#BloggerTalk: 30 April 2020

#BloggerTalk takes place over on Twitter from 21:00 to 22:00 GMT on Thursdays. Each week, everyone is invited to give their thoughts on a specific question connected to blogging, writing and the community so we can all learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.

For more information about how #BloggerTalk came to be and its aims, check out this post and feel free to get in touch. Without further ado, let’s take a look at today’s question and get the conversation going:

How do you feel about writing reviews? Are they something you include on your blog?

If you’re a long-time blogger, perhaps you’d be willing to share some of your experience and help guide those who are new. And if you’ve just joined the community, welcome – you’re part of one of the best and most supportive groups out there. I look forward to seeing you on Twitter for #BloggerTalk.

Save Point: April 2020

Welcome to April’s editorial post, a monthly progress report which rounds up all the happenings here at Later Levels in case you missed anything. With the UK lockdown still in full flow and most of us staying at home, let’s have a quick recap of recent events.

Blog life

  • WordPress:   1,377
  • Twitter:   582
  • Facebook:   80
  • Instagram:   200
  • Twitch:   123
  • Posts:

  • Total published:   21 posts
  • Most popular:   Gamers’ Guide to Isolation: inside but outside
  • Most liked:   Gamers’ Guide to Isolation: inside but outside
  • Most discussed:   Gamers’ Guide to Isolation: inside but outside
  • My favourite:   Good games for non-gamers
  • Traffic:

  • Views:   1,757
  • Visitors:   929
  • Likes:   357
  • Comments:   159
  • Best day:   Mondays
  • Other posts worth checking out:

  • Five of My Favourite Easter Eggs in Gaming by Matt from 3pStart
  • Places In Games We’d Like To Live In by Dragon In The Castle
  • Video Game Difficulty by Will from Geek Sleep Rinse Repeat
  • Secrets of a Spectacular Sequel by Quietschisto from RNG
  • How Gaming Changed, 2010-2020 by cary from Virtual Bastion
  • COVID-19 has been hitting us all hard over the past month and most people have been doing their bit to keep everyone safe by staying at home. This has meant more time for playing video games – and for me, more time for writing about them too. I started posting more regularly this month and have increased from three to five articles a week because there are just so many titles I want to cover. I’m not sure whether this will end up being a long-term thing, but it’s nice to have something to occupy myself with right now.

    The coronavirus has had an impact on social gatherings and annual gaming events have either been postponed or cancelled as a result. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything happening though: online expos are starting to pop-up and it will be interesting to see whether this changes how we blog. I had the opportunity to play several demos during the Steam Game Festival and can’t wait for the full releases of Hazel Sky and Moncage; and a few more games were added to my wishlist during LudoNarraCon 2020. More about that coming in early May.

    A quick shout-out to the awesome Athena from AmbiGaming too, who completed a nine-hour stream to raise over $500 for Direct Relief a couple of weeks ago. She rocks!

    Gaming life
    Games played:

  • Beautiful Desolation
  • Black Mirror III
  • Chinatown Detective Agency (demo)
  • Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure
  • Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
  • Flotsam
  • Four Last Things
  • In Other Waters
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • The Elder Scrolls Online
  • The Escaper
  • The Procession to Calvary
  • Whiplash
  • Several demos from LudoNarraCon 2020
  • Games reviewed and previewed:

  • Chinatown Detective Agency
  • Commander ’85
  • Gamedec
  • Life is Strange
  • Moebius: Empire Rising
  • Space Observatory
  • Whiplash
  • Several demos from the Steam Game Festival
  • A big thank you to my blogging friends who helped me put together the Gamers’ Guide to Isolation in April by providing a few suggestions on the perfect titles the play during the lockdown. This was a lot of fun to do and who knows, you might see us return for a few more short series in the future. I must also say thank you to the lovely Luke from Hundstrasse who sent me Whiplash for my PlayStation 2 – a bizarre 3D-platformer about a weasel and rabbit chained together, not without controversy – for our game-swap collaboration. Check out this post on his blog to find out about the titles I sent to him in return!

    Kickstarter has been particularly fruitful this month and I found myself backing three campaigns: isometric RPG Gamedec; a pixelated point-and-click called Chinatown Detective Agency; and then science-fiction thriller Commander ’85. I also had the opportunity to finally gather my thoughts about a couple of games I played during March. I know many people loved Life is Strange but it just didn’t hit the spot for me, mainly because I didn’t warm to its protagonists; and Malachi from Moebius: Empire Rising annoyed me with his sarcastic comments and crazy eyebrows, by trying to be a mix of Gabriel Knight and Erica Reed rather than a new character.

    Real life

    April is usually my favourite month because it means spring, cute fluffy animals at Easter and birthdays. Although it has been different this year, we’re trying to stay positive despite the coronavirus but it was difficult taking the decision not to see my stepson for six weeks to protect his wellbeing. It can be hard being a separated family at the best of times but throw a pandemic into the mix and it’s taken to a whole other level; your concerns and requests aren’t always taken into account when you’re not the primary carers, and that can make you feel as though you have very little control over a child’s upbringing.

    I’m finding that so much of my life right now is taking place on a screen, that I’ve been trying to find things to so outside of gaming to break up the routine a little. One such recent activity was an Escape Puzzle jigsaw called Space Observatory which was quite entertaining, although not what we expected. I’ve also been learning to make bread by hand, trying to do cross-stitch and running a family scavenger hunt too; keep your eyes open for a post in May about how these are all going.

    Coming up

  • 01-31 May: Give Back to an Indie Developer
  • 01-31 May: Summer Game Fest
  • 14 May: Shadowrun stream
  • 16 May: The Eurovision Division stream
  • 28 May: Shadowrun stream
  • 29-31 May: NarraScope 2020
  • Every Thursday: #BloggerTalk
  • Take a look at the Side-quests page for more!
  • Posts planned:

  • A round-up from LudoNarrCon 2020
  • The video games that define me
  • Being forced to make choices in video games
  • Why Sea of Thieves isn’t for me
  • Lockdown activities that aren’t gaming
  • And now over to you guys: what have you been up to lately, and what have you got planned for the coming month? Is there anything the community can help with or get involved in? Let everybody know in the comments below so we can show our support. Thanks for reading!

    Whiplash: weasel your way out of this one

    COVID-19 has meant many gaming events have been cancelled this year. EGX Rezzed has been pushed back by three months; Insomnia66 was abandoned in favour of Insomnia67; and my other-half and I made the decision to not go to the London Gaming Market in March.

    This may have been the right choice but obviously we were disappointed. You see, not only were we looking forward to picking up some additional games for our PlayStation 2 and Master System collections, we were also planning to meet up with the awesome Luke from Hundstrasse at the event. We hadn’t seen him in person since the meeting for the first time at EGX Rezzed in April 2018 and so we’d all been excited about some retro-gaming talk over a coffee or two.

    In addition, Luke and I had been plotting a collaboration about our time at the London Gaming Market: we were going to search the stalls to find an obscure title for each other within an agreed price limit, so we had something to take home and review. Rather than letting the coronavirus ruin our plans completely, we decided to carry on with our project using snail-mail and you can find out about the strange games I sent to him in this post on his blog (he knows how sorry I am).

    One day a package landed on my doormat and opening it revealed 2004’s Whiplash for the PlayStation 2. It’s not a release I’d ever heard of before this collaboration, but at first glance it certainly seemed to fit the brief of being ‘weird’. The front of the case pictured an angry white rabbit being thrown at a pane of glass by a weasel and I was surprised to see the Crystal Dynamics logo in the bottom corner; this looked nothing like a Tomb Raider game and I wasn’t sure Lara Croft would approve.

    As with all good retro games, the accompanying booklet provided a lengthy overview of the storyline and characters (I really miss those manuals). The title is set within the walls of the Genron Corporation, a high-tech laboratory where animals are used to test products for humans. Spanx is a crazy weasel once used for electro-shock testing; Redmond is a know-it-all rabbit who failed his last mascara test in the makeup lab; and they’re now due to be chained together and shoved inside the Genetic Recombinator.

    The company’s diabolical plan is to fuse them together into a freaky new creature but a miracle happens: our heroes somehow escape from their cage at the last second and now they must get out of Genron together. What lies in front of them is a perilous journey through a place where chimps with afros are given extreme haircuts, hamsters are fired at walls just to see how well they stick, and a cheery announcer provides messages about new product lines and how the abuse of animals is great.

    Whiplash, video game, box, PlayStation 2, Spanx, weasel, Redmond, rabbit

    Although there are two main protagonists here, Whiplash plays like most 3D-platformers from the PlayStation 2 era and it’s clear the developers drew inspiration from releases such as Ratchet & Clank. The left analogue stick or directional buttons control Spanx (and drag Redmond along behind him on the chain) and pressing L2 gives him the ability to sprint or scurry along rails. Tapping X makes the character jump and he can interact with the world using the triangle button.

    So what’s the point of Redmond if the player is controlling Spanx? Well, the testing of Genron’s super-hold hairspray means that his fur has turned into a super-tough suit of armour so he makes the perfect indestructible tool. He can be used as a whipping weapon to defeat oncoming enemies, thrown into air-purifying spheres and turned into a grapple, swung around the weasel’s head to provide a gliding skill and attached to ziplines. It seems like the rabbit got the raw end of the deal.

    A selection of baddies including scientists and robotic spiders will try to prevent your escape but the combat isn’t difficult. A variety of combo moves are available including an Air Smash and Hyper Dash, but mashing the square easily deals with most of them if you can’t remember the buttons like me. It’s worth noting that enemies won’t be completely destroyed and will eventually wake up after being temporarily stunned; but if you can’t be bothered to put up a continued fight in a particular area, you can simply run around them.

    Although your main objective is to get the hell out of Genron, you can do a lasting service for animals everywhere by hitting the company where it hurts the most: in the bank. Freeing creatures around the facility sees them take revenge on their captors and makes your escape slightly easier, and you can drive Genron into bankruptcy by destroying everything that isn’t nailed down. This is probably the most fun part of the gameplay mechanics and it’s great seeing Redmond enter Hyper mode once he has caused enough damage.

    Sadly though, it’s not all good with Whiplash. There are a fair amount of lasers-in-corridors and fire-ducts-in-ventilation-shafts sections which feel like filler. The hub-based level system can be difficult to navigate and sometimes it’s not clear what your immediate objective is. And as with a lot of old games, bad camera angles cause unnecessary deaths and frustration when they don’t look in the right direction – so much so that I passed the controller to my other-half for a lot of our first session.

    I’ve seen been back and played the game again off-stream, and I can see a certain sort of charm even though I haven’t finished it yet. The title’s absurdist humour is its highlight and I love the way the protagonist’s personalities are reflected through their movement and one-liners. Even when they’re standing still, Spanx and Redmond perform little dances or look around for enemies; and Redmond comes out with phrases such as ‘You do realise I’m a rabbit and not some sort of asbestos plush-toy, don’t you?’

    But again, it’s not all positive here. The relationship between the characters is a pretty violent one and although this suits the type of humour Crystal Dynamics were going for, at times you do find yourself almost wondering whether it’s entirely appropriate. The poor bunny is electrocuted, set on fire, filled with helium, frozen in ice and dumped in radioactive waste. Pete and I couldn’t help but look at each other and grimace each time Spanx shoved Redmond into a grinder to open a door.

    Whiplash appears on Wikipedia’s List of controversial video games and this references an article published on The Telegraph website on 15 February 2004. It reports concerns from several bodies about the way animal testing is depicted and Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson is quoted as saying: “It is a nasty and vicious way of prejudicing young minds for the rest of their lives… Young people with fresh minds need to be brought into an understanding of the problem with both sides of the argument being put forward in a rational and reasonable way.”

    Whiplash, video game, weasel, rabbit, Spanx, Redmond, grappling hook, electricity

    This is despite the whole premise of the release being against animal product testing and it not causing the same reaction when it was released in America during the previous year. In a statement, publisher Eidos Interactive said: “Whiplash is based in a fictional animal-testing laboratory where the object is to rescue all of the animals and destroy the evil testing lab. Although the video game is fictional, we hope that it raises positive awareness of animal testing among children.”

    Whiplash may not be the best game I’ve ever played but it’s definitely one of the best choices Luke could have made for our collaboration. It perfectly meets our brief of being something ‘weird’ and the gameplay, artwork, voice-acting and humour encapsulate the feeling of the early 2000s. On top of all that, the stories about the controversy mentioned above are a reminder of how overreactions to video games were quite common back then and it’s a nice slice of gaming history.

    The next London Gaming Market is due to take place on 19 July 2020 and who knows, maybe Luke and I will get to do a follow-up on our project in person there. Until then, stay safe everybody.

    Commander ’85: hacking back to the 80s

    I’ve been a huge fan of anything to do with the 1980s for as long as I can remember. Give me a denim boiler suit, white heels and neon-pink lipstick, and you’ll find me on a dancefloor somewhere singing along to the likes of Chaka Khan and Spandau Ballet (badly).

    My love for the decade also extends to video games, and a release set in the 80s or with artwork inspired by it is bound to catch my eye. Take 198X for example. I backed its Kickstarter campaign in June 2018 after seeing the artwork alone, despite the promotional trailer not giving much away about the game actually involved. I wasn’t disappointed though; we played it on day nine of our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 and liked the way that several different genres came together in one story.

    After making pledges to the campaigns for Gamdec and Chinatown Detective Agency last month, I came across another on the crowdfunding platform last week – one which this time appealed to my obsession with the decade rather than detective games. Commander ’85 by The Moonwalls is described as ‘a sci-fi thriller about a seemingly ordinary birthday present that changes the lives of the main characters forever’. It sounds like the set-up for a great 80s movie and so I happily became a backer for the project.

    The story starts out well when you’re given a super modern computer with real artificial intelligence (AI) for your birthday on 13 May 1985, but things take a turn for the worse when military experiments get out of control and the world faces the threat of nuclear war. Together with a group of good friends and crazy scientist, you’ll have to try and end the Cold War, discover the secret of the Commander computers, and find out the mysterious truth behind the Roswell Incident.

    Like 198X, it’s hard to figure out exactly what to expect from Commander ’85 from the limited information provided through the Kickstarter campaign and Steam page. What I can tell you though is that I’m getting vibes of WarGames from the promotional video (and who doesn’t like a young Matthew Broderick?). I’ve mentioned before that my favourite narratives are usually those grounded in reality but where something is a little ‘off’, and this seems like one which is going to hit that spot.

    Although gameplay details are light, we’re told that players will get to decide the fate of the world using an advanced system of interaction with the computer’s AI. You’ll have to build its trust and friendliness towards you, listen to its sarcastic comments and even watch as it quarrels with your parents. Randomly-generated plot points make for a slightly different experience for each player and you’ll reach one of three different endings according to the choices you make.

    Several short gameplay videos are already available on YouTube as a demo is provided with the ‘White Hat’ backer tier. It starts with a section almost like Gone Home where you’re able to explore your bedroom and look at objects, before moving onto a tutorial where your computer guides you through hacking into your school’s database to update your attendance record. While downloading a file however, a virus is installed on your machine and it begins to attempt to access the ballistic missile systems of the United States and USSR.

    The AI then tells you that the virus is modifying its files and you should expect some unexpected effects when launching programs. It can also take advantage of any free threads on your computer and use them to speed up the hacking process, so it’s time to keep your machine busy by playing video games. But soon your eyes grow fuzzy from tiredness and you have to head to bed… before being abruptly woken up by strange noises and an incredibly bright light in the night sky. It’s here that the demo ends.

    The Kickstarter page mentions that you’ll need to complete the chores given to you by your parents so you don’t get grounded and stopped from playing, and these optional activities help vary the gameplay each time. It’s safe to guess that if you don’t do these tasks, they’ll prevent you from getting back to your Commander ’85 and this will give the virus an opportunity to gain access to those missiles far quicker. Who knew that playing video games was going to prove important when trying to save the world?

    The campaign for Commander ’85 is running until 09 May 2020 and, at the time of writing, it has already secured almost 70% of its £4,545 target. Head over to the Kickstarter project for further details and give The Moonwalls a like on Facebook to stay up-to-date on their progress.

    Space Observatory: a puzzling experience

    With the UK lockdown in force until at least May, many people are finding they have plenty of spare time on their hands. While playing video games is a very worthwhile pastime, some are using these extra hours to discover hobbies they haven’t tried before or learn new skills.

    Not only have I been able to knock a few titles off my gaming backlog, I’ve returned to a cross-stich kit that I bought about a year ago but never got around to starting properly. I’ve also been making bread by hand for the first time now that yeast is back in stock at the supermarket, thanks to some handy tips from the gorgeous Teri-Mae from Sheikah Plate. Unfortunately though, eating all the results has caused me to put on a bit of weight so who knows: I might even start running again next week too.

    I’m finding that so much of my life right now – keeping up with family, work, socialising and entertainment – is taking place on a screen, that it’s been nice to spend some time away from my laptop. My other-half and I decided to keep this going by doing a jigsaw puzzle a few weeks ago instead of picking up our controllers. You may have seen us start it during our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 but not finish due to several cat-related incidents so, keeping Zelda to one side, we went back in for a second attempt.

    The jigsaw in question was Space Observatory from the Ravensburger Exit Puzzle range. This was suggested to me by Katie from Musings of a nitpicking girl in December after I mentioned gifting my stepson an escape-room-in-a-box for Christmas. The concept appealed to me straight away because, after completing my first escape room at the start of 2019 with the awesome Tim and Jake from Timlah’s Text & Unity3D Tech, I became hooked and went on to do seven over the course of the year.

    Each of the puzzles has a loose narrative to get you in the mood. The leaflet in the box told us that ours began when we noticed a strange light in the sky during an evening stroll. Out of sheer curiosity, we headed to the astronomy section at a nearby library and found a piece of paper hidden in a book entitled Discovering Outer Space. The note gave an alarming message from Professor F. Gamomaeus about a meteorite racing towards Earth and it was up to us to prevent the collision.

    The official website advises that puzzles are unique because the cutting process means the 759-pieces can fit together in multiple places, allowing you to form items to assist in your escape. The first part of the challenge is to finish the jigsaw and this took Pete and I several hours over a two-day period. I’m pleased to say that although the cat made a few appearances, all pieces were present and so you can rest assured that no animals were harmed in the writing of this review.

    The image you’re trying to create is slightly different to the one on the box but it’s possible to use this as a guide to get started. You’ll then notice six clues hidden within the picture once it’s complete and solving these will give you a list of numbers. I’ve played plenty of adventure games over the years and Pete is a great player-two for the genre so we felt pretty confident, but both of us struggled a little here because you’re not given any indication of where to start or what to do.

    We had to resort to visiting the escapepuzzlesupport website for guidance. Once we’d seen how the first clue worked however, we found that we easily solved the others – except for one. Making the puzzle pieces fit together in multiple places sounds like a great idea, but I can confirm that it’s not when you’re trying to find star constellations and then realise they don’t match any of the options you’re provided with. It was slightly frustrating having to break up a section of the jigsaw and redo it.

    Each border piece has a number worked into its image so once you’ve solved your clues, you must find the associated part. These then fit together to form an object to help you escape the situation in the storyline and, in our case, this was a laser used to shatter the meteorite. It’s once again a clever idea that didn’t really work in practise. It would have been more entertaining if the leaflet that came with the puzzle hadn’t told us that this was the item we were searching for so we could have figured it out for ourselves.

    Although we needed the website above for guidance this time around, I don’t think it would be necessary to check it again for future entries in the Escape Puzzle range because we now know what’s expected of us. We just needed a little push in the right direction, that’s all. But both Pete and I agreed that we got more enjoyment from completing the jigsaw itself than the escape element. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, because that’s the majority of what this experience involves.

    Space Observatory, jigsaw puzzle, table, cat, Zelda

    We had fun though and it was nice doing something together away from our laptops for a while. There are several activities you can do that don’t involve playing a video game but still give you the same feeling, and this turned out to be one of them. We haven’t yet tried the Monochrome Inc. entry from Kosmos Games’ Adventure Game series which I purchased at the same time as the jigsaw. Perhaps that will be next and if so, I’ll write up another review to let you know how it goes.

    The Escape Puzzles are currently sold out in most places thanks to the lockdown but I’ve pre-ordered the Witch’s Kitchen version and will hopefully receive it soon. Who knows, there might be another jigsaw stream coming – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Zelda tries to ‘help’ again.

    #BloggerTalk: 23 April 2020

    #BloggerTalk takes place over on Twitter from 21:00 to 22:00 GMT on Thursdays. Each week, everyone is invited to give their thoughts on a specific question connected to blogging, writing and the community so we can all learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.

    For more information about how #BloggerTalk came to be and its aims, check out this post and feel free to get in touch. Without further ado, let’s take a look at today’s question and get the conversation going:

    Do you have a schedule for your blog, or do you write when inspiration strikes?

    If you’re a long-time blogger, perhaps you’d be willing to share some of your experience and help guide those who are new. And if you’ve just joined the community, welcome – you’re part of one of the best and most supportive groups out there. I look forward to seeing you on Twitter for #BloggerTalk.