Tainted Grail

May Review Round-Up: Jetboard Joust, Erica, Pecaminosa And More

May has also delivered a bumper crop of intriguing indie games to play, and this month’s round-up of games has proven to be exceptionally remarkable, too. Take a look at these:

Jetboard Joust

Incredibly intense

What is it about side-scrolling and bullet hell shooters that make them such a perfect fit with pixel art? Jetboard Joust is constructed in that magnificent mould, skillfully mixing in the unforgiving harshness of roguelikes to deliver a chaotic but thrilling bullet hell action. In this game, aliens and other assortment of pixelated foes will spew all sorts of gunfire towards your direction, as you try to stay alive for as long as you can.

You’ll be steering your supercharged jetboard across levels, attempting to fend off these alien invaders while rescuing as many hapless civilians as possible—a manoeuvre that’s necessary because they can be abducted and forcefully mutated into a deadlier enemy, rather than stemming from some misguided sense of heroic resolve. Of course, you’ll inevitably end up crashing and rupturing into smithereens one too many times. What will keep you going, however, is the explosive beauty of all the vibrant pixels around you, as well as the promise of eviscerating bigger and badder enemies with an overpowered arsenal of weapons—from gatling guns to gravity hammers. It may be punishing at times, but Jetboard Joust is truly at its most exhilarating when it’s firing on all cylinders.

[Reviewed on PC]



A compelling two-hour movie

Erica sells itself as an interactive thriller—and it’s exactly what it states on the box. A full-motion video (FMV) game with zero of the genre’s historically overwrought cheesiness, Erica can probably pass off as a Hollywood film with its incredibly high-fidelity production. But on a sliding spectrum between the two mediums of games and movies, Erica is decidedly more movie than game, as it sought to introduce the cinematic language to a medium that is sometimes at odds with the linearity of movies.

The tale is a fascinating, supernatural thriller centred around the exploits of Erica, charmingly performed by English actress Holly Earl, but who perpetually oscillates between the emotional states of bewilderment and muted horror. While there are key, timed decisions you’ll make at pivotal points, most of the game’s interactive moments are perfunctory, mostly getting you to mimic Erica’s movements—be it turning the knob of a door or unbuckling a hefty briefcase. What this interactive thriller excels in, however, is its ability to keep you in perpetual suspense. It drives a compelling narrative for sure, but it also begs the question why it needs to be presented as a game to do so.

[Reviewed on PC]



Ye olde noir fiction

At first glance, you may be forgiven for thinking that Pecaminosa is a point-and-click  adventure, in the vein of the numerous cyberpunk noir games that have materialised in recent years. But Pecaminosa is less like Hideo Kojima’s classic point-and-click game Snatcher, and more akin to the action RPG stylings of games like Fallout, complete with a leveling system that’s the hallmark of the genre. 

Pecaminosa does have all the elements of a noir fiction game: as an alcoholic, down-on-your-luck private investigator, you’ve been approached by the spectre of a dead mob boss to investigate a strange case involving some former associates. The universe is drenched in perpetual darkness, and the film noir atmosphere intoxicating, even if the characters are essentially stock characters from the genre: the broody detective, the harlot with the heart of gold, and even a racist caricature of a Chinese shopkeeper. There are also light combat and fisticuffs involved, even though they are a tad unwieldy. Pecaminosa isn’t here to break boundaries, but it should still please fans of noir fiction who enjoy sleuthing around in the pitch darkness of a debauched city.

[Reviewed on PC]


Tainted Grail: Conquest

Staying alive is arduous

Further tweaking the Slay the Spire formula of mixing deck-building mechanics with roguelike elements is Tainted Grail, an unforgiving roguelike that also weaves in one more ingredient: the suffocating, infernal hellscapes of Diablo. But unlike the frenetic, almost instinctive non-stop clicking of Diablo, Tainted Grail moves along at a more measured pace, with you even having to earn your privilege to gain access to the game’s pantheon of heroes.

Adapted from the board game of the same name, Tainted Grail’s twisted, dark fantasy universe quickly inducts you to the desperation of clinging on to a sliver of life. Akin to a turn-based RPG, you’ll pick the moves you want to play in a combat round, be it offensive or defensive, from a deck of cards. Making this more suffocating is a miasma of fog enveloping the world called the “wrydness”, which can cripple you in battle if you’re not wary, by introducing wild cards that you should play as soon as possible. It’s a grueling but exhilarating journey that confronts what we probably know all along: that the pain of living through countless deaths and tragedies is ultimately what binds us together in life.

[Reviewed on PC]



Post-apocalyptic beauty at its best

The Brotherhood is the brilliant minds behind sci-fi horror games Stasis and Cayne—and it is with great anticipation that I delve into their newest title: Beautiful Desolation, an isometric point-and-click game set in a wretched, post-apocalyptic landscape. And what an immaculate, detailed universe it is. Marooned on a bleak, dangerous island and separated from your brother, you’ll be navigating your way around nefarious groups and desolate cities, as you find your bearings and watch increasingly macabre events unfold around you.

Beautiful Desolation’s setting brings to mind the 2D, isometric view of the original Fallout games, and its universe and denizens are every bit as iconic and unforgettable. It’s a world where civilisation struggles to etch a living against the encroaching forces of nature, where critters make their home among giant, sundried carcasses, and where moss grows within the crevices of the cranky robots you’ll speak to along the way. 

Yet at its heart, Beautiful Desolation is also a thinly disguised series of fetch quests, where you’ll be asked to run errands in exchange for favours, usually by picking this piece of tech from far flung corners of the world. Invisible walls, too, add another layer of frustration to this janky experience. I am, however, willing to be hoodwinked into performing these busywork, if it means I can witness more of its broken, picturesque universe.   

[Reviewed on Switch]