24th of September, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: dungeons, buildings, and a bit of music.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.
Dungeons & Dragons
Since June, I've been playing D&D every week as part of an ongoing campaign, and I couldn't be more delighted. I've wanted to do this my whole life, except maybe when I wasn't potty trained, but I've never really known how. I didn't know anyone playing D&D growing up. But now I do.
I'm not the only newcomer in the group: some had never even heard of D&D before, not that it matters of course. The beauty of the game is that as long as you have a DM who knows what they're doing, and by design they normally do, then they can lead you through almost anything. All you need is a willing imagination to play along.
We're having a whale of a time, which probably isn't the correct reaction for a Ravenloft campaign, for this is the darker side of D&D, steeped in horror, and whatever specific form you want that to be. So far, we've been sliced open by marionettes and then turned into marionettes, before returning to our bodies and finding our way to a whole other realm, a place of carnivorous hags and murderous fisherpeople. And vampires and vampire hunters.
Count Strahd von Zarovich is who we're ultimately aiming to kill, for he rules the land, horribly, but it could be weeks and months before we achieve that in real-world terms - in game-time, it's not even been a week for our characters. But I'm fine with that. Every week, we do something we will talk about for days afterwards, and when we meet each other outside of the house, what will happen next week is all we seem to talk about, much to the mystified looks of our friends.
Buildings Have Feelings Too!, Switch
It's a bit like Lowry made a videogame: Buildings Have Feelings Too! is a sort of town-management game, but the big appeal of the whole thing is how it looks, and how it comes across. Your buildings have little arms and legs and they wander up and down 2D streets. Soot-darkened brick! Towering factory chimneys! The game is a hymn to Lowry's kind of painting, and its success hinges on that weird thing your brain does when you start to see faces in inanimate objects, eyes from windows, moustaches and brows from ornamental scrollwork.
I would love to tell you that the game is as lovely as the conceit - and maybe it is! But for the first few hours it's hard to see past fiddly controls - it can be so hard to highlight the correct vacant lot - and bewildering menus. I am quite long-sighted, so I never know how useful this kind of feedback is, but I found the text far too small too.
Such a shame. Because there is care and love here - a brilliant idea that perhaps blossoms into a sort of playful study of the forces of gentrification and all that topical jazz. Place buildings, get the best out of them by making sure they're in the right spot and have the right neighbours, level things up and then watch as the complexity starts to emerge. It sound fantastic. And the delivery - the visual conceit - is wonderful. I like to think I can deal with the attendant faff, and I guess I'll just have to play more and hope it eventually clicks.
The Artful Escape, Xbox
I finished The Artful Escape this week, a game I'd been looking forward to for years. It's a lovely thing, a trippy electric guitar-fuelled adventure that's more an experience than a video game. All you do, for the most part, is press right and hold X to wail on your electric guitar, the notes matching the wonderful background music perfectly, whenever you decide to jump in.
It sounds overly simple and it is, but it perfectly suits what developer Beethoven & Dinosaur set out to achieve. In the Artful Escape, teen folk musician Francis Vendetti goes on an intergalactic adventure in order to escape the trappings of his small-town life and discover who he really is: not a folk musician at all, but a rock god. Vendetti is propelled forward on this coming of age adventure, hurled through space and time, past angry fists and snooty fashionistas, riding The Cosmic Lung towards self-discovery, and so it feels natural to push forward on the thumbstick. Vendetti, like you, is along for the ride - and there's no getting off.
It's weird and wonderful, every level a spectacular sight packed with strange creatures who react to the sound of your guitar. The music is wonderful - really, it's amazing! - and there were moments I stopped moving and just held X to wail, transfixed.
The Artful Escape is a little sickly sweet in places, with dialogue that sometimes veers into Garden State territory, but it doesn't overstay its welcome, clocking in at just a few hours. Do not take this runtime as some sort of slight: The Artful Escape is perfectly paced, each of its levels playing out like a track on that record you listened to during your early teens that, every now and then, you remember with a smile and an almost tear. The first thing I did when I finished was start over again. I imagine The Artful Escape will be something I dip back into every now and again, whenever my soul needs a jolt.