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The Deadly Tower of Monsters Review – Apes in Space

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A game set inside a pulp movie DVD extras menu is not something you see every day, but it is a description that sums up The Deadly Tower of Monsters pretty well.

Following the adventures of Dick Starspeed, a Buck Rodgers-style spaceman fighting giant apes and dinosaurs after crash landing on a mysterious planet, the premise of the game is that you’re not actually playing a game, but watching a new DVD re-release of a movie from this classic genre. And this isn’t just some tacked on framing device, it’s a premise the devs take to its furthest possible extremes for hilarious results. While the actual game is a fairly simple if nicely-polished action-adventure romp, the genre satire is something else entirely, and a real gem for fans with any sort of nostalgia for that era of film, parodying everything from Lost in Space to King Kong and Planet of the Apes.

The game-within-a-film conceit is carried mostly by an ongoing narration in the style of a commentary track by the film’s original leading man. Endlessly talkative, the narrator comments on nearly everything in the game, from commenting on each ‘scene’ and ‘shot’ as the player moves through the map or engages in big fights, or describing the special effects techniques or props used for weapons, enemies, and special attacks. Naturally, these are all primitive or low-budget, including stop-motion dinosaurs, electric shavers for ray guys, inflatable rocks and flying monsters held up on strings. And because the game really holds tight to the idea, everything looks just as intentionally cheesy as described, jerky monster animations, visible strings and all. Even character deaths are treated as bloopers or outtakes, and pausing the game brings up VCR/DVD-player style control buttons.

And it isn’t only the intentional imitation and parody of primitive effects that makes up the joke, but the narrator’s over the top personality. With his ego on full display and lacking even a touch of self-awareness, the narrator probably hits every trope imaginable for a hammy leading man. We’re talking Shatner levels here, all delivered in a perfectly stereotypical voice and cadence. There are points where you almost feel wrong for laughing as he so casually, almost lovingly insults the people he worked with, reflecting on how a talented actor who spent all his time in costume was ‘accidentally’ left out of the credits, or even boasting of how amazingly progressive they were for including a scene where the leading lady (who serves as an alternate playable character) saves the manOf course, he’ll turn right around and subvert any good will earned by this later, pointing out that no one would believe a woman could handle explosives, which serves as explanation for the different characters having unique abilities.

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All of this really comes together to sell the concept, and I haven’t found myself laughing at a game so readily in a while. The tropes are familiar, but they’re presented with such over the top glee and in such hilariously oblivious seriousness by the narrator that you can’t help but get sucked into the idea. It should be no surprise that the game-slash-film’s storyline is itself as zany and cheesy as anything from the era it satires, complete with a cackling, mustachioed space Emperor ruling the planet full of ape slaves from the game’s namesake tower. It would work as parody humor even without the commentary track, but hits an even higher mark together with them.

On the mechanical side, because there is still a playable game underneath this giant, satire-rich framing device, most things are solid if not groundbreaking.  The game’s 3D environments are colorful and varied, rich with the bizarre-looking trappings of oldschool sci-fi, and while the path through is mostly linear, the game does a good job at linking some of the areas on the vertical axis (we are climbing a big tower, after all). It’s not uncommon to end up looking down on a prior area from above as you scale a higher section, and this can sometimes help you spot solutions to puzzles or secrets you might have missed from a different vantage point, or even require you to leap down from above to access them. This is where some of the game’s more interesting movement mechanics come into play, making it a bit more than a simple brawl.

A limited-fuel jetpack enables double-jumps and short glides, or can allow the player to halt an otherwise deadly fall near the ground. There’s also a teleportation mechanic, that while mostly used as a movement shortcut between different areas of the tower, also allows the player to effectively ‘rubber-band’ a missed jump, either to save themselves from a screw-up or to snag something out of reach and then pop back. All of these make the puzzle and secret-hunting quite refreshing, as it’s rarely punishing but can involve some clever thinking. My only gripe is that sometimes the fixed cameras can make particular jumps more difficult than they should be.

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The rest of the game is pretty much the combat, which involves whacking enemies with melee weapons or shooting them with a ray gun. Both major weapons have a variety of subtypes, from primitive spears and stun batons for up close work to flamethrowers and tesla-arc weapons in the ranged slot. The player can carry any two of each type at a time, and also upgrade each individual weapon using cash and tokens hidden throughout the environment. The variety here is definitely a strong point for the game, especially for the ranged weapons, and while each is optimized toward particular types of enemies, I imagine most players will quickly gravitate toward personal favorites.

The different characters also come with special abilities which work on a short cooldown timer and can be used to great effect in bigger more chaotic fights, or for the occasional puzzle related reason. I didn’t find that they were often needed, but they were still fun to play around with, particularly the push for knocking enemies around or off of things or the barrier for deflecting attacks. There’s also some mild RPG-like character progression on top of the weapon upgrades, which allows you to focus on different facets of the game (upgrading energy refresh for more ranged weapon shots, for example). I’m not sure how much they add to the game, but it does allow some further customization toward a playstyle.

Overall, this game is definitely a great pick for any sci-fi fan, providing a highly accessible and entertaining gameplay experience packed with plenty of humor and parody. While it’s far from revolutionary, the colorful environments and vertically-minded puzzles are a great ride, and the audio commentary is downright hilarious.

Platforms: PC/Steam, PS4 (coming soon) | Devloper: ACE Team Publisher: ATLUS | ESRB: Teen | Controls: Mouse/keyboard, Controller

This review copy of The Deadly Tower of Monsters was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.

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Review

The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not

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The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 1

Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.  

One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.

The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.  

Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals. 

This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell. 

The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying. 

Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.

Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.    

The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.  

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So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.

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