I stumbled across a video of someone playing I Am Fish a few months ago (probably on Steam early access or similar). It looked fun! There was this flying fish jumping from puddle to puddle, trying to get to what looked like the ocean. Finding Nemo the videogame? Kind of.

Today I tried the game, from the makers of I Am Bread, and have to say it's a mixed bag. There's way more story up front than needed, the lack on an invertable camera control proved very frustrating, and at the end I gave up because I could not figure out where to go. I know there's lots more gameplay, and with an inversion toggle and a little perserverance it might actually be fun.

This was... not great, but still shows tremendous potential:

 

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It's been a minute since I played a new Artifex Mundi game. Endless Fables: Shadow Within promises to be one of the more dark and outlandish entries in their hidden object catalog. It begins with a disturbing children's fable and progresses to a mysterious mirror that appears to release the same bogeyman from the tale into your world.

Also, there's a cat:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I didn't know what to expect from Twelve Minutes. The game boasts an all-star voice-acting cast of James McAvoy (young Professor X) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars' Rey) as a married couple and Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man) as the person who intrudes on their evening during those fateful minutes, which repeat Groundhog Day-style whenever you die or try to leave the apartment.

I started to figure out a few things I could do during my early runthroughs but barely scratched the surface. There's clearly a much deeper story to unravel but it's going to take some trial and error (mostly error) to extract the meatier bits of it.

You can see how the story starts and evolves on subsequent runs:

 

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GrrlGotGame tried Night in the Woods due to its cat protaganist but found it much darker than expected. That pushed my buttons, so of course I had to give it a try too. More interactive story than game at times, though there are elements of platforming and Guitar Hero.

It's both funny and disturbing, a potent mix that's keeping us playing as we try to figure out where it's going:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

 Xbox Series XIf you're expecting the Xbox Series X to be an Xbox One ON STEROIDS--well, it is and it isn't.

In fact, the funny thing is that I can already see that the Series X will force me and my family to use our Xbox LESS. And not just because games and apps load faster, shaving precious minutes off our wait times. But because it's lacking some core functionality that we have grown to depend on over many years.

Did you know that Microsoft cut both HDMI pass-through for cable/satellite TV and 3D Blu-ray support? Plus, on top of that, my favorite streaming app, VUDU, isn't working right. More on those in a bit.


How I got one
OctoShop plug-in I've been trying to get a Series X since launch day: Nov 10, 2020. I've nearly nabbed one about half a dozen times only to have it purchased out from under me while trying to check out with it. Seriously, do modern e-stores not understand the concept of reserving an item in your cart for a reasonable checkout period, say 5-10 minutes (and maybe longer on a launch day when the servers are fully overwhelmed)? Talk to the people who run the Penny Arcade Expo ticket sales... they get it.

For months, I had mostly given up but still checked once a day without very much optimism. Then, thanks to a tip about using the OctoShop plug-in for Google Chrome, I managed to score one in a few days--but only because I didn't give up when all signs pointed to this being yet another missed opportunity.

With OctoShop, you can set up stock alert notifications, and I did this for several online stores (though not the Microsoft Store, where I wanted to make my purchase so I could apply both my Microsoft Rewards rebates and a bunch of gift cards I purchased at Costco for 90 cents on the dollar--but alas that one wasn't on the list of trackable merchants). I figured if an in-stock alert appeared for any particular retailer, I'd decide then whether to go for it.

A few days later I received an alert that the Microsoft Store had Series X coming in and out of availability. Turns out, the app also tracks competitors to the stores you follow and lets you know of any activity! I jumped on it and had a Series X in my cart on the second refresh. Alas, the transaction failed as all others had before it and told me there was no stock. But since the alert alluded to sporadic availability, I kept trying and succeeded/failed the same way a few more times before it seemed no more stock was coming. I had a transaction ID for my most recent attempt and decided to try Store support to see if I had missed the boat. After 10 minutes and several holds while the support agent looked things up, I was informed that there might not have been any real stock and that it was likely due to orders being cancelled (like that happens a lot?!). I was told it was time to give up.

But I kept trying anyway, and five minutes later I had another in my cart... and this time I was able to check out fully! For the next few days, I checked my email constantly, watching for the order cancellation I was sure was coming. Instead, I received a shipping notification, and two days later I unpacked the Series X.


It's big
OK, so the thing is really big. I was concerned that, even sideways, it would be too heavy for the shelf I had my old Xbox on above the TV. But a quick heft check told me it's maybe only slightly heavier that Xbox One X (which is small but dense).

I had watched some YouTube setup videos, so knew some of what to expect. I had all of my games installed on external 8TB drives and I plugged in a 1TB storage expansion card I bought back in November, before I learned that getting a Series X would be a pipe dream for nearly 9 months. I plugged in Ethernet and USB and replaced the HDMI out with the included cable. That's when I realized there was no HDMI input for our cable box. A quick Internet search confirmed: There's no passthrough for television--it's streaming only on the Series X. Fortunately, I already have an HDMI switcher (part of this very elaborate A/V setup I created nearly a decade ago that's still going strong!). So I disconnected my PS3 (which I rarely use anymore), and now watching TV is one of the many things that pulls us away from our Xbox.

A word on apps: None of these will carry over from last generation. All apps need to be (re)installed, and most of them will require you to sign in again (exceptions seem to be YouTube and VUDU, which worked right away without reauthorization). I chose to do the setup using the Xbox app on my iPad, and that did make things a little easier. I mistakenly skipped the app install option as I didn't yet know that they'd all need to be redownloaded from the Xbox store.

Another thing that's big: the games! Any game that is Series X/S optimized will trigger a download to the internal 700GB solid-state drive. Comcast Xfinity caps our monthly usage at about 1TB. We burned through half of that the first couple of days, and I didn't even upgrade Gears 5 yet (next month, maybe?). The good news is that we still have room to spare thanks to that expansion storage card. If you run out of space, you can move X/S games to an external drive but you'll need to copy them back before playing them again.


That VUDU you do (or don't)
VUDU Fandango app If you don't use the VUDU streaming video app, you can probably skip this section. The problem I've encountered is a bit technical and only appears to affect a subset of customers (as VUDU says they were unable to replicate the issue, I can only assume it affects, perhaps, only Xfinity subscribers). I'm a power user with a vast collection of movies and shows from Ultraviolet, Movies Anywhere, and direct purchase so VUDU typically gets daily use in our house--though maybe less due to the problems we face.

Here's how it surfaced. In early March, on my Xbox One X, I took the latest VUDU app update and found a bug. When I play a video, it's fine--but as soon as I stop it or it ends, I cannot play another video unless I force quit and reboot the app. If you're an active VUDU user, you can see how this can be a real problem with binge-watching as the next episode of a TV series isn't added to your watchlist until you actually play a few seconds of it. When the video player fails to load the next episode, you then need to go find the series and figure out where you left off... which can be time consuming and more than a petty annoyance.

It's worse if you want to watch ad-supported content as the first ad counts as the first video. When that's done, nothing else will play (be it Ad 2, or the movie/show you wanted to watch). Force quitting the app resets the cycle. You get no credit for ads you've watched so basically you can't watch any ad-supported content.

I promptly reported this bug to VUDU and Xbox back in March. VUDU took its sweet time responding, first with the typical "blame the customer" approach to Tier 1 support that most companies begin with no matter how much detail you provide up front. Eventually I convinced them that I had reset everything more than once, reinstalled the app, ruled out any larger networking issues by direct connecting the Xbox to my cable modem, etc. I also confirmed that VUDU is running fine on other devices, including a PS4, on the same exact network. So clearly the bug must be a code difference in the Xbox app affecting subsequent streams. After four months of back and forth in email, I called their support line, filled in some details they needed, and did server ping tests for them. Then it supposedly was escalated to their engineering department. (For the record, Xbox never followed up though they rarely do.)

The saving grace was that anytime I updated to the latest version and the issue hadn't been fixed, I could copy the pre-March version of the app from my second Xbox One back to the Xbox One X. Remember above where I said that all apps need to be freshly installed for Series X? This means I cannot copy the old working build to it (and because I didn't have a Series X before March 2021, I can't source any earlier working build of the app).

My best guess is that someone at VUDU rewrote the streaming code so that your first play goes to a server I can reach but subsequent streaming calls go to a server I cannot (there was a set of servers that failed the ping test as unreachable). I expect that the other versions of the app always call a server I can reach. If many/most Internet providers can reach the secondary servers, that would explain why it's been hard to lock down. Whatever the cause, VUDU is in the process of rebranding as VUDU Fandango so it's doubtful they will roll back to the earlier last known good version... here's hoping they eventually identify the cause of the issue and fix it.

Until then, if I want to watch more than a little bit of VUDU, I need to switch to my PS4 (or iPad, or web browser). Because the Xbox Series X version is just not capable, at least for us, in its current form.


TV and 3D Blu-ray are dead
 HDMI splitter We knew Kinect was gone with Series X, so a few months ago we unplugged ours and replaced it with an Echo Dot so we'd get comfortable using the new digital assistant voice commands before getting a Series X. We were thrilled to find that the Echo immediately recognized the new Xbox in place of the old one.

Alas, our days of saying "Alexa, Xbox, Watch TV" are over. Cord cutters, you're fine. But if you passed your cable or satellite HDMI into your Xbox One, be prepared to find another way to watch TV. Might I suggest an HDMI switch similar to the one I used in my 2013 A/V project?

I also noticed that even though my Xbox One X would support 1080p (which I mostly used for 3D Blu-rays, which require it) I cannot get my Series X to go above 720p. It still looks really good but I recently upgraded the kitchen monitor (when the old TV finally died) so was expecting the ability to run steady on the higher resolution. Now I can't even get it to work when the other TV isn't connected (as it did on the Xbox One). I'd move to 4K but they don't make 3D TVs anymore, and I'm not ready to give that up since there are still quite a few 3D movies I want to watch. So I guess I'll be doing that on my PS4, and sticking with 720p on my Series X.


Still great
Even with the drawbacks, the Series X is pretty solid--and not just in its bulkiness! There's a new section in the Guide menu called Quick Resume, which shows some of the recent games that are still resident in memory and can be played really fast. Mostly it's just Forza Horizon 4 and Gems of War, which I play daily.

And ultimately that's why we got the Series X: to save time getting to the things we love to do. We only wish it really were an Xbox One X on steroids so we wouldn't need to find annoying, disruptive workarounds to access much of the entertainment we enjoy.

As a long-time fan of Supergiant Games, I've been hoping ever since our fascinating PAX interview that Hades would comes to Xbox. Not only did that happen, it's on Xbox Game Pass.

My son already beat the game on PC so he was watching as I played and giving me tips, some of which I followed. So there's some progress but I made a tactical error by collecting a ranged weapon when I was doing better with the sword. By switching on God Mode after the first attempt, I did reduce the damage I take - and each subsequent death adds even more protection.

Eventually I will get through it but, as you can see, it may take awhile:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

Roundguard caught my eye because it's basically a Peggle clone with RPG elements. You choose a hero - each with his or her own super power - and then aim for the enemies, health potions and, once a level is completed, the exit to the next room you want to visit.

Each hit to an enemy returns damage, and powers require mana - so there's far more strategy than just clearing a bunch of pegs:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

Katamari Damacy is just one of those games, right? It's hard to say why we love it but we do. So when Katamari Damacy Reroll went on sale, we nabbed two copies (one for each of our gamertags so we can both play on any console) and dove in.

I had forgotten that the game imposes time limits (not my favorite thing in games, especially when I'm just trying to relax) but you can see that I rose to the challenge on the second level--just barely:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I picked up Tyler: Model 005 for just a couple bucks, and I can see why it was priced so low. The game, featuring a robot toy that somehow finds itself activated as a self-functioning robot you control, is confusing and not terribly fun. I did figure out how to keep my battery charged and defeat an onslaught of spiders (why'd it have to be spiders?!) only to find myself in a basement with no real clear sense of purpose. And then I solved a simple light puzzle only to be thrown into a tower defense mode I didn't really want.

I didn't even give it the full 30 minutes:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I stumbled across Skully shortly after it came out but decided due to mixed reviews to wait for a sale. I love a good marble action/puzzle game like Marble Blast Ultra on the Xbox 360, and this one has something or a story and the ability to transform your skull/marble into other things.

I will say it took some time to get the hang of the controls. Water means death for your poor skull, but fortunately checkpoints are never far away. You can also turn into a sort of mud golem with a powerful punch and the ability to shoot a fire attack that evaporates water-filled enemies, so there's that. Overall, a fun and intriguing game with middling controls and (so far) only moderate difficulty.

If you've always wanted a marble game coupled with exploration, this might be for you:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

If you think Blacksad: Under the Skin looks like a hard-boiled detective version of Zootopia, well, you're right. Pretty sure that was the elevator pitch for this game. Unlike Dreamfall Chapters, this plays much more like a Telltale game. It even discourages you from turning on the tutorial, saying it should be pretty obvious what to do. I kept it on anyway, and it's kinda cool how it freezes the action to explain what's up right before you do something for the first time.

Like most detective games, expect to spend a lot of time looking for people and things to talk to, collect, and interact with. Eventually you'll get enough clues to make deductions but I barely scratched the surface on my first big case:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Dreamfall Chapters, an impulse buy. Maybe something like a Telltale game.

It isn't that. Dreamfall is more abstract, and the dialogue choices just sort of float in the air and let you sort between them, gathering a sense of each possible path. You solve puzzles by interacting with light, mind, and time.

It takes some getting used to:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I didn't get into the early Mass Effect games though rather enjoyed Andromeda. With so much buzz for Mass Effect Legendary Edition (which remasters the first three games in the series with all of the trimmings), I finally bit down and (re)started the first game. It's more or less how I remembered it, albeit shinier and better sounding. I immediately recognized Seth Green as the voice of Joker in the first few minutes.

I ended up playing nearly an hour so I could complete the first mission and save my game:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I picked up The Bradwell Conspiracy some time ago and finally decided to dive in. It's a little clunky and the premise is ridiculous but it's also kinda fun and funny. Not sure I would recommend it but then again, I'm still playing. Basically you're trapped in a Stonehenge museum after what seems to be a terrorist bombing and a quirky AI and a friendly (and oddly knowledgeable) stranger help guide you to escape.

Along the way, you learn about the family who owns it and their shady and tragic past. And there's a gun that reshapes materials (not a Portal gun but the game feels Portalesque):

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

Another Artifex Mundi hidden object game. Uncharted Tides: Port Royal is right in the middle of the pack: not great, but not bad. There is an interesting game dynamic where a coin flips and you change the character that you play (it's not random, so not sure why the coin flip metaphor, but just go with it). There is one really tough puzzle in the middle where you need to repair a rope bridge; the good news is that after many failed attenpts, I quickly found a video online that walked me through the solution.

Since recording this video, I've beaten the game and the side story, and it's weird but fun:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I've been meaning to try Spiritfarer for a long time, but could never find a time when I was in the mood. I finally pulled the trigger and gotta say: meh. It's OK but hardly the compelling story-driven drama I expected. It took me some time to adjust to using the X button to advance the dialogue (at first I thought the game was locked up, as nothing I did seemed to work) but I couldn't think of a better remap so I just acclimated.

Maybe it's more your game than mine? I'll keep going as I hear the story becomes quite emotional, something rare and treasured in gaming:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

She Sees Red is another interactive movie, though by far the worst one I've played yet. On the heels of my run of Five Dates, which has some solid acting, the contrast is remarkable. Don't get me wrong: I knew it would be bad after watching the trailer. And I bought this both on sale and with Rewards money, so I don't really feel cheated.

The voice dubbing alone signaled that it wouldn't be up to the usual standards. I just didn't expect it to be so bad: plot holes you can drive a truck through, and characterizations that are rampant stereotypes that also make no sense.

Is it so bad it's good? You decide:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I've played a few interactive movie games, and they tend to be dorky yet amusing. As someone who has been married 30 years, I have no idea what dating is like today (much less during a pandemic) so figured Five Dates would be some escapist fun. The acting is actually surprising good, though occasionally a little overwrought - it still feels somewhat authentic.

Check out the intro and my first two dates:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

I noticed that Deliver Us The Moon is leaving Xbox Game Pass soon, and I really wanted to try it. I was expecting a point-and-click adventure rather than the third-person interactive exploration game that it is. It starts out super intuitive - although I did sit a bit longer than necessary listening to a radio report before I realized I was free to move about the mission base.

After that it seemed pretty obvious where to go and what to do at any particular moment, until I got to the rocket launch sequence. This is timed and the instructions on what to do are angled and not zoomable, which made reading them tricky at times. After a few failed starts, I managed to get liftoff:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.

Maneater just looked like it would be a fun game. Attacking people as a shark? How is that NOT fun?!

Alas, it suffers the fate of most underwater games: difficult controls. It starts out fine with some tutorial basics. I then spent some time savaging the wrong beach. Once I found the correct feeding ground, things picked up fast. Boats and scuba dudes hunted and killed me several times while I tried to master the difficult attack and feeding controls - not a big deal when eating unarmed sunworshippers, but a different story when blocked in and under constant attack.

Maybe it's more fun to watch than to play - judge for yourself:

 

For more like this, follow my Twitch channel and find archived streams in my YouTube channel.




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