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Two Legs Better: Bird of Light

What do kids know, eh? Those squawling little micro-humans, what do they even do all day? We ought to send them to a farm, get them constantly running and leaping over suspended platforms, gathering large blue eggs and floating keys on their way to the castle. Y’know, farm work.


Wharrr.

Bird of Light is a curious thing: a runner game with a puzzle element, that attempts to elevate itself by being about something. In all honesty I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, as if not for that latter point it wouldn’t have attracted my attention. But it’s a better puzzle game than it is a story. So let’s start there.

Each level starts with a tiled overhead map. Between your starting point and the exit (always a castle) is some arrangement of floating land tiles and empty space. The basic objective is to grab a key and reach the castle, but in order to progress, you need to collect at least one ‘badge’ – i.e. succeed either in beating a time limit or in fully exploring the level, collecting all of those large blue eggs I mentioned earlier. In order to do this you must carefully place your very limited selection of platform tiles on the map in such a way that’ll let you reach your goals.


They can never just sit still, can they?

It’s all very simple, and the interface is bright and clear and pleasant. To complicate matters, the location of the keys and eggs (plus any special items needed to get anywhere) are hidden, and must either be found by trial and error or their locations pinned on the map in exchange for tokens. Tokens are given along with the badges, so you’ll likely need to play through most levels a couple of times to nab enough badges if you want to reveal everything. Which, by the end of the game, you’ll likely need to in order to have any idea where to place your tiles.

Perhaps this sounds complicated, but it’s really quite straightforward in practice, and the difficulty curve is steady but gentle, and it’s hard to go wrong to begin with. Once you’ve set the level up, it’s on to the main event.


Later levels demand many attempts, unless you’re less stupid than me.

Tara (that’s you) is a little girl (still you) who, the story informs us, is rather ill, and taken by her mother to live on a relative’s farm, away from the disgusting sickly city full of miserable arseholes and overpriced everything. For unclear reasons, Tara spends her time at the farm dashing through the maps you’ve been seeing, never ceasing, only dodging between the many obstacles in her path, leaping, and later teleporting, across the huge expanses of unexplained void. Your control in these 3D sections is limited to jump, sidestep, and a 180 degree spin, and any collision sets you back to the start. This is far from revolutionary, but between the surprisingly challenging demands of collecting everything without ploughing into a cow or stack of firewood, and the charming graphics, it was jolly good fun.


I’ve set this one up all wrong. Don’t know what I was thinking.

Neither puzzles or runner games are really my forté, but instead of inducing impatience or frustration, Bird of Light had me cackling at my own panicky mistakes and fat-fingered doltery. It’s tricky but fair, and its art style is big and chunky and charmingly cute without any of the grotesque saccharine or soullessness that permeates the plurality of cutesy puzzle games. Presentation is definitely a strength.

This feeling is helped along by that story, or rather, by the themes. Between every few levels are short cut scenes where named farm animals chat with each other about Tara, about each other, about life in general, and increasingly often, about some mysterious and faintly sinister force called the Bird of Light. Pigs grumbling about not getting enough food or gossiping about the sheep becomes much more of a tempting narrative hook when it’s interspersed with ominous hints about death and futility, a feeling encouraged by the increasingly desolate land tiles that appear late on.


I bet pigs really do have some dark thoughts, though. Sheep less so.

Unfortunately, however, either something symbolic went way over my head, or all these scenes came to a disappointingly inconclusive ending. The story seems to have a great idea about where to go but never gets there, and Tara herself isn’t much of a character (although fair play to developers Roach Interactive for sticking to their guns instead of making her a boy, which apparently at least one publisher requested). It’s obviously leaning into some thoughts about childhood and our relationship with animals, as well as death and freedom and that now-untouchable space in imagination and wonder we as adults had to leave behind. But it doesn’t quite come out and say it. It’s a shame, because that conceptual space is thought-provoking, and it has a touch of the darkness that anything about childhood should have.

The game itself has some niggles, most notably that ‘dying’ before you reach an in-level restore point forces you to go back to the map before restarting. This is a small, small thing to complain about, which speaks highly of how well the core design works, but towards the end of the game the levels become really quite fiendish both to puzzle out and to perform. Minor niggles in any game with an instant fail state will grate after a while. It could also do with a few more items to vary things up a little.


Remind me I left my keys hovering in the void, ok.

Gauging whether or not to recommend Bird of Light is tricky, as I’m not sure who exactly it’s for. On the surface it’s very kid-friendly but without some options to customise the difficulty it’ll be on the frustrating side for younglings, and dismissing it as a kiddy game isn’t fair. While it won’t blow you away, Bird of Light is a charming and accomplished lightweight puzzler that’ll comfortably while away a few enjoyable hours, imbued with a philosophical bent that’s a little too slight, but leaves me looking forward to seeing what its creators do next.


I meant to do that.

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It’s Urgrim up North: Rune

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts at least one week, but sometimes several months early. You can back me here.

Hello! Ragnar son of Jarl here, to tell you about my adventures.


An average Ragnar moment.

So, I’m at home in the village, about to be formally sworn in to join the Odinsblade for proving myself as a warrior. Ulf insists on fighting me first, because he’s like that. Was like that. That’s the next bit, see. Soon as I’m in, we get word that Conrack has betrayed us and razed Kopperud, so we sail over to stop him. Turns out he and Sigard are have thrown in with Loki – actual bloody Loki, no less – and kill the lot of us with an evil spell.

Next thing I know, I’m miles under the earth in a flooded cavern, face to face with Odin himself. “Warrior,” he says, “you don’t die here. You’re my main guy now. Conrack wants to begin Ragnarok, so I need you.”

“What must I do?” I ask him, all respectful like. He pauses. Good with the pauses, is our Odin. Then he looks at me. “Ragnar, you’re a Viking warrior, the last of a clan murdered by a traitor.

Fuck shit up.”


I paraphrase. But barely.

You don’t get much clearer than that. He didn’t even need to elaborate, and it’s not like you can really argue with the all-father. So, I picked up whatever weapons I could find, climbed through those caverns and ruins, and plain rampaged across pretty much the entire known world, murdering absolutely everything in my path. It was a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that right now.

It might sound simple, and sure there were a few times where I ran out of momentum and got a bit lost, or stuck trying to fathom where the hell I was supposed to be climbing next. More than once, I felt like I wasn’t quite in complete control of my body, and my arms refused to grab onto obvious ledges, and it felt like I’d died a dozen times in this spot before, through no fault of my own. But the sheer joy of swinging and hacking and leaping and occasionally flinging swords was irresistable once I’d got into it, and while puzzles aren’t my thing, they helped break things up and gave me time to catch my breath.


It’s very much like a late 90s FPS, but with swords instead.

After escaping from that cavern, I fought my way through Hel (easily the worst part, those bloody undead warriors getting up again every time without a perfect decapitation. Screw Hel), the goblins, the dwarves, Conrack’s human lackeys (this was a highlight. I dunno, humans are just more fun to fight. Plus we do better mead), and on and on, picking up bigger and better weapons the whole time, until that final confrontation with the Trickster. It felt like a real epic adventure, befitting the situation and the threat facing the world, and by epic I mean “like an epic”, not just pompous and bloated to absurd length. Each new realm led comfortably to the next, with big dramatic appearances from Odin or Hel or a particularly shouty Viking popping up now and then, and everything felt enjoyable cartoony and melodramatic, from fending off warriors to chugging healing mead and shattering the flagon on the floor in one smooth motion. I even managed to beat one guy to death with his comrade’s arm, and made a habit of throwing heads around just because I could. Sound sick, but it was all too colourful and charmingly silly to feel gruesome. I wasn’t a Viking warrior, I was a VIKING WARRIOR!!


Lop off a skellie’s head and he’ll run around swinging blindly.

Odin helped by knocking over a few obstacles with his laser eyes (because let’s face it, of course he has laser eyes) and guiding me to his Runes of power, which gave me more life force or magic, and imbued each weapon I found with a new magical attack, one launching massive boulders, another adding their life force to mine. I could have done with more of that, really, as it was a bit hard to find much magical energy. Variety was a bit of a problem too, I soon found a couple of weapons plain better than anything else, and once the dwarves showed up, there was no point even trying to use anything but the giant weapons. That first couple of hours in Hel got pretty tedious too, there’s only so many times you can fight the undead before getting bored. The scenery was surprisingly nice, but soon became another reason that breaking into a new area couldn’t come soon enough. It did at least give that moment when I broke free to the surface a bit of extra impact.


The platforming set pieces are occasionally frustrating.

Still. I can’t say there’s ever been an experience quite like it. Typically when you pick up a sword, you’re in for a nerdy experience about having bigger numbers than the other guy, or don’t even have direct control of your swings and movement. This, though? This was all me. Running and leaping from platform to platform, climbing ropes while the cavern below floods with magma, dodging in and out of arm’s length to block an axe and clock an opponent on the bonce, that’s what fighting should be. None of that combo memorisation, light and heavy attack nonsense. Just move and swing and jump and do whatever it takes to see your blade connect. It was a refreshng change, and while certainly a challenge, there was an underlying sense of humour to it that kept things from ever feeling too serious. When I fell for a simple trap set by some goblins taking advantage of my curiosity, I couldn’t help but laugh and admire their cunning, and bludgeon them both to death in a distinctly friendly way. It’s not exactly sophisticated, but what can I say? Sometimes all you need is an endless parade of righteous, over the top violence and magic, egged on by the giant rumbly head of Odin.


Take back your personal space, Ragnar.

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Necrovision: A subgenre No Man’s Land

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts at least one week, but sometimes several months early. You can back me here.

Help me out here, readers. I’m not entirely sure what to say about the state of shooters today. There’s no feature or setting that really defines the era. What qualifies as old-fashioned (I’m not saying “skool”, hit me all you want) varies from person to person, and we’ve far too much history of games, even post-internet, to split any genre into such broad ages. Just look at the inevitable argument about RPGs on every forum in the world for proof.

I say this because Necrovision (2009) invites comparisons to Painkiller, a game long considered a celebration of The Old Ways, and now itself a pretty old game. But even aside from the disingenuity of cutting down history so, dismissing Necrovision as just another throwback FPS would be unfair. It’s more novel than that.


A solid kicking option is absent from too many shooters.

We “Be” American soldier Simon Bukner at the Battle of Verdun, where he immediately sees everyone (surprise) slaughtered , and must fight through “German” soldiers to safety. Note that this is no period drama – I enquoted above because those soldiers are absurdly Nazi-esque, uniformly evil sadists or at best violently insane. A few buck the trend, but are invariably killed off in scripted events. It’s basically too hammy and stupid to be offensive or insulting.

Things take a turn towards Deathwatch territory as undead monsters show up to shake their manky bits around and shriek – you know what monsters are like. Naturally, it falls to Simon to re-massacre them, then push on to fight phantoms, ogres, and eventually an underworld of warring vampires and demons. And that’s all very 90s FPS, right?


Not-nazi zombies. How novel.

But while it’s related to (and developed by The Farm 51, founding members of which worked on) Painkiller, it feels less… artificial. The initial historical setting lends it more weight and structure, so it’s less like being locked in a series of fake rooms to mechanically circle strafe around and herd nasties like bloodthirsty anti-sheep (though this does become necessary later, and immediately in the Challenge Room mode, where success at dispatching monsters in specific ways adds bonus weapons to the campaign). There’s some of that from the start, but it’s often about peering down rifle sights and taking cover between potshots. A curious bridge between two styles.


Most human guns disappear early on, disappointingly.

Though the core of Necrovision is absolutely about storming messily through swathes of enemies, it plays more like an experiment in taking some Medal of Honor eggs and breaking them into a drunken Serious Sam omelette. Soldiers use cover and careful aiming pays off, even as you’re encouraged to build up your “rage” by laying into enemies with combined shooting, booting, and uh… bayon-ooting attacks. There are bosses with big health bars and secret areas to ferret out, right alongside partially regenerating health, iron sights, and soldiers’ miserable, despairing letters to serve as audiologs. The opening third in particular could be mistaken for an early CoD campaign mixed with a fleshed out Nazi Zombie mode. But it’s never serious, and the methodical xenophobic Whack-a-Mole style (which is only systematic, with none of the military cheerleading) gradually gives way to gory, over the top hack and slash crowd management as your weapons are replaced by bladed gauntlets, fireballs, stakes, and freezing attacks, and chaining enough combinations regenerates health and energy to power them, turning you into a perpetual murder machine who gains bonuses for taunting enemies.


“Hello, sign my petition?”

What’s surprisingly apt is how the protagonist’s story mirrors what the player is doing. As Simon descends into the depths his outbursts become increasingly gutteral, sadistic, and inhuman. His horror and confusion in the opening give way to fatalistic wallowing in hatred and carnage as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s no mere man with a gun, but an unstoppable force of death. The narrative never soars, but it pulls the game along well. It feels more like a journey than being told outright that you’re special for no particular reason, or it never being clear why you, a regular human, are able to tirelessly rampage through hundreds of battles. You have to earn it, you know? Starting out as a regular guy makes the power you gain more appreciable, and to players who are otherwise left cold by games like Painkiller, serves as a comfortable introduction rather than dropping them in and just assuming constant carnage is enough of a draw on its own.

While it might prove unpopular to say it, that latter point has always stuck for me. I don’t like games based around combo attacks or building chains. I find it distracting and proscriptive. But with Necrovision, once I adjust to its strange pace and style, I find the combos coming naturally, because they tend to correspond with useful attacks anyway. Jabbing an enemy with the rifle’s bayonet, then papping a bullet in while they’re recoiling? That’s not just a fancy combo move; it’s a practical way to use the weapon.


Ooh, it’s a skaven! KILL IT WITHOUT MERCY.

That’s not to say it’s outstanding. There are rough edges and confusing plot points, and while Simon’s earnest, likable Southern delivery is fitting more often than not, much of the voice acting is poor (although in the case of the Not-zi soldiers, this works in its favour as they’re more cartoon villains than anything resembling real victims of war). Cut scenes have a bizarre habit of repeating a conversation with slight variation, sometimes not precisely reflecting events in-game, and worse, for a game dependent on melee attacks, there are collision detection issues with some enemy/attack pairings, and one or two misaligned sights.


“Okay girls, let’s really throw into that degagé, and… er, FOOLISH MORTAL!”

This is hard to excuse, particularly in the Challenge Mode, as are the controls, which are a little uncomfortable, and at times reluctant to respond, an effect which is exacerbated by the way many weapons are grouped together under one button – switching from a shotgun to a flamethrower requires cycling through every weapon in between for no good reason. This becomes a major source of frustration late on, when most of the weapons look very similar.

But none of this is ever distracting enough to ruin the experience, and Simon’s oddly inconsistent attitude – one minute he’s recoiling at the horrors of war, the next he’s snarling “death and death and death and DEATH!” or flippantly mouthing off to immortal spirits – epitomises the reason Necrovision feels like more than either a themed, demi-realistic shooting gallery or a tongue-in-cheek arena shooter: its tone.


Cut scenes are narrated stills, not unlike the early Thief games.

In an age where neither po-faced military shooters nor campy arena larks, not to mention strongly themed genre pieces are particularly dominant, Necrovision bears the strange distinction of being very secure in its identity. It’s neither serious nor flippant, and it’s simultaneously grim and campy. Somehow, the devs captured a real sense of horror and doom without sacrificing the tongue-in-cheek humour or destructive goresplosion fun of yer Bullet Sams and yer Serious Storms. Tonally it should be a mess, but it’s dark enough to be atmospheric, and exactly silly enough to be fun. It’s all a bit nebulous, and purist fans of either subgenre may find that it flatters itself with contrarieties of pleasure, but Necrovision offers a valiant attempt at occupying a seldom-breached middle ground.


“High fi-oops! Shit, sorry. Are you alright?”

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