To Hell With Guns (2018)

To Hell With Guns is a niche title in a niche made for a one-week gaming jam. It’s a first-person turn- and party-based dungeon crawler for people who are really into making their own maps and enjoy getting lost in a dungeon.

I’m not sure whether it’s due to the time constraints of the gaming jam or completely intentional, but the game lacks any kind of movement feedback (even lots of older titles had wall sprites arranged in such a way that when you took a step they slightly changed to make you aware that something did change) and this makes it confusing when you’re moved along or spun around by barriers, fell down a hole or even just went upstairs.

It tries to confuse your ability to make a working map, which is something I really admire, but few people these days would be willing to put up with it. If the game had added movement feedback or even something like a simple automap, all of its three levels would likely be mapped in a fraction of the time it took me to map all of them, but it would also have severely diminished the challenge and the fun in doing so.

And while its only three levels, these a densely and compact levels with no slow moments or tutorial area to ease you in. Secret walls, teleporters, one-way forwarding fields, harm fields, spinner, the game has it all and often combines it in such a way to make for a highly enjoyable mapping experience that always throws something challenging your way.

The biggest flaw of the game is the combat, which isn’t as well integrated with the dungeon exploration as it should be. Combat is the usual phase-based common to Wizardry-like games, albeit with a tactical element seen in the likes of Wasteland or Dragon Wars, where your party and enemies have to move forward toward each other to engage in melee combat.

I’m not a big fan of this type of combat in dungeon crawlers, as it makes combat last longer than it should be. So instead I avoided most fights (easy to do), which meant when I reached the final boss, who was on a completely different plane of difficulty than any previous encounter, I was seriously under-leveled.

Given the lackluster combat, the chardev is actually quite good. Basic attributes, useful skills, this already trumps lots of AAA-games in complexity (which is insane when you think about it) and its fun to see your characters grow.

Finding treasures gives lots of EXP by the way, so even with avoiding fights, you can level up quite a bit just by going for treasure, which was neat but at the same time gave me the impression that combat wasn’t all that relevant until I run into the final boss of the game.

Still, I had fun overall, despite the existing flaws. Most modern (western) devs seem to have forgotten how to design a nail-biting hard dungeon that makes you want to map every floor in detail and that keeps you coming back for more punishment, but here’s a short counterexample that shows its just the majority of the bigger studios that have lost the ability to design good levels.

Lady Sword (1992)

Lady Sword is an unlicensed PC Engine dungeon crawler released by Hacker International under their Games Express brand (fan-translation here). The company was somewhat famous for trying to combine gameplay and pornographic pictures and drew the ire of Nintendo when releasing their unlicensed games for the NES, but NEC was more tolerant of them (although it has to be said that by modern standards the game is extremely tame, just some naked ladies).

The game is a one-character turn-based first-person dungeon crawler with very few stats, no itemization (neither weapons nor armor), no spells and automatic stat increases. The game has really nice looking enemy sprites, but you’ll see the same boring wall graphics throughout the whole ten-level dungeon. You play as a knight entering the Tower of Faunus to free some girls (each floor has one and you see each of them naked once you beat the boss on each level), find a magic sword, the Lady Sword, and kill monsters along the way.

Combat is simplified to such an extent that its just a coin throw every time, you can either hit, replenish some HP (if you manage to not get hit) or try a rare multi-hit (with enemies getting a chance to hit you two times in a round). Enemies come in three types, you have glass cannons that can often kill you in on or two strikes, somewhat more durable one-hit killers and the monsters that were clearly designed so that you could replenish HPs during the fights, since they only hurt a little bit each round. Usually, if you find yourself meeting one of the deadlier enemies, it means reloading as death comes easy. Save scumming is accounted for and expected since few games of that era bothered to implement save everywhere.

If the game has one redeeming quality, it’s the dungeon design. If someone would rip out the terrible one-character system and the combat system and replace it with a Wizardry-style one, it would be a massive improvement. As it is, the most compelling aspect of the game is the tricky dungeon layouts with their variety of traps and tricks, and also finding new monster sprites on each floor.

Each level is a bit more difficult than the previous, until you reach level 6 and 7 which are somewhat of a breather, and then you get to the 8th level that has probably the hardest maze in the game. 81 squares only connected by secret walls, secret one-way-walls, lots of harm fields, one spinner and an increased random monster attack rate with most of them killing you in one or two hits. Once you clear that it’s smooth sailing almost to the end (level 9 pictured below).

Whoever designed this put a lot of thought and work into it. And it’s not just the pacing, of how each new floor of the tower introduces new elements and then uses them more extensively on the next floor or later in combination with other elements. Its also how the overall levels are designed. While the levels are highly linear with almost no branching parts – you finish each level by going through sub-sections of each level in sequence – the way how these sub-sections combine and are layered around each other is different each time and just fun to explore.

Again, moment to moment the game is pretty terrible to play and really tests your patience. But if you’re in it for the mapping challenge, then boy is it fun at the same time. That’s the one aspect that kept me going till the end.

The Incredibles (2004)

Every time I re-watch the Incredibles it takes me by surprise just by how deadly the backstory is. It’s basically like a kids version of the Watchmen, where most of the superhero population gets killed off-camera, but murdered for good they get. It always feels like a sucker-punch when we get to that part where the movie just oh-so-slightly mentions what happened.

That said, overall it feels more like an homage to the Fantastic Four, only that the Incredibles actually managed to really make a superhero family work, which very few of the F4 writers ever did. It’s actually astonishing how few superhero families there are in comics, given that families are to some extent one of the most basic units of our society, and yet they are mostly absent in hero stories (okay, most of the time the reasons make sense, but still, I would love seeing more superhero families).

Like a lot of Pixar movies, this was a slow-burner for me (my favorite Pixar movies are Cars and Cars 3, yeah I know that that’s not the common view), but the movie gets better every time I re-watch it. Every character, their troubles, and inter-personal dynamics feel real and there’s just so much attention to detail that I always feel like I’m seeing the movie for the first time, something very few movies manage. Again, slow-burner for me, but over the years I’ve really come to appreciate its qualities.

Disenchantment 1st half of S1 (2018)

Disenchantment, or the first half of the first season of Disenchantment, is undeniably Matt Groening on fantasy. He got the science fiction bug out of his system with Futurama, now he does the same with swords and sorcery. His style is so very much essential to how everything looks and how the comedy works, that if you don’t like that, you probably will not touch the series with a ten-foot pole. On the other hand, if you happen to like that or at least can enjoy it from time to time, then Disenchantment is pretty good.

Not the most fun thing I’ve seen in a while, more on the amusing side of things, but seeing Groening doing a riff on fantasy is interesting and a neat time filler. And while the style looks pretty much unchanged from past series, albeit with a fantasy makeover, storytelling has evolved somewhat. You still get themed episodes, but events from past episodes carry over, there’s an evolving plot that at the end of the ten episodes lead to a status quo change I only saw coming at the last moment and one that felt well-earned and makes me want to see what happens next.

Of the three main characters, I like maybe two, the demon is just plain fun and princess Bean is a good main char, irresponsible, lusting for adventure, doing a lot of drinking (only the demon is allowed to smoke) not the smartest by far but has her heart in the right place.

I can’t say I cared much for the smurf-like elf who went from wide-eyed naive (annoying) in the initial episodes to passive-aggressively lusting after Bean (even more annoying, this is like second-hand Fry lusting after Leela, and Fry did it better). The writers don’t seem to know what to do with him, and it really shows. Maybe they kill him off or sent him to limbo.

Other than that, the series has a nice, enjoyable cast of secondary characters (my favorite the bumbling king) who reappear quite often and whose stories seem often more intriguing than those of the main cast. So far, fun ride.

Nobunagun (2014)

Nobunagun is mediocre done-by-the-numbers anime about a girl who has inherited the soul of Oda Nobunaga and uses his powers to fight aliens, with a large, pop-up machine gun. Like her, there are countless others who have the souls of former warriors or just famous historical people, including male love interest Jack the Ripper. If you’re wondering, wait, WTF?

The series just re-interprets Jack as a good guy, and man does it looks stupid and just feels wrong. The best thing about the series is probably the energetic opening and some of the action scenes, but overall it’s pretty mediocre or worse. The first episode is almost good, but the main heroine shifts between crazy action-girl and insecure schoolgirl too often, and then they threw in an obsession with military stuff and weapons in particular that just feels at odds with her character and just looks like somebody tried to make her less generic (doesn’t work).

This could have been somewhat fun if they doubled down on the action and just went crazy with it, but too often, as if not knowing what to do, the series doubled down on cliches and generic anime conventions. Worst of all was probably the early training episode, but there’s a lot of cringe-worthy and boring stuff spread evenly over all episodes. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, but pretty dire overall.

The Equalizer (2014)

Man, this movie slipped under my radar, but damn it’s a good one. It follows a template that is somewhat common in action movies, the main character with a humble and non-threatening demeanor who hides a ruthless killing machine rarely set free to act upon his impulses. Once set in motion by some bad guys doing something to somebody else (like the Dog in John Wick, or the woman in Shoot Em Up (here it’s a young Russian woman forced to work as a prostitute)), the main guy goes to town on the bad guys.

This only escalates the situation, as the global enforcer of the crime empire they belonged to is coming to town to clear up the mess. Unlike other movies with a similar structure, the bad guy here seems on a much more equal footing with the “good” guy, and what follows is a duel that goes through all the stages of cold to hot up to the frenetic climax.

I enjoyed the ever-loving frag out of the movie, every scene works, every fight has just the right amount of scrunchy hits and fast jabs that make it pure fun to watch. These are fast fights with no wasted moves, and yet they feel really satisfying to watch. And Denzel Washington is just perfect as the amiable guy who turns cold-hearted killer, who calculates every move seconds in advance and yet doesn’t feel too powerful thanks to Marton Csokas as his enemy evening the odds.

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2 should have been an easy home run. I loved the first movie, which managed a perfect balance act between superhero persiflage and being a more or less straight superhero action movie. Sure, it had a rather simple main story, but it worked well enough to bring out all the amusing qualities of Deadpool, from 4th wall breaking to irreverent, never-ending jokes and one-liners.

The sequel is more of the same and yet doesn’t work at all. And it’s interestingly not the fault of Cable, a generic 90ies big cyborg-supersoldier-mutant from the future played by Josh Brolin, who really managed to make his performance as good as you can expect given the material (what I’m trying to say, Cable is a terrible character, but Brolin actually makes me like him, so there you go).

No, the reason Deadpool entirely flounders is that it wants more of the same, only bigger, better. That works for the humor part, there is more, the jokes are (well, not funnier) just as funny as in the first part. One of the best jokes is bringing on X-Force, the quintessential generic X-Men copycat black ops team that for most of its early run time under Liefeld was just terrible. Here, most people expected due to the trailers that it would play a bigger role, instead they get killed off in the most hilarious way possible.

Where Deadpool 2 fails is in trying to up the ante on the drama as well, and from fridging Deadpool’s girlfriend to the main story about saving a fat mutant teenager from becoming a mass murderer, nothing really work. Where it was kept tight in the original with a super-simplistic drama story in the background, here the miss-match in tone makes everything feel wrong too often. There’s a funny Deadpool movie in there, but its dragged down by too much serious crap the movie never needed in the first place.

That said Domino rules. Her parts where she takes over while her X-Force teammates are mowed down are seriously hilarious. And Deadpool is still funny. Just not when he’s going for drama. Then he’s seriously unfunny.

Evil Dead (2013)

The 2013 remake of the first Evil Dead movie isn’t a bad movie, but I can’t imagine how well it would have worked if it wouldn’t stand on the shoulders of giants. From a technical perspective, it’s a better movie than the original.

The violence and gore look more convincing, the acting feels more professional, the visuals in general just looks more polished, the backstory of why they are all out there in the woods is more compelling and they even manage to tie a personal perspective of one of the characters (her drug addictions) to the overall stick of getting taken over by demons and needing to exorcise them. Maybe a bit heavy there, but still a clever idea.

The rest is pretty much the same, students out in a cabin in the woods (though most of them don’t really seem to like each other, unlike the original were they felt more cordial to each other), demons get awaken who kill the group one-by-one while taking over their bodies to make most of the murder festival. It’s a lot like the original, only updated, enhanced and augmented, and with a pretty excellent twist you won’t see coming but which I really enjoyed. It has a similar fast past escalation of events, and yet, it’s missing something.

Or maybe not missing so much, but just it’s very nature weakens it. You rarely hit lighting twice, at least not with the very same thing. Again, it’s a good movie, technically clearly better (or let’s go with more polished), but it just misses the manic energy the original had and which managed to capture the zeitgeist. Despite its goofy, cartoon-ish tricks (which looked admittedly more convincing in 1981 than now) the movie had a devil-may-care attitude that just swept you away. This movie is nice to watch, then you forget about it and only remember it in reference to the original.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Long before I saw the movie for the first time I heard about how extreme and brutal it was (this was over 20 years ago), then I saw the Army of Darkness first and fell in love with the more humoristic incarnation of the Evil Dead franchise so that when I saw the 1st Evil Dead for the first time it didn’t do much for me. Now, again over a decade later, I revisited it and realized just how goofy it really is. By today’s standard the violence is more cartoon-ish than horrifying, but maybe I’ve seen just too many horror movies. Should have seen it when I was young and more impressionable.

Still, for the work of a beginner crew (both in front and behind the camera), it’s a pretty awesome movie. It’s a simple story, a couple students go to an isolated cabinet in the woods, accidentally awaken ancient demons and get killed in various creative ways, while their dead bodies get taken over and are used to taunt and attack their surviving friends until only one is still alive. 50% of the fun here comes from the excellent special effects, the other 50% from seeing just what the movies comes up with next to torture its victims.

Its story isn’t super innovative, but the execution is really half the fun here, where you just aren’t sure how fast everything will spin out of control and just what the evil dead will do next.

Mary Skelter: Nightmares (2016)

Getting difficulty right is one of the hardest things to do. According to the original developers of the dungeon crawler-veteran Wizardry, the team spent a lot of time on getting it quite right with a long phase of testing the combat experience, which is why the game still stands today as a testament of balance (not the modern fake balance that makes each choice equally valid, and thus equally worthless, but actual gameplay balance that keeps battles tense even with well-developed characters until you reach the end-game).

Mary Skelter: Nightmares (2016 on PSVita, 2018 on PC) is one of the Japanese dungeon crawler variants that is solely in the tradition of Wizardry (or it Japanese successors), even if it has its share of unique elements. Combat is turn-based like most Wizardry, but moving around in the dungeons means traversing and avoiding real-time traps. It feels a bit like busy-work, once you know how to avoid the traps, there’s not much to them, but besides the traps the game also offers lots of gated content that similar to a metroidvania-type of game can only be unlocked by getting one of the characters with a unique ability to get past that obstacle.

Bombs to open cracked walls, various ways to traverse pits, speed-move to walk past cracked tiles and so on. Then there are sliding ground tiles that make these parts of the dungeon its own kind of puzzle, and some puzzle where you have to push blocks as a relay station for flaming arrows. I was less fond of those, as again, once you understand the principle it becomes busy-work and not the good kind.

Still, the game tried to innovate in a lot of ways. Character-wise, you only have female chars as active fighters (one passive male char as a support character), two rows (less damage but also less harm on the second row), lots and lots of skills btw. spells to use an upgrade, job-switching, a mechanic to roll back your level to create even stronger chars (you level down but keep certain upgrades, which makes your characters stronger in the long run), a mechanic that makes your character go berserk from time to time, but can be used to get other neat effects, item upgrades.

There are boss-characters that hunt you down in real time in each level, where you can’t kill them and the map is disabled. There are two boss fights where you have to kill them by traversing multiple levels and attack them on each of them.

The problem with a lot of those innovations is that they were exiting in the beginning, but after some time, just became annoying. And while the game throws a lot of concepts and mechanics at you, very few of them feel like they substantially alter gameplay. The early game was definitely the best in terms of tense battles and a real threat to you. After that, the only way you suffered defeat was when you didn’t pay attention, but otherwise, the game became a cake-walk and no enemy really posed a threat.

At the end you have so much money you can carry around an almost infinite amount of health and spell point potions, you can save everywhere and teleport back to base at any point with no cost to it.

All this makes the game trivial easy later on. Difficulty is hard to balance, but it didn’t really feel like they were even trying. And yet, I still enjoyed my time with the game until the end (and the massive post-endgame dungeon). There just something about the basic gameplay that is incredibly addictive. Explore one more dungeon, collect one more member to your troupe, follow the inane discussions between them presented in visual novel style (the most annoying part of the game, there’s lots and lots of pointless talk between the cast that doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile).

And the game looks really good as well, with each dungeon having its own wall-sets, actually multiple different graphics per set and often very different designs for them, and very neat enemy visuals. The cast is pedo-bait anime characters of the worst kind, but the rest of the game doesn’t look like anime much and still offers a cohesive, visual vision.

So, overall, good looking, interesting dungeon crawler that is slightly too easy, but has lots of content (that is quite addictive) that makes it fun to go through at least once.