Facing the grotesque, disturbing world of Apsulov: End of Gods—Tom Senior
I suppose I should move at some point, but the dark basement is full of furry naked men with stag heads. This has put me right off the idea of going around another corner. I’ve found a large backlit fan—every sci-fi corridor has one—and I’m going to bask in its meagre light until the universe ends, or my eyeballs recharge. Whatever comes first.
Apsulov: End of Gods is a grim time. You wake up on a stone operating table being sliced up by a crab-like machine with a face, gurgling as your character tries to speak through the mess of their own throat. For a second I get a powerful visualisation of what that must feel like, and then realise that on some deep, fundamental level I can’t enjoy horror games the way I used to.
Once I would admire the grotesque imagery and enjoy the sense of shock—oh wow, that’s so twisted. To nick a phrase Phil might use, I’d love a game, film, or book that truly freaked my bean. But wandering around Apsulov’s nightmare makes me realise that the way I empathise with imagery has changed somehow, without me even realising. I have gained an unsuppressable empathy for depictions of bodies and people. When a naked stag dude runs up and throttles me while screaming in torment, his fear and the vivid choking experience crowds my brain. And now I’m stuck in this corridor.
This is quite irritating, but probably how horror games are actually supposed to be experienced. Once my eyeballs have powered up again I activate The Sight, which scans the darkness and outlines objects and enemies in a glittering sheen. There are a few stag guys, but they are busy clutching their heads and moaning. Nobody is having fun in this world, but I press on, because I’m curious to see how Apsulov interprets Norse canon with a twist.
Thanks to an audio diary I learn that the facility is being invaded by mysterious roots. The gods are responsible, it seems. The bad machine I met at the start of the game continues to talk to me through statues, and I wonder if one of the gods is tormenting me. I’m used to seeing Norse mythology in Scandinavian oral traditions and, more recently, Marvel superhero films. This is different, and I like the idea that Thor may be a terrifying unknowable entity rather than a jolly Australian muscle man.
But in the end it’s the monotony that gets me. Dark corridors give way to winding vents, and then more corridors. The idea that the game might be about cyber-Ragnarok in the far future is almost enough to keep my interest, but in the end it’s too unpleasant and my eyeballs keep running out of batteries. I feel as though I need a palette cleanser. I Alt-F4 out and check PCGamer.com. What’s this—Fight Crab, out now? I may have soured on the horror genre, but I know I’ll still find crustacean- on-crustacean violence hilarious.
Becoming a monster in My Lovely Daughter—Robin Valentine
If there’s one thing almost all videogames are good at, it’s making you think like a sociopath. Whether you’re giggling as you mow down guards by the hundreds, callously calling entire nations into all-out war, or making someone love you by working out exactly the correct things to say to maximise your romance, your morality almost always takes second place to objectives, rewards, and progression systems.
I’m not sure any game, though, has turned me into quite as much of a creep as My Lovely Daughter. Cast as an amnesiac alchemist desperate to raise his daughter from the dead, I’m charged with creating life-like simulacrums of her, raising them to maturity, and then murdering them for resources and their ‘soul essence’.
It’s embarrassing how quickly I find myself shrugging off this grotesque premise and settling into an easy rhythm of exploitation. My daughters perform hard labour at the nearest village to earn me cash. Once they’re dead, I sell their parts for a final windfall and invest their humanity into my ‘real’ daughter’s soul, before crafting a new homunculus to take their place.
As I refine the process and gain upgrades, the cycle speeds up. Soon, each daughter is lucky to survive more than a week before being... processed. I stop remembering their names, then I stop spending time with them, then I stop reading their pleading letters. As my operation reaches peak efficiency, their well-being becomes nearly irrelevant to the equation.
The realisation that an indie I picked up on a whim in a Steam sale has trained me to battery farm children is not an especially pleasant one. After a lifetime of gaming all I see are the numbers, and apparently developers thus have the power to make me, in the virtual world at least, do almost anything.
“This game is intended to make people sad and uneasy but there is a deeper meaning behind the horror,” reads a warning message whenever I start the game. Mission accomplished, I suppose, though I’m not sure I’ve really gained any insight into “child labour, abusive parenting, and ignorant societies”, the themes the game purports to explore. I already knew those things were bad, I just didn’t know I was willing to partake in them in order to level up.
The joy of colonising planets in Endless Space 2—Andy Kelly
Half the appeal of Amplitude strategy games for me is how they feel. They really are astonishingly pretty, and nowhere is this more evident than in the process of colonising a planet in Endless Space 2. But it’s more than just aesthetics, it’s everything from the music and sound effects to the UI animation and typefaces.
When you discover a fresh, uninhabited system the camera sweeps down into it, over each world, and it’s wonderfully cinematic. In one system I find a giant volcanic planet, an arid desert world, and a tiny jungle planet battered by storms.
If you have the proper technology to colonise a planet, and a colonisation ship, you can establish the first outpost. Start the procedure and you’ll see a probe fly out of your ship and slam into the planet.
At first your empire will be like a sci-fi Wild West, with small, disconnected, and isolated communities scattered around your corner of the galaxy. But as each colony grows and you develop tech such as interplanetary transport, there’s a palpable feeling of your humble society developing into a massive, sprawling galactic superpower. It’s supremely satisfying watching your empire grow.
What kind of planets you’ll find in a system is completely random. The more dangerous and inhospitable a planet is, the more difficult it will be to colonise. So if you find a lush, verdant planet you can easily found an outpost, but if it’s a raging, ash-covered volcano world you’ll need to research advanced technology to battle the elements.
Sometimes you’ll find anomalies on planets, each of which have their own interesting flavour text and evocative artwork. On one rainy world I find the Fallen Gardens, a “space graveyard for vast structures of unknown provenance”, the ruins of some technologically advanced, but now long dead, civilisation. As a sci-fi fan I absolutely love this stuff and it gives the game so much colour and personality.
Of course, a colony doesn’t have to be permanent. If, for whatever reason, a planet isn’t working out, you can evacuate the colonists. Or, if you prefer, you can migrate them to another planet. Endless Space 2 is simpler and more streamlined than a lot of 4X games, but there’s still an enormous amount of depth to discover, and the colonisation system is just one part of a complex, but incredibly enjoyable, whole.
I’m a casual strategy player, even finding games such as Civilization and Amplitude’s own Endless Legend too much for my brain to take sometimes. But there’s something about Endless Space 2 that just clicks for me. The sci-fi setting is a big part of it, but it’s also how it captures the excitement of exploring a strange, fantastic galaxy, uncovering its secrets, and making your own mark on its many glittering worlds.
Accepting mediocrity in Vermintide 2: Winds of Magic—Phil Savage
I always knew I wasn’t a good Vermintide 2 player, but the Winds of Magic expansion has now given me the hard data to prove my mediocrity. The expansion introduces the concept of Weaves—short levels with modifiers that get increasingly difficult the more you complete. According to the new leaderboards, the top team as of writing has completed 124 Weaves. My team of ragtag misfits have finished one.
Sure, we could get good. We could put in the hours to get better, to overcome the challenges and earn the best rewards. My counterargument is this: we don’t really want to.
For us, Vermintide 2 has never really been about the friction of failure. We’re just not interested in walking the tightrope between success and death. We’re not here to make things harder for ourselves.
We’re here to kick back. We’re here to chat. And we’re here to punch rats. Punching rats is its own reward. Before the expansion we had at least moved up from recruit to veteran difficulty—simply because we’d finally finished all of the levels at the easiest difficulty and were looking for reasons to play some more. We’d gathered enough good weapons from the Commendation Chests the game is constantly awarding that it didn’t even feel like a major increase in difficulty.
Hence why it was such a shock when we attempted the Weaves. Winds of Magic uses a separate progression system based around gathering Essence, which you put in a glowing purple cauldron for... Warhammer reasons. Within minutes we’d redubbed it ‘rat juice’.
You use the rat juice to change and upgrade your weapons. A consequence of this is that, however good your weapons are in the main campaign, you start Winds of Magic from the beginning of the progression curve. Suddenly our decent arsenal was replaced with mostly basic gear.
It was rough. We struggled, we failed, we persisted. Our mantra of ‘kill rats, get juice’ pulled us through. We needed the juice to swap to better weapons. We’d only get the juice if we could complete a Weave. We fought through the opening gauntlet and eventually made our way to a portal that transported us to the Weave’s final boss arena. It was scrappy but, by tactically holding the boss’s attention, we were able to revive each downed player efficiently enough to keep us all in the fight. Finally, we chewed through the boss’s health bar. The juice was ours.
In most stories this rousing moment of triumph would be the moment our ragtag group endeavoured to improve our game. But it won’t. We’ll keep playing, but at our own pace, with our own objectives—having fun, killing rats and getting juice. Mastery has its place, but not here. Not for us.