Time on Frog Island

After playing Clouzy, I was left wanting in terms of a combat-free adventure. Clouzy’s biggest drawback was its vagueness. Time on Frog Island, however, is vagueness done right. It’s a similar type of game, though. You’re plopped on an island with basically no guidance other than the obvious main goal: fix your boat somehow. There are frog folk on the island that you can talk to, but who knows which ones can actually help with the boat. Plus, all dialogue is presented as icons instead of text. So a frog might just shout, “Image of a blue bug!” at you, and then you have to figure out 1) where such a bug is and 2) how to make it blue. Needless to say, there’s a lot of running back and forth across the island, looking for whatever a certain frog wants and then returning it. And, sure, that sounds tedious, but it actually works.

What helps the game is that a lot of quests are optional. Once you learn which frogs can actually help you, you can pretty much ignore the others. And there are sometimes multiple solutions to a problem, as well. But, of course, there’s still incentive to help everyone on the island, if not for the achievements, then for the extra perks you can get in the game. Like, I didn’t realize there was a power-up that would let you swing from certain cliff edges until long after I’d already fixed the boat. And you can build a house, too?! The house doesn’t change much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s little touches like this that make Time on Frog Island a fun, relaxing experience. I’d probably rank it close to A Short Hike and Haven Park, considering the length it takes to complete it and the general vibes it gives off.

Clouzy

Clouzy is a relaxing, combat-free adventure game with the added gimmick of caring for little clouds. I think the developers themselves admitted that Slime Rancher was a major inspiration for this game, though Clouzy is very scaled back in comparison. The structure of the game is fun, though, where you have a small world to explore and a home base to raise clouds in. Parts of the world are off limits until you complete a puzzle elsewhere, and resources can be gathered throughout that go towards making items and food dishes for your clouds. In theory, this should work just fine. In actuality, Clouzy makes some truly awful design decisions.

This is another case where it wouldn’t take much to “fix” the game, but what’s broken is broken. First, the game is way too vague. I always appreciate when games lay off the hand holding, but this is taken to the extreme. I shouldn’t have to fumble for ten minutes trying to figure out how to turn in a quest item. I was about ready to quit at one point, because I had a sick cloud and no clue how to make medicine for it. The list of recipes didn’t have labels on anything, so I just started crafting everything I could until other useful recipes started to unlock. But after this crafting spree, I was left with a bunch of junk that I had nowhere to put.

And that’s the second design mistake that Clouzy makes. Inventory management is a pain… in… the… ass. You can only hold five items on you at a time, and you cannot drop items willy-nilly. You can only put them in a chest or discard them in a trash can. But your starter chest only has five slots, too! You have to earn money to be able to upgrade the chest. You can also buy a backpack, which increases what you can carry on you. However, the backpack is a separate UI from the main five items you’re carrying. Why did they over-complicate this?! It ruins any fun you might have running around the world, because you’re never sure what you should pick up and put in your extremely limited inventory. I just can’t understand hindering your players like this.

Very Very Valet

In the wake of Overcooked, there’s been a rush to capitalize on what I like to call co-op busywork games. That is, games that sensationalize otherwise mundane tasks like cleaning a house or, with Very Very Valet, parking and returning cars. Very Very Valet is actually one of the better entries in this genre, though. You don’t have to juggle and mix a bunch of small objects or ingredients, as is usually the case. It really is just about managing parked cars, and that simplicity does wonders for the game. Even in the more chaotic levels, it never gets overly stressful, because the job itself remains so focused: park car, eventually return car. And they get a lot of mileage (ha!) out of this simple idea, too. Levels continue to introduce new gimmicks and obstacles, and each world has a completely separate trial area where, for example, you’re picking up garbage instead of being a valet.

The controls have had a lot of thought put into them, too, which is surprising when you consider that “wonky controls” are frequently a selling point. The default driving controls are pretty intuitive, and I envision non-gamers being able to pick it up quickly. As a seasoned gamer myself, the default controls felt a little odd, so I switched to the more traditional “use the triggers to move” option. After only a few minutes, I went back to the default mode. It just works so much better for what this game is. Seriously, these are developers who know what they’re doing. It’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t mistake gamified busywork for actual busywork. Sure, parking cars might not sound exciting, but the exaggerated physics and overall silliness of it still make it fun. My only issue is that the four worlds are way too short. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the developers did that on purpose to prevent us from tiring of a good thing.

Cozy Grove

I’ve never been able to get into Animal Crossing, despite normally loving these kinds of casual, slice-of-life collectathons. However, I do think Cozy Grove is better for people like me who, for whatever reason, don’t care for Animal Crossing. The art style is great, movement and dialogue are fast-paced, and the concept of helping ghosts is pretty engaging. But it’s still not quite there. The game’s insistence that it is like Animal Crossing is actually its biggest detriment, because the real-time clock adds nothing of value. I can max out everything there is to do in a day in 30 minutes, and then I have to wait (in real life) until tomorrow for new quests to become available. And when I do boot the game up the next day, my character will abruptly fall asleep to signal the passing of time. It’s such a little thing, but this blatant “you started a new day” animation totally breaks any immersion I was supposed to get from a real-time clock. At the very least, my character should already be asleep!

I think Cozy Grove would have worked better if it behaved more like another game called Farm Together. In that game, your crops still grew in real time, but you were not beholden to any day-to-day schedule. So you could play the game in the morning, water all your crops, and then check back in the evening to harvest everything. Yes, Cozy Grove has things that can supposedly be harvested ’round the clock, too, but any actual missions are timeboxed to the day, not the hour. It also doesn’t help that the majority of the missions are simply “I lost something; go find it.” This feels like a glorified hidden object game at times, though I do like being given clues (e.g., it’s near a tarp) that guide me towards where to look. Unfortunately, as your island starts to fill out more, these hidden objects become harder to spot amid all the clutter.

There is simply too much junk in this game. Yes, I praised the art style earlier, but that doesn’t absolve the fact that trees, houses, statues, etc. frequently block your view. It’s also not easy to interact with the object you’re intending, at least with a controller. My character would constantly go into her tent instead of petting the nearby bird or run over to a tree to shake instead of mining the ore deposit sitting next to it. And, of course, all of this leads into having a bunch of stuff fill up your inventory. Why do these games always give you such a small backpack? So, yeah, there are some annoyances, but when played in 30-minute chunks, I guess it’s okay. I’m still enjoying logging in every day to see what’s going on. But considering it takes roughly 100 real days to complete everything, I will probably tap out long before then.

Mail Mole

Mail Mole isn’t a bad game, but its biggest design decision, its whole gimmick, is just really baffling. This is a 3D platformer where you play as a mole who spends 90% of the game underground. You only pop out of the ground when you jump. This feels so backwards to me, though. Part of the charm of any 3D platformer is to see your character running about, so why hide him underground like this? In fact, why bother “rewarding” the player with different costumes if you rarely get to see those costumes in action? And yeah, I get that this is a mole, and moles like to be underground, but any other 3D platformer would have made “going underground” a usable skill to help you solve puzzles or avoid obstacles. In any other 3D platformer, going underground would be like “ducking,” but in Mail Mole, things can still hit you when you’re in this underground state. The only way to avoid spikes, etc. is to jump out and over them.

Jumping is another odd choice that Mail Mole makes. You can tap to jump, but this default jump is so weak and small that you’ll rarely find it useful. To really jump, you have to hold the jump button for half a second first to power up. Again, any other 3D platformer would base the height of your jump on how long you’re actively holding the button down. I realize it sounds like I’m penalizing Mail Mole for trying to be different, but it’s breaking conventions without providing a good reason to do so. These backwards mechanics only work in the levels that are more speed-driven, where you’re either fleeing a rolling obstacle or being propelled forward by zip pads. Had the game been purely this style of gameplay, it would have been fine. But the slower-paced, find-the-secrets type levels just don’t feel right when your character keeps trying to reinvent the 3D platformer for the worse.

Dwarrows

I love a good mash-up of genres, and when Dwarrows clicks, it’s a lot of fun. Dwarrows is a casual adventure game that’s half puzzle platformer, half town building. Admittedly, the town building aspect isn’t that great, but I like how gathering resources for said town plays into the greater adventure. Like, you’ll gain access to a new area that’s not only filled with more puzzles to solve but sturdier trees and rocks that produce more resources per hit. Plus, almost all of the treasure you find exists solely to help build up the town back home, be it spirits that can be turned in for more land rights or artifacts that lead to new blueprints. There’s just so much to uncover in what first appears to be a somewhat small game world.

Unfortunately, Dwarrows has serious pacing issues that are mostly the result of super vague instructions. On one hand, I do appreciate that you have to just… wander around and stumble across things on your own. However, that means it’s possible to miss very important elements that will bring all progress to a screeching halt. The most egregious example of this is when you reach a door that you can’t open until you pay a toll that’s more than the amount of money you can carry. The only way to increase your wallet size is to build a bank in your town, but getting the blueprint for a bank requires jumping through so many other hoops that are never explained in-game.

It feels like the developers had a specific series of events they expected players to follow but gave players too much freedom to do things out of order. They also expected players to spend much more time on town management than I think a lot of us are willing to do. For me, I got very sidetracked by the collectables and exploration, because that was far more interesting and engaging. But then I would continually run up against limits and be forced to gather resources for the next hour or so. The end-game buildings are simply too expensive, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully complete this game. But I at least explored every inch of the game world and got my money’s worth in that regard.