The most mainstream game in this month’s offerings is Tales from the Borderlands, the Telltale adventure game set in the Borderlands universe. I enjoy Telltale games well enough, but I hate Borderlands. Well, hate is too strong I word, I’m more indifferent to the series. I played about halfway through the first one and I thought it was alright. But, I was annoyed that there was no way to save weapons to use at a higher level, confused by all the hatred towards Claptrap as he is barely in the game, and was just bored at how tedious it was. Then the apocalyptic style setting just made me want to replay Fallout 3, and I never tried the game again. But we’re getting off topic. The point is despite my raging indifference towards the series I found myself greatly enjoying Telltale’s offering.

The gameplay is standard Telltale. Quick time events, adventure game style barely puzzles, and choices that sort of kinda change things but not really. But, Telltale’s true strength quickly shown through the drudgery of the actual gameplay, the writing, and voice talent. You play as Rhys, rising star cybernetic corporate stooge for the evil Hyperion corporation who has had his job stolen by executive scumbag Patrick Warburton (Kronk from Emperor’s New Groove). To get revenge, you along with your accountant buddy Vaughn attempt to steal something very important from Patrick to take him down. At the same time, you play as the nicely hatted con artist Fiona trying to make her way in the world with her sister and mentor/father figure on the hellish landscape of the other planet named Pandora.

These character’s stories come together very quickly in an unexpected way leading to one of the game’s most unique storytelling mechanic. You are playing the whole game in pseudo flashback form as a masked figure has captured the two of you making you recount the events of the story. This allows you to completely change the context of the story and the characters as the game goes along. Sometimes just for a quick little joke, but other times it can make a massive impact on character dynamics throughout the rest of the game. Though mainly it’s for a quick joke. Fortunately, the jokes in this game are consistently chuckle worthy and at points laugh out loud funny. I quickly came to enjoy the characters and wanted to see them pull through. The game also makes the setting of Pandora truly come to life in a way trudging through the desert for ten hours never did in the base game.

One clever caveat is you will frequently meet the vault hunters from the main games, and their fighting prowess further highlights how you are just background characters in the overall world just trying your best to get by making your already likable sympathetic characters even more so. And the plot itself is oddly engaging, with excellent opening segments to set up the tone of the episode and twists and turns that will leave you guessing and questioning every decision you make. So, if you like Telltale or Borderlands this is a must have. If you only like one of those I would still highly recommend it as each complements the other surprisingly well.

4 surprisingly good episodes out of 5

The next game for this month is Abzu, the artsy exploration game with light puzzle/game play elements in the vein of Journey. You play as a fully covered vaguely humanoid entity exploring the ruins of an ancient possibly alien civilization in a beautiful yet perilous world. Sort of like Journey. As you travel the seascape you’ll solve light puzzles then become shocked when you are in actual danger by strange ancient alien machinery. Kind of like Journey. The game is not afraid to show its Journey influence but that is to be expected as several of the makers worked on Journey. But, I liked Journey and the game does almost enough to differentiate itself to make it feel like its own game. (for the most part).

First off you are underwater, which is slightly different from being in the desert. The swimming mechanics work very well, and there is a strange charm in grabbing on to fish and sea mammals to hitch a ride until they get tired of you and throw you off. The story such as it is, involves you collecting endearing little robot buddies to explore and ancient alien temple/factory thing while exploring the majesty and terror of the ocean. I say terror, but you’re only really in danger from a few bits of alien machinery and a shark encounter that is excellently built up and leads to a great payoff. Since there are no words the story and world are up to interpretation. But, enough is given to give you a sense for your character and your world with some clever revelations sprinkled throughout.

The conclusion was very viscerally satisfying and there is just enough difference in the levels that you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over. The levels themselves hit just the right sweet spot between giving you enough time and incentive to explore while being short enough that you don’t notice the relative emptiness. Despite some great moments and visuals, they weren’t enough to really make me want to play again, and despite the differences the story is almost beat for beat the same as Journey’s. But if you want a relaxing underwater simulator that’s only a few hours long with great visuals, music, moments and the ability to meditate and possess fish, then this is the game for you.

4 Journeys out of 5.

Next is the funky fresh Laser Disco Defenders. You play as a swinging space crew sent to defend the galaxy from the decidedly unfresh flows of that mediocre music meister Lord Monotone who wants to force the universe to Disco Stu in his boring beats. You pick one of four cool cats who won’t be Luke Caged up and who can jet pack around the lava lamp colored environments blasting lasers at anything that moves like you’re in some sort of Star War. But, the Watergate Scandal twist to the typical bullet hell genre formula is that your lasers don’t dissipate after hitting something. No baby, they bounce back forcing you to conserve your shots lest your laser pals come back to bite you making you feel the Woodworth and Bernstein. Or you can just fire everywhere using all the energy like it’s 1978 and hope for the best like the cool kid’s daddy-o.

As you complete random hopping levels you’ll accomplish tasks such as kill X number of enemies or don’t get hit for three levels to unlock new outfits, abilities, and story moments. The story isn’t much, but man sometimes it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey you dig? Now like life, sometimes the challenge is unfair and tedious. Sometimes you won’t even fully understand what the game wants you to do as your last life is Richard Nixed away from you. But sweet Christmas when the game gets it right you’re left with one heck of an addicting Stevie Wonderful game in the right Camp David Accord of bullet hell shooters. In fact, this probably has my Vietnamination for best 70’s style space shooting game of all time. And I hope it Bruce Leads the way for this company to further success. Did I mention the game has a major 70’s aesthetic?

3.5 Dead Disco Dancers out of 5.  (Don’t ask where the other half is).

Next is the unusual platformer Type: Rider. You play as two sideways dots making their way through beautiful painted backdrops hopping and rolling your way through the history of font. You start from cave paintings, move on to the Gothic period and will eventually make your way to the more modern fonts like the pixel art of the 2000s. Along the way you’ll collect letters of the various alphabets in each era and can even find items that reveal the history of that font.

I know learning the history of words might not sound all that fascinating. But the game’s atmosphere does an excellent job at drawing you in and making you care, if only for a few hours. Each stage’s platforms is comprised of the letters in that era’s alphabet leading to some clever design as well as atmospheric details such as the ominous church choir music in the Gothic stage. The only major flaw is the platforming isn’t that great, sometimes coming off as a tad too loose and finnicky, which is a major problem in a platformer game. But, it’s only about 5 bucks and it managed to make me want to learn about the history of the written language. So that atmosphere and history is enough to make it worth at least a try.

3.5 history lessons out of 5.

For the PS3 we have Blood Knights. A button mashing hack in slash set in a medieval period where the world is on the brink of ruin from the scantily clad hordes of vampires with only the ambiguous church society to stop them from performing some arcane ritual to bring about an era of darkness and chaos. None of this is quite as exciting as it sounds. The voice acting is laughable and the writing isn’t much better. Which does bring about a sort of cheesy charm to everything and there are some interesting ideas with the story.

You play as Jeremy a knight of the holy order tasked with protecting the mythical Blood Seal which would allow the vampires to literally break the moon. After some harrowing battle the order is desperate and you are spiritually bound with a vampire Alysa. She cannot hurt you and must help you in any way in battle since if you die she dies. However, Jeremy gets turned into a vampire making him an outcast from the order and forcing him and Alysa to start trusting each other so they can cure Jeremy to break the bond. Oh, and stop the whole plunging the world into chaos thing.

Like I said it’s not a bad premise. The game allows for local co-op but you can also change characters at any time. Jeremy has melee attacks and Alysa has long ranged crossbows but they can both use vampire powers such as lifting enemies up and absorbing their blood. This includes one of the most morbid health packs I’ve ever seen in a game in the form of dying soldiers bleeding from stakes.  Along the way, you can find better weapons, armor upgrades and level up your health, combat skills and powers.

The fighting is simple hack and slash gameplay which is never particularly difficult but can be mind numbingly entertaining if you’re in the right mood. Unfortunately, there is some shoddy platforming and checkpoints between fights are just far away enough from each other to make it annoying when a missed jump leads to an untimely death setting you back ten minutes. Particularly when that fall is only about fifteen feet into shallow water. Even though at the beginning of the game you survive a fall of at least several stories. It was things like that which made me want to quit playing the game after only a couple of hours in. Again, I’m sure there’s more cheap laughs to be had at the cheesiness of it all, and there are some interesting ideas, but unless you are really into vampires, hack n slash games, or want to share an MST3K style experience with a buddy you’re better off just staying away.

2.5 good ideas out of 5

And our final game is Port Royale 3 Pirates and Merchants for the PS3. A PS3 port of a RTS PC game where you play as a merchant or pirate making your way through life in the Caribbean. You travel throughout the Caribbean exploring islands, performing tasks for other cities, and even building up your own town and fleet. There are also some light story segments trying to form a cohesive narrative and it does a decent enough job setting up the atmosphere. The main meat of the game is travelling from port to port trying to find the right combination of goods to make a profit. Some areas could grow a lot of tobacco but don’t have enough cloth, while another town could be drowning in cloth but really need a fix of tobacco, that sort of thing.

There is a solid design for the trading as little bars will let you know how prevalent a good is or isn’t in certain towns. In the town loaded with tobacco for example, you can buy it at a lower price. But, the more you buy the less they have and since they can tell you need it they’ll start raising the price as you buy more. The inverse is true for the low cloth. They pay you more in direct relation to how little cloth they have but pay less as you give them more. This lead to an almost hypnotic cycle as I just moved from town to town trying to trade enough goods to build up my ship and occasionally do the story missions. And before I knew it almost five hours had gone by.

But, the game is not very intuitive in telling you how to do things. Mainly because of the difficulty in porting a game made for computers and their on average 104 keys to a PS3 with their fourteen buttons and two thumb sticks. This caused me to be stuck on an introductory mission for almost a half hour as I tried to figure out how exactly the game wanted me to sell goods to a town that wouldn’t take my goods. In fact, there are so many screens for your inventory, ships, towns, and other details that the game could easily be overwhelming without a keyboard to sort it all out. But, if you have the time to figure it out, it becomes an oddly relaxing game. Then again, I’m a weirdo that liked the space segments in Spore so take that with a grain of sea salt.

3.5 shipments of sugar cane, tobacco and spices out of 5