Let's Build A Garden Island out of Mini Review Packs

Jackbox Party Pack 8
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Jackbox Party Pack 8 (Jackbox Games, 2021, PC/literally everything with a CPU)

JPP8 is one of the more uneven packs. The highlight, and possibly my new favorite JPP game overall, is Job Job, which has players creating answers to interview questions by chopping up other player's answers into kidnapper messages. It's a little dependent on everyone in the group giving silly answers to the initial prompts so that all players have good material to work with, but it's incredibly funny if everyone cooperates with the premise.

Weapons Drawn and The Wheel of Enormous Proportions are good with some notable flaws. Weapons Drawn has you trying to kill NPC allies of other players by guessing who named them while disguising a letter of your name in a drawing. Hiding the letters is a little too easy, though, since they can be rotated and often appear in fonts that weren't very recognizable to begin with. Wheel, on the other hand, is a trivia game that's actually pretty solid mixed in with a roulette mechanic that's pointless and adds nothing to the game. The trivia is fun, but was anyone asking for a trivia game that picks the winner with RNG?

Next, there's The Poll Mine, which splits players on to two teams and tasks them with figuring out the order that the group ranked various answers to a set of three polls. This one is pretty fun until the last question, which has you ranking a list from #8 to #1. The trouble is that, since the questions are very silly and you can only rank 5 of the 8, figuring out which one is in a specific place is mostly an exercise voting arbitrarily for a handful of plausible answers until someone gets lucky. I've played it twice and both final rounds have had a miss rate of like 90%.

And lastly, Drawful Animate, which is Drawful but you get two frames of animation to work with. It's kind of cute, but not really meaningfully different from the regular game, and I already found that a little dull. It's not bad, but it's also not memorable.

MSRP: $29.99

Time to beat: You can play each game once in about an hour

Luna's Fishing Garden
Who needs fish when you can have a watermelon garden?

Luna's Fishing Garden (Coldwild Games, 2021, PC/Android)

A cross between a farm game and an idle game that has you, as Luna, going back and forth across a 2D chain of islands to catch fish and gather resources for a series of fetch quests. It's an extremely basic game that plays a lot of itself for you once you get capybaras and kiwis to automate farming, but it's also short, cute, and relaxing enough that I didn't particularly mind. It's by the same people that did Merchant of the Skies, and has the same quality art, music, and whimsical storybook nature, but a much better sense of how long its gameplay can stay entertaining. I had a great time with it.

MSRP: $7.99

Time to beat: 2-3 hours

Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars
And the award for most pointless use of cards goes to...

Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars (Square Enix, 2021, PC/Switch/PS4)

I can't help but suspect that this is a card game simply because Square wouldn't give it the budget for full 3D graphics. It's really just a very traditional JRPG that hardly does anything meaningful with its unique aesthetic, and for all the potential of a Supergiant-style narrator in a Yoko Taro game, the voiceovers feel like an afterthought. The voicework isn't particularly compelling and the writing doesn't make an effort to take advantage of that format.

Which would be fine if it was a particularly good traditional JRPG, but it's really just fine. It got some laughs out of me because the enemy stories have the unexpected flairs that Yoko Taro usually sneaks in, but the gameplay is nothing at all remarkable and you go too long between interesting story beats for those to really make up the difference. The $30 price tag is probably double what it should've been, but Square has never been known for reasonable pricing.

Still, I probably would have finished it if not for the absolutely garbage card game tossed in. It's a variant of rummy that starts out fine and seems like it could be interesting as powers get mixed in, but then the powers and random effects become so powerful and your options for dealing with them so non-existent in the final iteration that you might as well be playing War or Chutes and Ladders. And it takes a good 20 minutes to finish a game, almost all of which will be spent watching slow CPU turns. It's fully optional and I could have just kept going without ever touching this crap again, but it was so bad that it soured me on the whole (otherwise mediocre) experience.

MSRP: $29.99

Time to quit: 5.4 hours

Let's Build a Zoo
Rabbit Culling Simulator 2021

Let's Build a Zoo (Springloaded/No More Robots, 2021, PC)

I love the idea of Let's Build a Zoo, a casual zoo sim in which you can create hybrid animals like pigducks or capypenguins, but it went for far too much breadth over depth and ends up being a mess of shallow mechanics that don't interact well and stop being interesting long before you're finished with them. The worst offender, by far, is the idea of being able to breed natural variants of animals. It's cool that a goose enclosure can be home to many different kinds of goose and that selective breeding can get you to silly species like golden pigs, but locking new animal types behind this almost entirely RNG system was a truly horrible idea. I spent the first many hours of the game with only geese and rabbits because each animal stubbornly refused to produce the specific color of offspring that foreign zoos would trade for new animals, and there's really almost nothing I could've done to make that go faster. Much worse, though, is that the breeding rate of some animals is so absurdly high that you are constantly being forced to give them away to keep your population from overflowing. Birth rates need to be high so that the gacha-like trades can ever be completed, but birth rates being high means you spend most of your time doing tedious admin to get rid of your 4,000th brown rabbit. It's two unfun systems combining to make an even less fun output.

But I stuck with it for a long time because the animals look cool and there's a certain satisfaction to unlocking new items and animals for your zoo. And there's at least an interesting element of management sim for the first dozen or so hours. Alas, because adding things to your zoo always increases your zoo rating and your zoo rating always increases both the number of visitors and the price they are willing to pay for entry, you eventually end up with an unstoppable income machine that trivializes every interesting part of the game. You can see in that screenshot that I have over $1.5 million dollars, and I probably don't need to explain why that's absurd when an enclosure costs at most $10,000. It tries to balance this by rapidly increasing the price of new land and allowing you to infinitely expand the size of your buses for large amounts of cash, but this hardly helps because...

Oh, it's the first two problems again. Adding more enclosures inevitably means more stupid admin work for releasing your infinitely breeding animals and helping your inept zoo keepers keep them fed, but you need to add them because it's otherwise impossible to complete the trades you need to get the fun species you're actually playing the game to see. But, since larger animals have longer breeding times and getting the right variant is still random RNG bullshit, it can take forever to get the right animal for a trade. And since you're having to pause the game every two seconds to release some rabbits or help an idiot zookeeper who can't navigate around some grass, that forever only gets longer and longer with each new species. And since money eventually becomes trivial and you'll run out of things to buy, there's nothing else remotely interesting to get you through those RNG deserts.

In summary, it's a neat idea utterly ruined by several bad design decisions that play off each other in the worst way possible. It's the video game version of the middle school science experiment the teacher does to demonstrate destructive interference. None of the problems looks like too much individually, but together they go well beyond sinking the ship. It's been atomized.

MSRP: $19.99

Time to quit: 19.7 hours

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