Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Heimdall: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I think I've rather done my part.
     
Heimdall
United Kingdom
The 8th Day (developer); Core Design (U.K. publisher); Virgin (U.S. publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga; 1992 for Atari ST and DOS; 1993 for Acorn; 1994 for Sega CD
Date Started:  1 September 2017
Date Ended: 4 September 2017
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Heimdall got neither better nor much harder. The three segments of the game were exactly the same: sail from island to island, fight easy enemies, replenish hit points with scrolls and food, juggle inventory, solve a series of inventory puzzles, and retrieve one of the three stolen weapons.

Three of my six party members never left the boat and thus never leveled up. Of the three that actually adventured, Heimdall fought 95% of the combats and completed 90% of the actions. Except for their inventory slots, the other party members were essentially useless.

My three lead characters ended at Level 7, Heimdall with all his attributes at or near 99, thanks to both leveling and potions. I frankly think he could have completed the game even if he'd never leveled up. 

Combats also never got harder--in fact, the toughest enemies were mostly on the first map. Although the effects of some of the spell scrolls were potent, like "Giant's Bane," "Hand of Loki" and "Wrath of Odin," they were mostly unnecessary, as Heimdall did as much damage with his weapon. Indeed, the very act of switching from melee attacks to spells creates a gap of a few seconds in which they enemy is likely to damage Heimdall, making it wiser to stick to attacks. I realized late in the game that you can also throw daggers at opponents, but they do less damage than regular melee attacks and thus take longer.
      
I swing my "Storm Blade" at an ogre or hobgoblin or something. Note that I could also use my fist, a silver dagger, or "Fire" and "Ice" scrolls.
      
"Resurrection" scrolls were so plentiful on the second and third map that I ended up dropping most of them. I used one, once, after I died taking a screen shot. Otherwise, there was plenty of food and "energy" scrolls to keep Heimdall at full strength.

In the middle of the second map, I started getting this message when sailing between islands:
      
     
I don't think the first map did, but the second and third required each character to have a ration of food between islands; otherwise, they lost hit points during travel, to a minimum of 10. (Hunger never killed them.) Again, this really didn't pose any problems. Half the time, Heimdall was capable of killing enemies even if at near-death himself; the other half, we found scrolls and food immediately upon entering a new island and were able to restore his hit points.

It's not even really worth recounting the inventory puzzles. There were times I reached a particular island too soon and had to wait until I found a particular item or scroll on a different island to complete it.
     
Looks like I'll have to come back with a "Water" scroll.
      
I suppose the most interesting series of puzzles was on the second map, where I had to find three items--an apple, a necklace, and dragons' eggs--to give to the three muses. But half an hour after winning the game, I can't honestly remember what they gave me that was so important.
     
One of the muses thanks me. The artwork for the muses seems to have a slightly different (less comic) style than the rest of the game.
    
I had to look up a hint on the final map. It wasn't clear to me that the way to find the third of three silver rings was to use a pouch of pepper to get the masthead on a ship to sneeze, thus ejecting its own ring. I probably would have eventually figured it out through trial and error, but I was impatient for the game to be over.
      
The scene, post-sneeze.
     
I also made one puzzle a lot harder for myself by failing to realize that using runestones briefly showed an invisible path over an area of water. I just felt my way across.
     
I could have accomplished this level much faster, but how would you guess that something called a "runestone" would reveal hidden paths across water?
     
The maps in the book indicate that the first session takes place on Midgard (Earth), the second on Utgard (the land of giants), and the third in Asgard (the land of gods), contradicting the backstory that had Loki bringing all the weapons to Midgard. Anyway, the scenarios aren't different enough to truly make you feel that you're in different worlds, although the second does have a memorable moment when you realize that you're walking on the oversized bookcase of a giant. The combat that follows, however, plays out like a regular fight with no indication that it's more difficult because your opponent is 20 feet tall.
     
Something seems intimidating about these walls...

But the giant is just a regular foe.
      
The third map was oddly the shortest and easiest of all of them. It culminates when Heimdall brings three silver rings to a statue of Odin, which holds the Sword of Odin. One would think that Loki, in "hiding" the three weapons, might have come up with a better idea than to give the Sword of Odin to a sentient statue of Odin, but who am I to question the machinations of the divine?
      
Putting the silver rings in place so I can activate the statue of Odin (offscreen).
     
In any event, the statue gave me the sword, and I set sail for the final island. The brief endgame animation shows Heimdall crossing a bridge. Then, for some reason, his body disappears and his disembodied head floats over the bridge for a few seconds, and then you get the final screen at the top of this entry.
     
Is this supposed to depict Heimdall taking his place as guardian of the bifrost? That's not a very rainbow-y bridge.
      
In the end, Heimdall was an attractive but empty game with poor RPG mechanics, probably destined for the high 20s on the GIMLET. Let's see:
      
  • 2 points for the game world. I wish I could praise it for the Norse theme, but it hardly makes use of it. None of the little inventory quests that Heimdall has to solve draw from Norse mythology, and the backstory isn't really referenced during the game. What's there is mostly a little goofy, starting with naming the main character "Heimdall" in the first place, since his story has nothing to do with the god's official bio.
     
I guess this game map is supposed to be Asgard, but it's just a bunch of islands like the previous two maps. It's not even clear how I'm transitioning from one world to the next.
     
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There is no creation. There are a couple of methods of development (increasing attributes), but it doesn't have a measurable effect on the game. 83% of the party members don't matter since Heimdall is capable of achieving all tasks.
      
My character levels and attributes towards the end of the game.
     
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. "NPCs" are occasional characters who you give things to let you pass. You don't really learn anything about the world from them.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. There are maybe 8 different enemy types in the game, some harder than others, but you don't really adopt different strategies against them. Other "encounters" are mostly about solving inventory puzzles, which the game at least does competently, if not memorably.
      
Despite the game's rhetoric, the sorcerer wasn't notably hard.
     
  • 2 points for magic and combat. "Magic" is just the use of spell scrolls. Combat only has a few options and no real tactics.
  • 4 points for equipment. You find a series of weapon upgrades throughout the game. There is no armor and no wearable items. Almost everything else that isn't a puzzle item is a spell scroll or something to sell. I give the game credit for a nice text description of each item, making it clear (among other things) which weapons are the best. But managing inventory with limited slots was a pain, and it was too hard to tell when I could safely get rid of something. I ended the game with about 20 excess keys, plus a handful of charms, circlets, and rings that I guess were supposed to be sold.
      
In-game textual descriptions of items are still rare in the era, so I have to applaud any game that includes them.
      
  • 2 points for the economy. The game might as well have not had one. Except for a single potion and some occasional food, there's hardly anything useful to buy, and stores are too few and far between to be convenient anyway.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no branches, options, or alternatives.
     
A step on the main quest.
     
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets all of those for reasonably good graphics and competent sound effects. The interface is clunky and joyless throughout. Those who appreciate music more than I do might add a couple points for the rock soundtrack.
     
The game's graphical vignettes are a definite strength. It just needed better RPG mechanics.
      
  • 3 points for gameplay. Though there would be no reason to replay it, and it's far too easy, it at least ends quickly and offers some minor nonlinearity in the order you explore the islands.

That gives us a final score of 26 to which I will begrudgingly add 2 points for the entertaining minigames during the introduction. These were more interesting than anything else in the game.
      
      
Probably because of delayed distribution in the U.S., Computer Gaming World didn't get around to reviewing it until January 1993. The title of the review, by Allen Greenberg, is "The God's Namesake Must Be Crazy: Virgin's Heimdall." I call this out because CGW is attributing the game to it's U.S. distributor rather than its developer (The 8th Day) or the U.K. publisher (Core Design) that presumably had some input into its creation. I haven't paid enough attention to similar titles to know if this was common practice, ignorance on CGW's part in this one case, or evidence of a systematic confusion between developer, publisher, and foreign distributor. I was similarly confused myself earlier in my career, but I'm not a for-profit game magazine that should know better.

Greenberg agrees with me on the game's quality. He notes that whatever controller you use, it's hard to keep Heimdall on track, especially when around the copious pits. He remarks that most of the "party" is useless and lambasts the limited number of inventory slots. He did seem to find the combat "entertaining," which I suppose depends upon  your basis of comparison. He concludes the review with a paragraph I could have easily written myself:
       
A player who has never before experienced a computer role-playing game may find some enjoyable hours with Heimdall. While the program is by no means a flawed or unplayable product, its uninspiring appearance and simple gameplay will fail to earn it a place alongside the more sophisticated role-playing games which are now popular.
           
For a more amusing-but-baffling set of opinions, we must turn (as we always do) to British Amiga magazines of the period, which thought that the Gold Box titles were the worst games ever, but that Heimdall was--this from Daniel Whitehead's January 1992 Amiga Computing review--"a vast throbbing epic of a game." Whitehead wastes several paragraphs lamenting how far the Scandinavians fell between the Vikings and "Abba [sic] and Roxette." "Did some horrendous twist appear in the DNA of the Norse warriors?," he honestly questions before calling Heimdall "a game of truly trouser-rending magnitude." Mr. Whitehead went on to a long and respected career as a game journalist, and I have to wonder if on sleepless nights, he ever recalls the fact that he once deemed that a minor title from a short-lived developer was so good that it gave him an erection so massive that it threatened to damage his trousers.

The December 1991 Amiga Action agreed in spirit with a 91% rating, although with no particular language that I can poke fun at. It does start with a few paragraphs about the Vikings, making me wonder if any of these players realized that, after the backstory, the game isn't really in any way "about" Norse mythology. Any kind of framing story could have wrapped around these dungeon walls.
     
This is just a random shot of a "Detect Traps" scroll making some pit traps visible.
    
I read several other positive reviews from CU Amiga (96%), The One for Amiga Games (92%), and Zero (92%), and the common theme, as I noted in my first entry on this game, is a stunning lack of awareness about anything happening in the RPG market outside the U.K.--where nothing much at all was happening. The CU Amiga ends by calling it "the most ground-breaking game since Ultimate released Knight Lore and Epyx completed work on Impossible Mission and Pitstop II," an utterly baffling set of comparisons. But these are magazines that managed to review Knightmare without mentioning Dungeon Master, so I suppose we can't be surprised.

The comparison with German Amiga magazine reviews is interesting to note. Germany had a growing RPG tradition of its own in the early 1990s and had long admired American exports like The Bard's Tale. They weren't as impressed. Amiga Joker offered the worst review at 46%, ASM probably the best at 83%. In between, were Play Time at 81% and Power Play at 68% respectively.

Whatever the case, reviews were good enough to prompt Heimdall 2: Into the Hall of Worlds in 1992. From the screenshots, there are signs that they improved the gameplay with more traditional RPG mechanics and NPC dialogues, while not sacrificing the enticing visuals, so I look forward to trying it. The 8th Day published only two more titles--Premiere (1992) and Gender Wars (1996), both action games of more explicit comedy. Following the dissolution of the company, lead designers Jerr O'Carroll and Ged Keaveney went on to programming jobs at larger developers, with credits into the 2010s. O'Carroll became a graphic artist and animator on a number of Tomb Raider and Alien Breed titles.

Other than this game and its sequel, neither the lead designers, nor The 8th Day, nor Core Design ever published another RPG, a statement that you find at the bottom of a lot of reviews in the mid-20s.

As we continue with Might and Magic III, the next "secondary" game is supposed to be Inquisitor: Shade of Swords, a French game from 1987. I'm toying with rejecting it on grounds of not having character development (there's no evidence of experience and leveling), but the real reason is that it's just weird in that French way. (I'm really nailing the national stereotypes today!) If I do reject it, I won't be saving myself much because the 1987 game after that is also a French title: Karma, the sequel to Tera. So either way, I'd better sharpen my poignard and get to it.

37 comments:

  1. I have Heimdall on Sega CD coming up in about 20 games. I guess I'm not completely ahead of you. Looking forward to reading through these two posts once I get there. I was worried about the RPG-ness of this title, but since you reviewed it I suppose it must have some merits.

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  3. Not a lot of content to this comment, I just want to say that this blog is great and keeps getting even better. The quotes from the Amiga-magazines are absolutely hilarious

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  4. I am laughing so much at Mr. Whitehead's review comments...

    The artwork for the muse looks to me like they took a Playboy or similar artwork then drew clothes on it afterwards... and made the face a bit hag-like. Creepy.

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    1. I was thinking the same thing. Digitization of photographs sometimes produce weird results, but it's obvious the model was entirely nude.

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  5. Amiga gamers really were our own unique culture at the time :-)

    Anything that looked too much like a PC game usually got bad scores.

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  7. (removed earlier anonymous comment as per blog rules)

    I think that Amiga games like this were so welcome in Britain, because of two factors:
    1. Compared to the ZX Spectrum (a national treasure of sorts in the UK), this vibrant, "living cartoon"-like graphics was absolutely stellar and totally the "future",
    2. Many Brit game developers nailed the famed "wacky British surrealism" style (think of The Muppets, Monty Python's cartoons, etc) -- alas, this style is hard to accept for the uninitiated.

    Hence, I think UK gamers were more akin to style instead of substance -- a common trait with French gamers... which I find amusing, since the two nations do have a long history of mocking each other.
    To mock, or to _mock_, that is the question... :)

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    1. Yes, it's interesting that observation, but French games could indeed be even more stylish and surrealistic. The whole cinematic platformer genre (like Limbo and Inside) was very much a french thing at the beggining.

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  8. While I can’t argue with you on the overall score, I’d just like to add a small observation about the relationship between publishers and developers during the 8 bit and 16 bit era.

    Publishers back then were generally much smaller than nowadays, and there was a common theme and aesthetics in most of them even though the developer could be different. For example, Psygnosis, one of the most well known publishers at the time, was known for its surrealistic graphics. Agony and Shadow of The Beast were made by different developers, but looking at the graphics no one could tell, as they look like if they were made by the same people. Looking at game’s Lemoon Amiga website, i can check that most of the staff also made in-house Core Design games.

    My point is, Core Design was known for its cartoon graphics, and was one of the most popular publishers at the time. Most of their games were high quality, so saying that Heimdall was from a minor developer is not exactly right, since the roles of publishers and developers were more muddled back then. It was a highly anticipated game from a celebrated company, with many previews on the previous months, so the reviews reflected the hype. Same happens now, as most people can remember Dragon Age 2 fiasco.

    I also disagree that the game doesn’t make use of the norse them. It’s filled to the brim with nordic motivs and aesthetic. Yes, it doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue or exposition, but that more probably due to the developer/publisher more experience with arcade-like games.

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    1. EDIT: Most of the staff that made Heimdall also made in-house Core Design games, that's what i meant

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    2. Re: norse theme.
      Yup, I agree with you. The game _does_ use the Norse theme, but in a wacko, ridiculed British way.
      Remember: such ridicule is very common in Brit games, see: Prince Charles mocked as a Dalek in Head over Heels.

      http://www.mobygames.com/game/cpc/head-over-heels/screenshots/gameShotId,119647/

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  9. Publishers did seem to be the ones everybody talked about when I was a kid, nobody remembered the developer that I remember. I even read a review once about Kotor 2 that missed the fact it wasn't made by bioware but just said both games were from Lucasarts. Wish I could remember where I read that but the article was online at one point.

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  10. I wonder if the disconnect between the UK and the US isn't actually simpler. How well did Dungeons & Dragons go over in the UK? In the US by the time of the Gold Box games I think most "computer geeks" would have been surprised if you weren't also a "roleplaying geek". How much was that mirrored in the UK....if D&D didn't have the same penetration as it did in the states you might have people preferring more action games as opposed to more rules laden tactical ones.

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    1. Not sure about Dungeons & Dragons, but the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series - very much derived from D&D - was a megahit in the UK.

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    2. The Fighting Fantasy books were also a hit here in Portugal (i played also a lot of those), yet I never met anyone who played D&D. I think in the UK Games Workshop stuff like Warhammer were more prevalent.

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    3. Imho diff is more due to how computers proliferated in the UK:
      1. UK market was targeting a younger audience, who had less money. While most early CRPGs originated on Apple II and on disc and required 32k RAM, the most popular computers of the UK(ZX81,VIC20)had usually 8K RAM and a tape drive. UK games were often for 5 quids, in comparison to 20-25 dollars in the US.
      2. UK never had the same proliferation of the console until the 16-bit era.
      3. Until the late 80s tape games were very popular.
      4. And in the UK isometric games (Head over Heals) and 3D games made big hits(Elite, Sentinel, Mercenary, Carrier Command, Stunt Car Racer and so on...) so best developers were focusing on those.

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    4. In a sleepless night some weeks ago i compiled a master excel list of all games I played or owned. Totally forgot Stunt Car Racer and Carrier Command. Thanks for the reminder.

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    5. Before they made Warhammer, Games Workshop was a RPG publisher. White Dwarf was initialy an RPG magazine. They published Runequest for the British market.

      In fact, I think Runequest was more popular than D&D in this country. And maybe it was the same in France.

      I'm french and I remember playing Warhammer rpg when I was young, and Cthulhu of course. Runequest was highly praised in my country.

      Nowadays, France is very creative in the pen-and-paper rpg domain. With have a lot of games with truly amazing worlds behind, but weirdy and / or unbalanced mechanics ... The same with video games, it's very strange !

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    6. I'd definitely say that D&D wasn't as popular in the UK, mostly since the younger market was being gradually cornered by Games Workshop who see their own games as completely separate from the rest of the industry. (Today they talk about "the Games Workshop hobby" as if no other tabletop miniature wargames existed.) We did have a lot of older roleplayers in the late 80s and early 90s but mostly I recall people being spread across various systems - Cyberpunk, GURPS, Warhammer, Vampire/Werewolf, Rifts, etc.

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    7. I am one of those self-hating GW types. I owned quite a lot of product but always felt a good deal of cringe towards people who worked in and frequented the stores.

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  11. It seems like it was lucky to get 2 points for character creation/development or economy.

    Not as lucky as it was to receive a 96% though. Jesus. Beguiled by VGA much?

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  12. Mabe it is even simpler: Reviewers in the UK were just, well, clueless and had an awfully bad taste wrt crpgs.

    Strange to read about Bard's Tale as American export. For me in Germany American games were the gold standard. Everything european in gaming was a little strange and required extra effort to like. Uk, well, just like Britpop, never warmed up to them.

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    1. I had the same experience in Germany, every European game felt quirky or strange (especially French ones), while American games were the standard and usually played well. The first "normal" German game I remember is Amberstar.

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    2. There are quite a few German games from the late 80s/early 90s I remember fondly. Hanse, M.U.D.S., Batte Isle, Mad TV, Bundesliga Manager, the Realms of Arkania games... . Not many RPGs, though. I think management and simulation where quite popular with German developers.

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    3. Also don't forget about Die Siedler and Der Planer

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  13. The Germany probably will win the unofficial competition among CRPGs in Europe. With an Amberstar, Ambermoon, Realms of Arkania and Albion in the 90s and a number of "The Dark Eye"/"Das Schwarze Auge" in 2000s.

    And in a while we'll see how Spirit of Adventure fares. I think, it will surpass Heimdall and those French CRPGs. Even with it looking like a alpha version of Realms of Arkania, at a first sight. Or maybe because of it.

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    1. Spirit of Adventure is a limited Bard's Tale clone, I doubt it will get a much higher score. However it will tell the story how developers were ripped off by publishers which was quite common during that time. Abandoned Places (coming up in 1992) suffered the same fate.

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    2. SoA actually can get a few points over BT for better character development and interesting magic system. Oh, and much better visuals too. But then again those huge empty cities and ridiculous story might get the rating down a bit...

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  14. Chet, I have bad news for you as Inquisitor Shade of Swords has levels (when you use the seventh icon the bottom line says "niveau", which is level).
    It's been way too long since I last played the game, but I seem to remember it being a genuine RPG. Much like Les Templiers d'Orven :) Happye days.
    At any rate, I do have the manual if you need it. Not that it explains much, but it might help you. If you do, let me know how I can get it to you.

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    1. Okay, yeah, I see that now. It actually makes me feel a bit better about the game.

      I have a PDF of the French manual, but if you have a version that's already accurately OCR'd, please send it along by all means: crpgaddict@gmail.com

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    2. Hey Chet,
      Well, you might not like it in the end, it's very French :)
      At any rate, my manual is not OCR'd, but is scanned at 400Dpi & very legible if I may say so.
      Let me know if you still want it.

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  15. What to say about the sequel... I didn't really love it, and I liked this game back then way more than you do now. In the end, Heimdll II felt like an attempt to get closer to Action RPGs than to traditional ones. It does reach the requirements for being on your backlog but that's about it.

    I do give the developers credit for streamlining some of the functionalities they weren't really good at. There's no character creation selection - you're stuck with two characters whose alternate use can occasionally solve a few puzzles; a better organised but still insufficient inventory; combat that no longer takes place on a separate screen.

    I guess it will be quite a few years anyway, before its time comes.

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  16. I played Gender Wars before and I can confirm that it is more RTS than Action game.

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    1. More precisely, it's a tactical action, much like a Syndicate. With emphasis on "tactical".

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    2. It's one of the most fascinating disasters I've played. It had all to be a fun Syndicate update, and they failed at that with the elevator mechanics and repetition. Well, and also that the "war of the sexes" is not too much of a high concept to sustain a videogame.

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  17. I have good news: Psychonauts, one of the most creative and hilarious P.C. games is free on the Humble store today.

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