A screenshot from Cozy Grove. It's a lovely ink and watercolour vibe island with the player holding a fresh fish, still on the fishing line, saying "Yeah, collapsed lungfish!"

Honestly, I was looking forward to Cozy Grove so much that I’d managed to get myself in a right old old pickle. It’s all quite embarrassing, really.

Just, you know, a gently spookified Animal Crossing style experience, designed to be played in small chunks and without the obnoxious monetisation of Pocket Camp dragging it down?

Oh, go on then.

Nearly a week on from picking it up and I’m really not disappointed in the slightest. Cozy Grove is an absolutely lovely game. It’s gorgeous to look at, the writing is whimsical and often as funny as it is charming (and it is remarkably charming) and it really does fill the Animal Crossing but in short sessions void I’d hoped it would.

It’s the game I’d originally hoped Pocket Camp would be and it is but transplanted from Tom Nook’s capitalist hellhole world to a more genteel, kind, spoopy island. A game where it feels less like you’re perpetually engaged in repetitive transactions with animals who just want things from you and can never be satisfied and more everyone helps each other here.

It's a screenshot from Cozy Grove. It's night time and the grove is lit by an abundance of lights.Deck chairs, shrubbery and more surround the player.

The writing has been uniformly wonderful so far. The item descriptions and all that stuff often raise a smile from me (more so for being the first game to truly understand hatred for shrubbery), the characters you meet on the island all have distinct personalities and a sideline in wry humour and slowly uncovering stories has been an absolute joy.

Most importantly, none of the ghosts of animals past are tools. Unlike certain Animal Crossing folk I could name.

Smartly, Cozy Grove is also designed to be played for only a short while, then put away again.

There’s no “energy” mechanic or amount of permitted moves before it starts putting the brakes on, you can tootle about at your own pace and do as much or as little of the day’s tasks but no more than the day’s tasks.

You can spend time fishing, hunting for hidden objects, brutalising shrubbery and doing multiple laps of the island. You just can’t grind and grind at it, the game isn’t interested in that.

It’s a really refreshing change and perhaps a sign that Cozy Grove work best on a portable device of some sort. I’m playing it on the PS4 though and it’s perfectly fabulous as it is. I can nip in once a day, knock a couple of tasks off the list, have a chill wander around the island and sell things to a fox.

Not sure I need much else, to be honest. That all seems perfectly fine.

It's the key art to Void Gore. A crystalline spaceship flies into a Giger-esque landscape past a sinister skull demon with glowing red eyes. It's very metal.
  1. Void Gore” is a phenomenal name for a videogame. Straight up perfection.
  2. It has an incredible piece of key art, which is why I’m leading with that not a screenshot.
  3. I’ve rarely been so grateful for a fade to black in a videogame. Bloody hell.
A screenshot from void Gore. A giant yellow skeletal demon shoots bullets all over the place whilst a spaceship tries to take it down.

Void Gore is a cracking, intense, randomised high score shooter. Simple rules, shoot everything before it shoots you, use your surrounding circle to wipe stuff out for maximum effect. At one stage, the circle clears bullets, at another it clears everything within it. Get a high score.

That’s it. It’s quickfire stuff – games can be over nearly as quickly as they begin, especially whilst you’re still in the process of upgrading your spaceship. Game over comes incredibly swiftly to the point you can see why the game describes each stage as a new hell to survive.

(Spoilers: it’s because each stage is a new hell to survive)

A screenshot from Void Gore. The player is flying through some tentacles whilst things explode around them.

Survival becomes slightly (only slightly!) easier with a few ship upgrades (and the option to unlock multiple background styles is a nice one), but mainly it’s a game that needs practice, a growing familiarity with its handful of hell monsters and their behaviours. Knowing when to hold off and when to hit that kill circle button to maximum effect.

It’s great new arcade stuff but man alive, it can be exhausting playing a game that’s this full on whilst wanting to try again for a better score, often.

We live in a post Super Hexagon world where more often than not, instant restarts are just how things work. Whilst quick, Void Gore gives me a few moments as it fades to black, a chance to recompose myself, get my breath back a bit. It’s an almost-instant restart and just time enough to settle down again.

It's a screenshot from Void Gore. There are skulls being blown apart in a flood of bullets

It’s something I found myself really grateful for!

As much as I’m a fan of putting the least distance between player and videogame, I’m also a fan of being able to relax for a moment before going at something another time. Those few seconds make a tremendous difference to me in stopping the game from being frustrating as well as brutal.

It keeps a rhythm going, it adds a reset for the brain.

Sometimes, it’s the small things, perhaps not even there by deliberate design, that I appreciate the most. Or maybe I just really like breathing? I dunno, I’ll get back to you on that one.

Anyway.

I grabbed Void Gore for the PS4 but other formats exist. I’m having a ball with it. Two thumbs up from me, alright. Go gerrit.

Sega blue skies and low poly cars in Hotshot Racing. Two cars are in a tussle during a race.

Early impressions but it’s safe to say I’m pretty happy with Hotshot Racing so far.

Not entirely sure what I was expecting considering I’d pretty much forgotten about the thing 2 or 3 years back and so was pleasantly surprised to see reviews dropping this week for it. Eurogamer’s review pretty much sold it to me, anyhoo.

A low poly Roger Moore, with his face punched in.

Admittedly I’m having a bit of trouble with Aston (hohoho) looking like someone had wrote “draw Roger Moore but with his face punched in” on the design document and nobody stopped to think whether this was the most aesthetically pleasing choice BUT that seems like a pretty small complaint.

Honestly think I’m spoilt by the low poly stuff Ethan Redd knocks out so anything is going to look a bit worse in comparison, no one person should be allowed to set the bar that high. It’s just rude.

A low poly car going fast down a low poly road. It's beige.

It still looks pretty fine though, all the right bright colours in place for the most part, even the menus are perfectly Sega arcade enough. I like it.

Racing wise, it’s surprisingly more in the realms of the still rather excellent Split/Second (without the exploding scenery and stuff) than Outrun 2 or Daytona, even down to the really aggressive rubber banding. Though, as far as I can see, it doesn’t share Split/Second’s more gentle difficulty adjustment when you repeatedly muck a race up.

It’s not a huge problem but it does mean the racing can be rather unforgiving and mistakes can be costly in Grand Prix mode. A couple of times I’ve mucked up a drift and gone from first to last place with nowhere near enough track left to recover.

Luckily, I’ve been too busy going “wheeeeee” and “whoooooooo” to care all that much. (Figured I best mention it though in case that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you.)

A low poly car ramming into another low poly car in a low poly canyon.

There’s so much I haven’t had chance to look at yet, mind. There’s so many cars, so many tracks, a few different game modes – it’s a really excessively full game for its budget price! I’m happy enough playing the Grand Prix mode or doing a single race in Arcade mode so I haven’t really felt in a hurry to check everything else out. I’ll get round to it all soon enough, I’m sure.

Maybe? Truth be told, I’ve been playing Outrun 2 for a very long time now and still haven’t bothered looking at half of what’s in the home versions of that. Sometimes there’s enough joy to be had from the main game and the rest is a nice bonus. Like I say, I’ve been enjoying the main mode of Hotshot Racing plenty so, err, yeah. Might get round to the rest, dunno.

I really am quite happy with the low poly wheels on my car going round and round, round and round. Hotshot Racing is the good stuff, full of bright colours and blue skies and that’s all that matters to me.

Originally published on Sept 13, 2020.

Torchlight III is perhaps the most casual ARPG I’ve played yet.

I know there’s a lot of baggage around the word “casual” but I assure you, I use the term in the nicest way possible. Torchlight III is very, very relaxed – both in pacing and difficulty – and given how tired I am right now, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a game. Low stakes, low pressure, numbers going up and pretty colours? That’s me sorted, thankingyouverymuch.

I can understand how, perhaps, this would be disappointing to anyone seeking a deeper, more challenging, number juggling, ARPG. Torchlight III is very not that game. Essentially, it’s a game where you tootle around mazes using every single button available in order to flash lights at goblins and robots whilst making some numbers go up.

Probably the most usual view of Torchlight III, the player surrounded by a glowing light, a sigil on the floor also glowing beneath them. Text pops off enemies who are also surrounded by their own glow. Loot and corpses abound. It's all really cartoony and kid friendly despite the somewhat grim description.

The numbers do rather tend to go up slowly, mind.

Sometimes it’s a grind (hello ‘contracts’ which operate similar to how battle/season passes tend to except no extra money changes hands) but for the most part it’s just numbers going up slowly because the game just isn’t in any sort of hurry.

I’ve been playing (and completely failing to enjoy) a bunch of roguelikes recently where the games really feel stingy, progress gated and slowed just because. Often progress being in tiny increments, if any is made at all.

Thank Molyneux I never once got that vibe from Torchlight III because, frankly, it does my noggin in trying to wade through that sort of game. No, no, Torchlight III is just an amble, a meander, a stroll. Perhaps it’s a result of its roots as a repurposed F2P game, I don’t know. Either way, it’s chill and far from a furious button smashfest to get the next skillpoint as soon as possible.

(I skillfully negotiated around the problems with contracts by ignoring them entirely, because I can)

It's a screenshot from Torchlight III, it's a manky metal dungeon with a steampunk brown and off green/grey look. It's not very complimentary but there is a big fight going on so not all is lost.

Contracts are one of a handful of ways that, compared to its predecessors, Torchlight III is a tad rough around the edges.

You wouldn’t know it from the screenshots because visually, the game is absolutely gorgeous at just about every turn! Whilst the new Diablo looks to be asking the question “what would my depression play like?”, Torchlight III goes all in on colours in a far more cartoon-inspired fantasy world. It’s all the stuff I liked about Torchlight II’s art but better.

But yes, try and navigate its menus and map, browse the inventory and, well, move around in game and the rough edges are quite unavoidable. It’s not bad, really it isn’t. I think it’s genuinely all the more jarring precisely because the art is so good. It looks like there shouldn’t be any jank whatsoever so encountering any feels even more wrong than it would in a clunky looking game.

Largely, I’m having a great time with it and couldn’t care less. That’s the important bit.

A screenshot from the game Torchlight III. It's a stone dungeon with gold leaf motifs on the floor. There's a fight giving on and some glowing loot dropped in one spot, criminally not picked up already by the player.

And yes, there’s vestiges of what a F2P Torchlight would have been still present. The fort you’re tasked with filling up from pretty early on is the stuff of a thousand and one free to play towns, encampments or whatever. Arrange it how you’d like, pump resources in to get resources back out, complete with wait timers. Craft stuff, arrange it how you’d like, pump resources in … you get the picture.

Just, the wait timers are negligible. They barely run for longer than it takes you to click off the thing you’re waiting for. So so obviously the kind of thing where it would have been too much work to remove these systems from the game so instead they’re rendered as unobtrusive and innocuous as possible. They’re just not a problem in the slightest, if I’m honest. They’re just sort of there and *shrugs* okay, whatever.

A screenshot from the game Torchlight III. It's a top down view of a forest with some sort of fight happening in one spot.

For all my incredibly minor grumbles, Torchlight III hits the spot. Hitting things is exactly as trancelike and reflexive as I’m after, I’m suitably showered in coins and loot whilst playing and numbers keep going up.

I never used to but these days I really like numbers going up, they give me something pointless to concentrate on in these tumultuous times.

Sometimes, if I’m feeling a bit cheeky, I make one number go down whilst another one goes up. Strategy, mate. Strategy.

But seriously, I tend to play an ARPG as a tidying up simulator. Break everything breakable, explore every corner of the map, collect every treasure, hit everything until it goes away and eventually, I have a nice, clean, map that’s free of anything interactive except maybe a few traps I can’t do anything about. Then, I do it again.

Torchlight III lets me do that, albeit much, much, much more slowly than most other games. It’s a pace I have no objections to and the hitting things is good.

That makes it alright in my book, you know?

Been having a bit of a grumpy old time of it these past few weeks so time to crack out the big guns.

Madonna Of The Wasps is one of three Hitchcock numbers that never fails to cheer me up (for the record: Heaven and Ted, Woody And Junior are the other two).

Honourable mention to Neko Case whose cover version works the exact same magic.

The Ghosts Of Videogames Yet To Come

A screenshot from Moose Life. It's like a vidkidz arcade game circa 1983 except new. The screen has the text "attractive moose! I will get a big plushie of you and cuddle up to it in bed. Soporific plushie. Moose cuddles"

Moose Life feels like a game that’s existed as long as videogames. Moose Life feels like a game I’ve never played the likes of before.

Moose Life is really confusing like that. Seriously, it’s kinda baffling.

It’s Llamasoft doing what they do best – a psychedelic arcade game, Vidkidz inspired, honed through 40 odd years of learning on the job, of craft and expertise. Particles fly, words explode, sheep baa. It’s beautiful, hypnotic, it is the zone incarnate.

It's particles. Purple particles everywhere.

If Polybius is the videogame as urban legend, Moose Life is the videogame as hauntology, an echo of something familiar that never really was. A day at the seaside never taken, a game never played in a pub, a sports centre, a chip shop. 10 pence pieces never spent, a name in a high score table never entered, a score never beaten.

Moose Life is uncanny in its authenticity yet also unsettling in its impossibility. An anomalous videogame, unstuck in time – too old to be new, too new to be old. Too perfect a combination to have existed before now.

And yet you could swear…

A screenshot from Moose Life. There is a pixel moose hanging from a pixel ceiling, green mushrooms are scattered all over the 'floor'

Everything, and I do mean everything, explodes

The amount of explosions in this thing is, quite frankly, obscene.

Thinking back to a lot of the time I spent with Space Giraffe and yeah, it was most definitely out there. That said, despite its reputation it certainly took a while to really let go.

By the time I’d survived through to Level 11 of Moose Life for the first time, my eyesight was absolutely broken.

Not in some metaphorical sense either! For a whole ten minutes afterwards anything and everything I looked at moved. Even words on my phone were zooming towards me.

It took until a good way around the halfway mark for Space Giraffe to have a similar effect on me. It’s completely wild. I loved it!

I can’t imagine sticking your head inside it in VR, blimey. That’s gotta chafe.

Moose Life. It's a very trippy orange screenshot with a purple pixel moose, a purple sphere and multicoloured pixel animals. And explosions.

Ostensibly, the objective is simple. Shoot enemies, take pills, save the animals, claim a high score. And yet.

Moose Life is a game of Chicken, of forever ducking and weaving inside the map. It is Defender mapped to a 3d space except the player is constantly facing the same way, staring down an endless one way tunnel of bold colours and chunky pixels.

Enemies rez into position, pixels all up the place. Your lasers shatter them back into pixels on contact. Mostly. Sometimes the player ends up changing the state of the enemy, an abstract shape becomes animal, threatening. Cubes shift colours, seem angrier somehow as though the digital distillation of Zelda’s anti-Zeroid cubes.

Moose Life. It's a lot of particles. You can just about make out some other stuff but mainly just particles.

Everything explodes.

Pills drift into the map offering some of the most ridiculous power ups ever to bless a videogame. Your moose throws a moose party, your moose splits into two – a mirror moose, reflected on the opposite surface.

If a pill drifts past the player, it still exists on the map. Lurch into a panicked reverse, try and remember the baddies that got through your defences so as not to blindly career into them, exploding your moose into pretty colours. Instead, find the pill, explode everything else into pretty colours.

Moose Life is Defender x Ballblazer x Encounter x Devil Daggers x Blaster (with a moose).

There’s so much going on in Moose Life, so many influences, inspirations – work done with intent and coincidentally – that it’s difficult to know where to even start describing it.

The Vidkidz influence is strong, it’s almost Defender mapped to a 3d plane. There’s a hefty dose of David Levine as drifting back and forth within the play area feels a lot like playing the Lucasarts classic Ballblazer (only wilder, obv)

The giant Robotrons flying towards your space moose are more than a passing nod to the criminally underappreciated arcade triumph that was/is Blaster

At times, it has the intensity of Devil Daggers shot through with the DNA of Paul Woakes’ excellent (and all too forgotten alongside Mercenary), Encounter.

It’s the videogame equivalent of a scotch drinker’s dreamiest dream. It’s the special stuff.

any excuse to link a Chinny comparison vid, really.

It’s early days yet but I rather suspect Moose Life might well be the best Llamasoft game since/alongside Space Giraffe, though as ever that’s all a bit “which best thing is the best?” so maybe ignore me.

Ok, let me try that again.

I’ve adored pretty much everything Llamasoft have punted out on recent gen machines, each and every game having been remarkable in its own standout way. Each game has had a distinct personality, never formulaic unless by necessity (and even then we’re talking Tempest 4000/TxK which are Llamasoft’s formula anyway. Well, and Dave Theurer’s too obviously. Let’s not be rude!), always taking steps to someplace else.

Moose Life feels important in the way Space Giraffe did. Steps forward, yeah? Big arcadey steps forward. It shouldn’t feel as fresh and new as it does but it absolutely does. It absolutely is.

I don’t know where we go from here but I can’t wait to find out. I bet it’s full of stars there too.

Moose Life is available on PC and PS4 in normal-o-vision and VR. I’ve been hammering the PS4 version and yes, yes, yes.

Like I wasn’t going to give a game called Inksplosion that looks like this a try.

A big splat of colour within a green border

You know, me liking colours and all that.

Let’s just stop for a second again and do another screenshot (all pics here taken from the Steam page because I couldn’t be bothered with the faff of getting the ones off my PS4, sorry)

A light blue border, a splat of colour. This time the sprites are easily visible, they're white abstract designs with bold black outlines.

Yeah, there was absolutely no way I was going to let this pass me by.

Just look at those colours, they’re fantastic. Go on, let’s do one more picture.

Like someone has tipped paint on the screen, a splurge of colour stretches out across the screen in yellow, greens and blues. Some white sprites with black borders are visible amongst the noise.

It’s some sort of visual hybrid of (my own) War Twat and the all time greatest Asteroids game of all time, Spheres Of Chaos. That’ll do me.

Sorry. I’ll calm down now. I’m okay. I haven’t been this excited about colours in a game since Ultralight Beam. It’ll pass in a second.

Anyhoo. As twin stick shooters go, there’s probably few surprises here. You’re faced with a jumble of waves and each wave finds you having to use a different weapon to clear the screen. Clear the screen, move on to the next wave. You now have a different weapon. Shoot those baddies! Clear the screen! And so on.

There isn’t really that much to distinguish each weapon from the other and as far as I played, not much to distinguish each enemy from the other either. But that’s okay, yeah? I’m not playing this for mechanical marvels, I’m playing this because I really really like watching colours explode across the screen and Inksplosion does that perfectly.

Inksplosion is, primarily, a game about making things explode to smear colour across the screen. Every thirty seconds or so the mess will be cleared up and you get to do it all over again.

My only real gripe is that the announcer that declares each weapon you find yourself suddenly equipped with comes across more Viv Stanshall On Tubular Bells than befitting of an arcade game but I’ll freely admit that I have very, very specific ideas of what speech in arcade games should sound like. Also, I dearly love a lot of Bonzo stuff but Tubular Bells brings me out in hives. Not sure I can put the blame for that on Inksplosion, really.

Phew. Got a bit lost there, sorry. Anyway. Inksplosion set me back about four quid and I don’t regret a penny of it. I plumped for the PS4 version but other formats are available.