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Squishies Review — Cute Exterior Hides a Fiendishly Challenging Puzzler

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Squishies

Back in the misty depths of time, and the dawn of the console gaming era, video games were often punishingly hard. This was both an outgrowth of the coin-sucking nature of the arcades that preceded them, and a feature that let players get as much playtime as possible from their games. Despite its colourful and thoroughly modern exterior, in many ways Squishies is a throwback to those days.

Squishies is a product of developer Brainseed, who previously produced the very dark title Typoman. Available only for PlayStation VR, Squishies is a bright and colourful puzzle title that challenges the player to guide the adorably round squishies through a level and towards the goal.

Levels are presented as platforms resembling floating dioramas which can be moved around to get the best angle. In order to move the squishies, the PlayStation Move controllers transform into two fish-like devices which can blow a puff of air, or such the squishies back like a vacuum. This mechanism is operated by using the triggers on the Move controllers, but is very tricky to get used to.

Players will need to cultivate a deep well of patience and an appreciation of the laws of momentum, as the wrong movement at the wrong time will send the poor creature hurtling off the edge and into the abyss. Players will also often find themselves twisting into a pretzel to get the precise angle needed to grab an elusive collectable. This process can become tiring after a while, and even painful if proper care is not taken.

Thankfully, since Squishies is primarily stationary, with the world moving instead of the player, players will not need to worry too much about experiencing the motion sickness symptoms that can come from playing virtual reality (VR).

The main campaign features 100 levels to complete, and each level comes with multiple optional challenges, such as attempting to grab every collectable crystal, or testing how many squishies players can successfully guide to the exit. Hidden eggs can also be found. The player cannot fail a level, as they are given as many tries as necessary, and the game has plenty of checkpoints to ease the frustration somewhat.

Despite this seeming simplicity, some of the levels can be extremely demanding, requiring a level of precision that is very hard to accomplish with the ageing PlayStation Move hardware and the slightly jittery tracking of the PlayStation VR.

The graphics are simplistic but very appealing, with a bright and cartoonish colour palette and a blocky feel reminiscent of Minecraft and other recent voxel-based titles. The graphics work perfectly for the world and supports the gameplay since the simple style means that no excess clutter gets in the way.

The vast number of levels and the challenges of beating time trials and finding all the hidden collectables certainly presents enough content to keep puzzle fans happy, but the game also adds another dimension to the gameplay that offers a more creative option.

Playing through the levels unlocks various elements that can be used in a level editor. The more levels and challenges players complete, the more becomes available in the level editor. The level editor itself is well-designed, offering a simple drag-and-drop structure for users to experiment with. This feature ends up being one of the best uses of VR in the game, as being inside the 3D space gives players a much better grasp on the design and layout of the level.

The level editor is very user-friendly, guiding players through the process of laying down terrain and building up the environment without too much hand-holding. The integration of the PlayStation Move works well in this area, such as allowing the orientation of an object to changed with a movement of the wrist.

While the level editor does not quite have the same depth and variety as titles such as Mario Maker or LittleBigPlanet, it is still a deeply satisfying experience which allows players to make some very interesting creations. Seeing what the community comes up with in this space will certainly be fascinating.

The music is pleasant, if somewhat minimalist; it makes for a reasonable background sound, but is somewhat unremarkable, lacking the kind of hummable melodies of other puzzle titles like Tetris or Columns.

Squishies is the sort of title that is best experienced in short bursts. As a way to kill time in-between projects, the game works well, but the inherent flaws of the PlayStation Move and the sometimes jittery PSVR tracking combined with the difficulty curve means that attempting to play it for long periods can lead to controller-snapping levels of frustration.

The levels editor, by contrast, is a calming and satisfying experienced, and players will be disappointed to find that some of the more interesting level elements are locked behind some of the more difficult challenges.

For fans of old-school ‘Nintendo Hard’ puzzle titles, Squishies is definitely worth checking out, and trying out some of the tricker challenges. Even those less interested in brutal difficulty can find satisfaction in completing some of the simpler challenges. The level editor is also worth spending some time exploring, and could be considered a game in its own right.

Squishies does not do anything revolutionary, but does enough right that it makes for an interesting experience, especially with the level editor taking into consideration. The game runs into problem with the limitations of the hardware, but overcomes them well enough to offer an interesting and fun challenge.

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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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