Welcome to Coverage Club, the regular series where we shift our critical eye towards smaller games that deserve some attention. Each week, our review editors select two titles and provide honest first impressions in the same style as our full reviews. Games can range from brand new titles hitting Early Access to older hidden gems that never got their due. No matter your preferences, you’re sure to find something off the beaten path here. In this week’s episode, we reach into the backlog to play two older hidden gems. Sam takes a vacation to the distinctly odd world of Cradle and Alex burns down the laboratory with Alchemic Jousts.
Covered by Samuel Guglielmo
I always want to see more games with an international flavor. This is one of the reasons I was attracted to Cradle. Developed by Ukrainian developer Flying Cafe for Semianimals, and with inspirations from the country of Mongolia, Cradle fit the bill. A pretty first-person adventure game, does this strange world manage to keep me involved or should I just switch to a bed?
The game starts off with you finding yourself waking up in an isolated yurt next to a mysteriously abandoned dome with no memory of how you got there. The only other people nearby is a broken robot who won’t turn on and a giant eagle that appears to be your pet. You’ll slowly recover your memories of how you got there and what has happened to make the area deserted, all while trying to fix that robot. While the voice acting is a bit iffy, the story is more than interesting enough to keep me playing.
Generally, Cradle plays like a classic adventure game. You’ll have to solve puzzles by finding tools, combining items, and placing objects in the correct spot. All of this is rather easily done, which is a blessing. I never really felt like I was stuck, thanks to an easy to use hint system that will point you in enough direction to get the puzzle solved without just solving it for you.
As I played I found myself doing relatively simple tasks. At one point I had to make a stew for my pet eagle. It required me to knock a fruit out of a tree with a stick, then cut it up with a knife. I had to find water for a bowl. I also needed to find roots and mash them up to add to the concoction. Straightforward, but it worked well enough. Shortly after I had to follow a riddle to try and figure out where a child buried a “toy” that ended up being a piece for the broken robot.
Later in the game did include some mini-game styled content. Right before I stopped I had to enter the dome, which turned out to be an old amusement park. The first challenge I had to complete saw me needing to absorb glowing cubes and shoot them into an elevator in the center of the map. While I was doing this a jester robot would wander around, destroying the floor under me and trying to steal the cubes I found.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I have a soft spot for games that take place in countries I never think about. Cradle made me more interested in Mongolia, while also providing some fun adventure gameplay and an interesting story. I’d love to see more of Cradle and I’m going to have to make time for it later.
Cradle was played on PC via Steam using a copy purchased by the player
Covered by Alex Santa Maria
For a small indie game trying to break through, it’s good to have some common ground with players. A mechanic or theme that brings fans of another franchise in will give them a head start on appreciating whatever weird concept you’ve come up with. Whether it’s purposeful or not, I feel like the folks behind Alchemic Jousts have extended the olive branch to Kirby fans. Come for the innumerable combinations of elemental powers, stay for the simple fun of 2D action strategy.
At the very beginning of your campaign, you only have the four basic elements. Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. Your tower is across the way from an opponent, and you can accrue energy to summon little elementals to defend it. Water douses Fire, Fire burns Earth, and Earth dries up Water. Get enough of your elementals along the path, and they’ll overthrow the opposing tower. It’s a simple gameplay loop that works because of the magic complexity hiding between battles.
Once you win your first few scraps, you can take your alchemic friends to the lab and science it up! Combining basic elements using real-world logic will get you more complex units and spells to cast during your next matches. For example, combining Air and Water gets you a Cloud. This is a buff that lets you produce Air units more frequently. Combining Cloud with more Water gets you Rain, which damages incoming Fire units before they reach your tower.
There are 182 different units and powers to discover, all separated into ten different tiers of complexity. Taking the combination mechanics from Doodle God and giving them gameplay functionality is a noble pursuit. Each round is both a chance to experiment with your new toys and earn the right to unlock even more. It’s an engrossing experience that feeds into itself in the best way.
However, the drive to actually use this novel unlock system sends me straight into some of Alchemic Jousts’ more unfortunate issues. Af first, the complexities of summoning combined units and complex buffs make you feel as if you're evolving your play. In practice, an AI spamming the same small units you started with will often conquer any strategy you implement.
Worse still, the game seems aimed towards the casual market. This means that any remaining strategy hides behind a level of simplicity. The game keeps vital information like exact timers and an opponent’s loadout away from the player. You’ll often go against a foe that has unlocked different elements via the game's random system. Sometimes, you'll just have to guess at what they’re able to do, which doesn't help counter potential attacks.
This leaves Alchemic Jousts in a tough spot. It’s an ambitious game that doesn’t quite succeed in what it’s trying to do. The art style and simplified interface shroud its legitimate strategy in a cozy veneer. There’s a lot of fun to be had discovering the elemental combinations. Unfortunately, that fun doesn’t always translate to the battlefield. The game feels like a rough draft of a great concept, and I hope Lunatic Pixels have the chance to take another stab at it.
Alchemic Jousts was played on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on PlayStation 4.
What do you think of this week’s Coverage Club selections? Do you know of an overlooked game that deserves another chance? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to follow our Steam Curator to keep up to date with all our reviews.