Monday, May 16, 2011

Tamquest Softcorp Games Reviews

You really should go and read this post at its original home at The Imaginary Review, but it has since stopped posting new material, and Bad Things can happen on the Internet. I'm re-posting it here in case anything happens to the original.

Tamquest Softcorp’s latest string of releases has hit the market, and I tore into their video games with a wild abandon not seen since Lindsay Lohan gave up drugs (wink, wink). Here are my first impressions of the new titles:

Grand Theft Ovary
In this sandbox-style game, players use their controller as a versatile suite of medical tools to perform surprise appendectomies, involuntary liposuction, and stealth bowel removal. Technically, it's well-executed. The sound effects have a certain squishy realism to them, while the graphics are well-rendered (I found myself liverjacking over and over just to see the animation one more time). Unfortunately, the gameplay is a little unbalanced--no matter how many malpractice alerts are outstanding against your character, abducting a single street urchin and selling his organs on the black market will earn more than enough money to bribe the medical board to return your doctor's license back to "untarnished" status. Some people might also see the game's freeform, sandbox style of play as lacking in plot.

Gordon Crampton's Chefwar 2KBwelve
For a fighting game that requires fast reflexes, the controls are disappointingly laggy. It took me several tries to get the timing down for the combo attack to julienne string beans, I can only mince chives about half the time, and I swear that you can only peel onions properly if you're double jointed. However, Chefwar 2KBwelve has a surprisingly detailed plot for a fighter, and the game has a certain flair that makes it unexpectedly enjoyable to clothesline the snooty maitre d' and bodyslam the overzealous health inspector. You should probably rent this game to see if your enjoyment of its varied arenas and fighting styles can overcome your frustration with its execution.

Barge Commander: Bonded Owner/Operator
In the tradition of Sid Meier’s Pirates and Port Royale, Tamquest has created a seaborne trading game that thrillingly combines bargain hunting at the dollar store on payday with a ten-hour drive across Nevada in a car with no air conditioning. As a Norwegian Sea Captain in 1932, Barge Commander has you choose the cargo, select the port of call, plan the crew roster, and stand watch in the most accurate, real-time depiction of steam-powered sea travel on the market. While it doesn’t have the same attention to detail as the EuropeanSimulators line of computer programs from Chipfat, it still shows a lot of attention to detail. Unfortunately, a graphics bug present in my copy made everything the color of creamed spinach until I could download a patch that restored the game’s full color palette--composed of nuanced shades of steel gray, overcast gray, slate gray, and slate grey that really made 20th century shipping lanes come alive.

In VirtualSweatshop, you run an American clothing factory in the legal grey zone of a U.S. protectorate. Players can choose whether to give their indentured "employees" a decent living wage and exert control over other factors in their lives including the frequency and duration of breaks during their 14-hour workday. It turns out that you actually can put a price on human misery, along with a "Made in the USA" label. This game has a pretty steep learning curve; although I quickly earned a production bonus by placing the machines for maximum efficiency, I kept killing my workers by subjecting them to heat stroke and not ventilating the building properly. The number of variables that have to be tracked in this game are staggering, including a separate exposure bar each one of over 30 different types of diseases and parasites, not counting workplace-induced health afflictions like "fluff lung" and "stitcher's finger." I found the game to be a little too complicated for my tastes, but this may appeal to more detail-oriented gamers, sim enthusiasts, and actuaries.

Grandma Dream Day
I’ll admit that at first I was skeptical about this response to the growing number of dating simulators out there. After all, it’s kind of a creepy premise, showering your grandchildren with gifts and taking them out to places like the zoo in a desperate attempt to gain their affection, but it won me over in spite of itself. The cute graphics did a lot to offset the weirdness factor of playing as an old person taking an almost unhealthy interest in children, and the end goal is to have them keep their parents (your children) from sending you to the "bad" nursing home, so it's for a good cause. There's a variety of trip destinations including movies, malls, and the circus (including an unlockable bonus trip to the World Extreme Competitive Still-Life Painting Finals), and all of the items you can buy have unique effects and influences. The game's special "randomizer" feature changes your grandchildrens' preferences so that it's never the same game twice (which proves to be just as well, since I had to play through to the ending 3 times before I ended up somewhere other than the home where orderlies duct tape you into bed and spray you with a garden hose).

Wall Street Wizard
Not much documentation came with Wall Street Wizard. After the installation completed and I opened the program, my boss called to tell me I was fired, the bank foreclosed on my house, and all my money burst into flames. I give this game points for realism, but question its play value.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hungriest Games Journalist

You really should go and read this post at its original home at, but Bad Things can happen on the Internet, and I'm re-posting it here in case anything happens to the original.

Kevin VanOrd is an editor at Gamespot and syndicated videogame journalist, but he’s also a pretty hungry guy. That’s got to be the case, right? Because I can’t think of any other reason why someone would describe a game as "chewy." And yet he chews through three different games, telling readers about Opoona (a tale that "is a sweet, chewy morsel"), Eternal Sonata (describing the "soft, chewy center of the story"), and NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams (lauding the game's "warm, chewy center that's tough to resist").

VanOrd has been writing game reviews for several years now, and even Noah Webster is allowed a little repetition from time to time. As a journalist, VanOrd should also be given some artistic license to work a few metaphors into his columns when developing an overarching theme. That’s why he should be commended in his ability to turn a phrase and a stomach with this opening paragraph for his review of The Sims Carnival: SnapCity:

Sometimes, two unique flavors belong together, like peanut butter and bananas, or bacon and anything. Other flavors, like pickles and chocolate, are best left separated. And so we have The Sims Carnival: SnapCity, a little title that combines Tetris and SimCity into a weird casserole of boring, half-baked gameplay mechanics that will disappoint fans of either of those classics. Like a horseradish milkshake or herring cream pie, it's a curiosity you should leave others to experience.

What’s unique is the way that he can work food into even the most inedible concepts, like his discussion of Too Human, a cybernetic re-imagining of Norse myths. "The game does offer a few meaty moments," although it "drops a juicy plot development at the most inopportune time." It’s a shame that the designers didn’t realize that "a good narrative doesn't need to spoon-feed plot points to you," but fortunately "you'll still sometimes find morsels of that smooth groove so important to action RPGs."

He also finds NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams to be "deliciously vibrant" even if "some of the dialogue is simply cheesy." While he enjoys the game’s previously mentioned warm, chewy center, it appears to have been a little draining. All that chewing left him little energy to cope with some particularly bothersome level mechanics, although if they "were the exception rather than the rule, they would be easier to swallow."

VanOrd is no glutton. When it comes to Opoona, his appetite is quite limited. "The candy coating goes only so far, and tedious side missions and other frustrating elements sprinkle too much salt onto the sweetness. The first few bites of Opoona are scrumptious, but you'll be full in no time." And it’s snackably awful that "the in-game map (called a GPS here, which is as accurate as calling a fast-food burger patty a filet mignon) is no help at all." Fortunately for anyone interested in playing Opoona, "like that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, the game's adorable presentation makes it easier to stomach the bitter shortcomings."

His skill at merging the electronic and the edible may be most visible in his discussion of Eternal Sonata, where he discusses the "French Impressionist color palate and gorgeous lighting." His intentional misspelling of palette reminds us that the French are noted for both their painting and their cuisine, showing that Eternal Sonata is a feast for the eyes, even if the color saturation is "sometimes a little too Candy Land for its own good" and some of the voice actors "get too syrupy after a while."

VanOrd’s willful "palate swap" also occurs in his review of The Maw, where he notes that "like most sweet morsels, the pleasant feeling dissipates when the sugar leaves your system, and you’ll find your palette struggling to remembering [sic] the taste." Here we are taken in the other direction to see how a game that does not seize our imagination with arresting visuals can be as bland and flavorless as gum that has been chewed for a little too long. And with a game like The Maw, about a giant alien mouth with a voracious appetite, who could resist noting that "the gameplay doesn't have much bite"?

Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like VanOrd's writing is just a little too sophisticated for me, and his jokes go over my head. For example, when he discusses the function of a bon-bon in Opoona, he notes that "it's a floating ball that each sibling possesses (though in an ironic twist, sister Poleena has two of them)." Is the irony to be found in the stererotypical image of a fat housewife sitting on the couch eating bon-bons, suggesting that this game both employs and subverts that stereotype by showing a strong, confident woman using her bon-bons as tools of empowerment? Or is he talking about breasts?

Wait, I get it! It's a dick joke! The girl is the only character in the game with two balls! Well played, Mr. VanOrd, well played.

And with all this discussion of the many mouth-watering images that VanOrd brings to bear, I haven’t even touched on his repeated use of the phrase “half-baked,” a term that is practically industry shorthand. Which brings us back to chewy. VanOrd’s repeated use of the term from September 2007 to April 2008 suggests that it was part of a personal crusade to make it a new journalistic standard, but it never seemed to catch on. Perhaps describing games as chewy was kind of like The Sims Carnival: SnapCity. In VanOrd’s own words, "like an anchovy enchilada, it's an interesting idea that just didn't work out."

Luckily, VanOrd appears to be far from running out of other food-based metaphors to draw on. If they want this quality of work to continue into the foreseeable future, all Gamespot management needs to do is to keep him hungry.

For the record, Kevin responded quite graciously to this article, and I'm grateful for his ability to take a joke.