4 stars
A rom-com on the road

Highway Blossoms is a romantic visual novel about two young women (Amber and Marina) who meet through a chance encounter on the side of the road, and soon embark on an adventure together. It is a 4-6 hour long story told in text, pictures, animations, music, sound and voice. As the player, you don’t get to make any choices—your influence ends on the settings screen.

The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Amber, who is on a road trip in her grandfather’s RV. Her grandfather, who played a central role in Amber’s life, has recently passed away, and the trip is Amber’s way to process the loss. In this healing journey, she is aided by a bucket full of cassette tapes that she and “gramps” used to listen to.

On the side of the road in New Mexico, Amber first spots Marina, whose car appears to have broken down, and offers her assistance. It turns out that Marina is bubbly, cheerful, and entirely unprepared for her first trip away from home.

Soon enough, Marina draws a reluctant Amber into the purpose of her own trip: a treasure hunt across multiple states, based on claims in an old journal ostensibly written by a gold rush era miner.

Amber and Marina in front of a background that shows a Las Vegas boulevard. Marina is talking to a street artist, requesting a picture of both of them.
Amber and Marina in Vegas. These are the two sprites (with different facial expressions, poses and gestures) used through most of the game. (Credit: Studio Élan. Fair use.)

Amber and Marina grow closer during their adventure, and their blossoming love is the fluttering heart of the story. They do encounter other characters, chief among them a trio of treasure hunters led by a fierce and obnoxious woman named Mariah.

Tropes in America

In many ways, it feels more apt to compare Highway Blossoms with a romantic comedy movie than with a novel. The characterizations are over-the-top (Marina is the ditzy but angelic love interest sometimes found in rom-coms), and the presentation heavily relies on the capable voice acting by Katie Dagnen (Amber) and Jill Harris (Marina).

It’s all very cheesy, but it works, and you quickly forget that you’re not at the wheel at any point during this trip. The story features many notable sites—e.g., Shiprock, Canyon de Chelly, Arches National Park—which may inspire some players to make real world travel plans. The treasure hunt that motivates several of the stops gives parts of the story an unfortunate colonialist undertone.

The game features two erotic scenes between the main characters, which can be downloaded from the game’s website and added to censored editions. The scenes are part of the story and their inclusion feels neither forced nor gratuitous. In addition, the game includes extras such as “Marina’s Thoughts”, a gallery of small mementos from the story with Marina’s written comments on them.

The Verdict

While I found the graphics and parts of the soundtrack a bit repetitive, and some of the writing a bit cringey, I would overall recommend the experience if you’re in the mood for a wholesome love story. I would give Highway Blossoms 3.5 stars—rounded up because it made me both cry and laugh, as any romantic comedy should. There’s a continuation of the story called “Next Exit”, which I look forward to playing in future.

5 stars
A stylish deckbuilder that never overstays its welcome

Iris and the Giant falls into the genre of roguelike deck-building games, in which you collect and use playing cards to engage in combat. You play as Iris, a young girl who is seeking respite from bullying and depression in a fantasy world loosely inspired by Greek mythology.

In isometric dungeons rendered in a minimalist but stylish vector art style, you face wave after wave of enemies in turn-based battle: from skeleton warriors to axe-wielding minotaurs, from deadly cyclopes to thievish boars.

As you survey the field, you must continuously evaluate tactics and strategy. Do you take out the archer in the back, or do you attack the card thief in the first row? Do you use a magic card that will hurt many foes, or do you preserve it until later?

The game offers two main quests: the “Path of the Giant” and the unlockable “Path of the Ferryman”. In addition, the “Challenge of Chronos” lets you play with a time limit. Three difficulty modes are available.

As is typical for roguelike games, death is permanent, with one exception: if you find a rare giant stone, you can retry a stage the next time you die. In addition, in each run, you can acquire both temporary and permanent buffs that will help you in future attempts.

A typical early battlefield populated by minotaurs and archers. (Credit: Louis Rigaud / Goblinz Studio. Fair use.)

The game’s story is fragmented into memories, which you will find scattered throughout the dungeon. Each memory plays a short animation which reveals an aspect of Iris’ life: her relationship with her parents, her experiences in school, and so on.

This isn’t quite enough to tell a story, and the serious topic matter (depression, anxiety, bullying) is handled in a manner that can feel a bit overwrought and superficial. For me, that was only a mild distraction; your mileage may vary.

The Verdict

I enjoyed the 15 hours or so I spent with the game tremendously. Much of this is thanks to the excellent game design. The mechanics are intuitive and communicated well through text and graphics. There’s plenty of variety throughout the two main quests, and there’s always a small thrill in encountering a new card for the first time.

Once you’ve finished the quests and unlocked everything you want to see, you’ll probably be ready to move on. While there are some extra challenges for completionists, individual runs aren’t sufficiently distinctive to make this a game you’re likely to spend 100 hours with.

If you’re looking for a roguelike that has a lot to offer without getting you addicted, Iris and the Giant is an excellent choice. 4.5 stars.

5 stars
A trip down melancholy lane, in the mid-north of Sweden

How We Know We’re Alive is a short, free narrative adventure game set in Sweden. You play as Sara, an advertising copywriter who returns to her hometown of Härunga to pay her respects to her estranged friend, Maria. We learn that Sara’s and Maria’s paths in life diverged when Sara moved to Stockholm to fulfill her aspirations to become a writer, and Maria decided to stay behind to raise a family.

Sara hates Härunga, a fictional town situated in Sweden’s non-fictional Bible Belt, but she is compelled to learn more about what happened to Maria. So she has strained conversations with the people she grew up with.

The game is rendered in gorgeous, animated pixel art and features an evocative soundtrack. It combines point-and-click mechanics with horizontal movement using the keyboard, but features no puzzles. You walk around, click on some hotspots, and talk to people (you can make choices during each conversation).

Sara standing near a flower shop in rain and darkness.
Sara really, really does not like her hometown of Härunga. The weather is doing little to change her mind. (Credit: Motvind Studios. Fair use.)

It’s a 30-60 minute story about grief, love, and alienation, and not the kind of game I would recommend playing if you’re in an emotionally dark place yourself. The dark and rainy scenery is only briefly interrupted by sun-drenched memories, and the game’s ending may put you in a somber or reflective mood.

I encountered one small bug (when I moved in another direction than the game anticipated, it kept repeating the same scene with the same dialog), and I had to play the game in window mode on Linux to avoid flickering. But these were minor issues. If and when you have the appetite for this kind of story, How We Know We’re Alive is a beautiful, moving experience.

If you want to support the work of the small indie dev team that created the game, you can send them a few bucks for the deluxe edition, which includes artwork, the game’s original script, and a soundtrack with tracks not included in the game.

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