secrets and history of the area. As you gain income, you can buy bigger ships, purchase island, and eventually set up caravan routes for complex manufacturing and delivery. There’s no combat, and the only lose condition is running out of money. Once you complete the campaign, the game opens up a sandbox mode that lets you set the goal, or just lets you tool around in your majestic airship
The game’s pixel graphics steampunk fantasy worlds are beautiful and nostalgic. The region is presented as a filled with floating island and other sights, and you travel from one to the other Indiana Jones-style. When you visit an island, it switches to a side-on perspective with pixel sprite buildings and wee figures dashing about. This mode mostly uses menus to navigate, so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of your captain as they visit the trading posts.
The game does get a little laggy towards the endgame, when you have resource gathering and processing happening all over the map. The game auto-aves each time you leave an island, so as the game goes on, be prepared to spend a bit too long waiting towards the end of the game. Also, most of the endgame content requires resources rather than money, so eventually you’ll be raking in cash with nothing to spend it on.
Merchant of the Skies is an engrossing, low-stress management game with charming visuals and strategic thinking. It’s the perfect game for anyone looking for something on the Switch to chill out with.

Hugh Likes Video Games: A Short Hike

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A Short Hike
Developed and Published by Adamgryu
Placed on PC via Itch.IO

The Skinny: Breath of the Mild

A Short Hike is a quiet game about personal stakes. You play as adolescent bird girl Claire, who is expecting an important phone call while on vacation at Hawk Peak Provincial Park. The only way to find reception is to hike, climb, fly and glide your way to the top of the mountain, with plenty of other activities and sidequests along the way.
Fans of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will find the gliding and climbing mechanics familiar, although the stamina meter has been replaced with collectible golden feathers. There’s nothing to fight in the game, and instead you’ll find yourself chatting with the locals, running errands, catching fish, and even solving the odd treasure map on your way up the mountain.
As the name implies, this isn’t a long game. You can climb to the top of the peak in just an hour or two if you really want to. But the park is so full of people to meet, treasure to find, fish to catch, and secrets to discover, that it rewards a second look after you reached the top.
A Short Hike is a little digital vacation, and it has been a welcome refuge in a summer when Covid-19 has derailed so many plans. The low-fi 3D art style is charming, but put my MacBook Air through its paces.
I originally purchased this game as a part of the Itch.IO bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, and it is also available through the Steam and Epic launchers. I heartily recommend it for a quiet evening when you need something to unwind with.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Creature in the Well

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Creature in the Well
Developed and Published by Flight School Studio
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Post-apocalyptic Pinball Action

Creature in the Well is a stylish and imaginative take on a pinball puzzle game, and while it doesn’t always hit its mark, the concept is so interesting in its execution, that I didn’t mind the missteps.
You play as Bot-C, the last of an army of robots tasked with maintaining a huge, failed machine housed inside a mountain. Your tools and materials will feel very familiar to any pinball player, as the task involves supplying power to a variety of bumper-like conduits with a ball-shaped ‘energy core.’ Opposing you in your task is the eponymous Creature, a huge menacing skeletal figure that haunts the installation. It puts traps in your way and taunts you as you bring the machine back to life one system at a time.
The game really succeeds on design. The various rooms, which function as tables, are challenging and surprising, although there is a fair amount of repetition. The machine feels properly foreboding and industrial, and the creature is menacing and impossible, hiding in the shadows revealing only a legion of huge, skeletal hands and glowing eyes.
The difficulty spikes at places, but the levels can be played in any order, so you can skip and come back to challenges and boss fights when you are better equipped. The default settings are a bit fiddly, with the controls set to the face buttons. Your bot is equipped with a pair of blades, and these can be swapped out for various effects. They work much better mapped to the shoulder buttons, but the player can freely customize them.
Creature in the Well is a great little indie action game based on classic pinball mechanics. It’s available from Steam, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It’s well worth your time.

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