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Pathway Review — Pulp Strategy Adventure

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Fans of the Indiana Jones movies will find familiarity in Pathway. Developer Robotality has drawn on the same inspiration, using classic tropes from 1930s pulp action-adventure books and films to create a strategic RPG adventure.

The setting is a bleak but beautiful desert that contains dark, dangerous ancient tombs; long-lost artefacts; and many Nazis, zombies, and cultists to battle. The visuals are one of the most appealing things about Pathway. The pixel/voxel art is skilfully combined with gorgeous watercolour-style backgrounds, along with incredible dynamic lighting. This combination brings the entire scene to life. The overall effect results in a pleasingly modern take on early LucasArts adventure games.

Complementing the desert setting and pulp stylings is the music, which is cinematic and sounds perfect for the game. The soundtrack owes a lot to John Williams’s work on the Indiana Jones films, and this is by no means a bad thing.

At the start, players can pick from a range of characters who all have their own backgrounds and skills. This array can result in some amusing combinations, such as a priest who is deadly with a shotgun or a nurse who is incredibly skilled with a pistol. Sixteen characters are playable in all, some of which need to be unlocked before they can be used. Each character is a specialist in some area and has particular perks that can be unlocked as you progress. That said, every advantage comes with a disadvantage, such as a limited upgrade path or a disadvantage in one stat. This design ensures the characters are relatively balanced.

Pathway has a sprinkling of roguelike elements. Among these elements is permadeath, where losing the entire party will send the player back to the main menu screen, though any experience or item and weapon upgrades gained by the characters remain into the next attempt. Each run is randomised, so the locations and events through the map are shuffled each time.

The map itself is arranged in a node structure, similar to FTL: Faster Than Light, and each tile on the route has its own event. This structure can mean an encounter with some desert nomads, finding a trader, or even encountering a new party member. Unfortunately, though the events are randomised, many do not seem to occur, and the player will start seeing them repeat quite quickly. Some of the events can be entertaining, though, like the encounter with the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the blatant Stargate reference. However, after the same scripted event has played for the fifth, or tenth, time it gets tedious and players might find themselves skipping them as fast as possible to get to the meat of the game.

Though the little vignettes are nice, what the player will usually end up with is a combat scenario. Like the other events, these can also become a little bit repetitive, as the player will find they are facing the same Nazis or zombies in similar locations over and over again. The combat itself is fairly solid, feeling much like a cut-down and simplified XCOM. The difficulty curve for the combat is fairly steep at first, but, once players adapt to the flow of ‘hit-and-run’ ranged attacks and staying in cover unless necessary, progress becomes easier.

Characters come with a health and armour stat and a Bravery meter. Bravery points can be gained by killing an enemy, dodging an attack, or performing certain special attacks. Special attacks include a bleed effect when using a knife or a cone-based area-of-effect ability. However, a lot of these abilities are not as effective as just staying at range and filling the enemy full of bullets, though skills and perks for that exist, too.

For players who are experiencing problems with the difficulty curve, using sliders in the options menu can decrease enemy health and damage output, as well as increase the amount of starting ammunition and fuel. The sliders also go the other way for players seeking more of a challenge. Unfortunately, this modifier does not quite work as expected, as upping the difficulty just makes the experience frustrating and tedious.

As expected for a roguelike, losing the entire party means the player is sent back to the main menu. Starting up the same campaign means characters utilised in the previous attempt will be unavailable, as they are listed as being hospitalised. While this can be frustrating if the player has become accustomed to the previous characters, it does provide some variety, as well as access to different abilities. One interesting perk is the Daredevil trait, which allows a character to jump between vehicles in pursuit of an enemy.

Five campaigns are in Pathway, although these are not particularly deep. The first campaign involves trying to rescue a friend kidnapped by Nazis, which is about as much plot as players get. The background, skills, and personality of the characters along with the lightly sketched narrative seem to be designed to encourage the player to devise their own tales about the characters, but it really just serves to make Pathway feel a bit shallow.

Pathway is a decent game, but it could be superb if a few more events were added into the randomised event tiles and the campaign storyline was strengthened. The combat has a solid strategy core to it, and the music and visuals are both brilliantly crafted. Variety is the spice of life and video games; Pathway just needs to add a bit more of that spice to make it stunning.

OnlySP Review Score 3 CreditReviewed on PC.

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Review

SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead

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The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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