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Seattle Indies Expo 2018

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Tucked inside a hotel ballroom two blocks away from PAX, the Seattle Indies Expo nevertheless attracted an impressive crowd. This annual celebration indies and the Pacific Northwest boasted an incredible diversity of games. From visual novels to VR, the Seattle Indies community once again shows how much creativity lies within its many talented members.

Out of the lineup of twenty-five games, the following five stood out to me the most.

Gravastar (Studio Atma)

Hoo boy was this game made for people like me. Gravastar is the first title out of Studio Atma but you certainly wouldn’t be able to tell. The game’s demo, albeit rough around the edges, still manages to scream “production quality”. The music, art, and combat system could give the best of Japan a run for their money.

As a JRPG inspired by 2D fighting games, Gravastar aims to make scrubs like me feel awesome. Its unique active battle system captures the feeling of combo mastery with none of the learning curve. The crisp 2D animation pops and shines off the screen and will undoubtedly look even better as development continues.

Headliner: NoviNews (Unbound Creations)

Full disclosure, I do work on this game as a side-gig but that doesn’t make it any less great. Headliner: NoviNews is a standalone sequel to Headliner, a short media-bias adventure where you control the news. NoviNews tackles that same idea, but with the polish of a developer who’s already gotten their feet wet.

You are the Headliner and you control what news articles get published or rejected. Your choices cascade into a series of consequences that affect both the nation and your personal life. In the vein of games like Papers, Please, Orwell, and Beholder, prepare yourself to make the hard choices.

Wintermoor Tactics Club (EVC)

Tactics games have a reputation for being obtuse and number crunchy. Wintermoor Tactics Club remedies that by treating their game as more of a puzzle to solve. Wintermoor boils the tactics genre down to its essentials so that you can focus on the gameplay, rather than min-maxing.

While the game follows a group of kids in the 80s, it thankfully avoids the trap of aping on Stranger Things. Wintermoor’s hones in on a delightfully cheeky tone that meshes wonderfully with the soft, colorful art style.

Oh, and the music also bangs. Heartily.

Fowl Damage (Brandon Duncan)

Thought you’d gotten tired of soul-crushing platformers? Think again! Fowl Damage puts you in the role of an egg. Your basic goal requires you to reach the end of a level without breaking and spilling all over the place. Simple, right? Yeah, no.

Fowl Damage adopts the frustratingly entertaining mantra of “die-and-retry”. Your brittle eggsterior will break under pressure so you need to plan your movements accordingly. Much like Celeste, the controls are fairly simple. The level design, however, will easily take you for a ride (and then some).

Puppet Pandemonium (Fuzzy Puppets)

As someone who worked in theatre for quite a while, I was immediately drawn to Puppet Pandemonium. Anything that can combine both performance and video games gets a solid thumbs-up in my book. The premise is simple: two players take on the role of puppet hosts as they lead an audience of five through Warioware-like minigames.

The sheer novel nature of it was enough for me to overlook some of the more iffy design aspects. The minigames themselves are fairly simplistic, but do a good job of integrating the hosts and audience participation. With a bit more polish, Puppet Pandemonium could take the world by felt-covered storm.

Twenty Titles No Less Deserving

While I have my own personal preferences, the entire lineup at SIX exemplifies the dedication and vision one can only find in game development. Below is the full list of the other twenty games featured at SIX that show just how diverse the talent in Seattle truly is.

[links to each game can be found through their names]

  • Delightment“Delightment is an abstract puzzle game about lighting up tiles. Each world introduces a new mechanic with subtleties that allow for surprisingly small puzzles with a lot of depth.”
  • Thousands Threads – “Thousand Threads is an open world game where characters remember and react to the things you do — where your actions matter. Characters have unique personality traits, memories, and goals, so they act and react differently. Give, take, save, kill, inform, hide, be loyal, betray. Do what you want, and deal with the consequences.”
  • PK Food Fighters – “Food trucks Vs. Vending Machines in this fast paced tug of war style defense game. Cook up your favorite food fighters and take out those evil snacks.”
  • Torn Asunder – “Torn Asunder is a first person melee combat game about fighting demons, tearing off their limbs and using them as weapons.”
  • Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~ – “UD ~ncfl~ is a character-driven visual novel dungeon-crawling hybrid with a Japanese RPG aesthetic. It features cute (and sometimes weird) HD 2D character graphics and several unique 3D dungeon environments. Build friendships via conversation choices and grow stronger from turn-based battles and looting dungeons in this romantic horror comedy!”
  • NekoBako – “NekoBako (“Cat Box”) is a puzzle game about rearranging objects so they can all be returned home simultaneously, and nothing says “home” more than a simple cardboard box to the cat cubes! Gently roll them into their homes by swiping the screen and help fulfill their perfectly shaped destiny: “If it fits, I SITS!!””
  • Seed – “SEED combines elements of tower defense and environment puzzle games to deliver an entirely new kind of path-based gameplay. Instead of attacking creeps, your “towers” are magical beings who buff and support gentle creatures known as Tali as they travel maze-like paths to complete sacred rituals of restoration in an effort to save their dying world.”
  • Refactor – “Refactor is a collection of short games, each written to accompany the tracks of an electronic music album of the same name; these games are both interactive music videos and experiments in interaction and game design.”
  • Nectar Vector – “Nectar Vector is a non-violent competitive game about pollinating flowers. Infused with late-60s psychedelic rock, this fast-paced local multiplayer game of risk and reward has players maneuvering and activating flower powers in a race to collect pollen. It may be non-violent, but it’s anything but easy-going! Whoever wins, just remember to love each other.”
  • Buoyancy – “A city-building strategy game set in a world that has been completely covered in water. Build a great city from rubbish. Utilize your industry to explore the open seas and exploit resources. Defend your city from natural disasters and prepare for attacks from pirates.”
  • Spirit of Midnight – “SOM is a lightweight point and click adventure game. You play as a cat who gains the unexpected ability to leave his owner’s house after seeing an odd creature, embarking on a mystery-solving journey over the course of a single night. He meets a range of intelligent forest animals who all seem to need his help, some of whom join him in his quest for answers.”
  • Collidalot – “Collidalot is a local multiplayer game where players pilot post-apocalyptic hover cars & crash them into each other in destruction derby fashion. The world is a wasteland where pilots battle for glory above desolated landscapes. Energy rails have been suspended above the unforgiving planet surface where pilots fly & grind on the rails at breakneck speeds.”
  • Keyboard Kommander – “Type words to fire your guns to mow down hordes of zombies! Inspired by games like typing of the dead, this game has sense of humor in an apocalyptic setting as you defend your base and your fellow Komrades from the hordes of the undead.”
  • NiK-0 – “NiK-0 is a mobile game focused on clever puzzles and environment interaction. Player’s take control of NiK-0, a utility robot tasked with restoring power to the city after a disaster. Charge & Link electric grids to restore power to the city. Transform the environment to guide NiK-0 on his journey. Discover the story of the city and its inhabitants.”
  • PlanTechtor – “PlanTechtor is an intense mixture of VR shooting action and deep, strategic weapon planning. Each level features a unique set of enemies and powerful weapon combos. Before the fight starts, build your weapon loadout carefully, and make your plan. Once committed, you must defend your castle from an onslaught of alien robot invaders!”
  • Raven Conspiracy – “Raven Conspiracy is an endless platformer with a gameplay twist. Change between the powers of fire and electricity to survive. Hand drawn cutscenes tell the story of Raven trying to escape from the Order and save his wife. Fight the soldiers of The Order and giant bosses. An old school classic gaming that embraces the modern mobile platform.”
  •  Burn Ban – “Burn Ban is a visual novel with social media simulation mechanics. You assume the role of Twig, a mentally ill queer girl who is sent to Camp Sisquoc, a summer retreat for misguided students. While at camp, her dead friend’s social media mysteriously starts posting again, and she is set with determining the mystery behind the posts.”
  • The Mirror – “The Mirror is a metaphorical RPG about self-image, reflections, and reality. During the game, players adventure through multiple lives shaped by the stat-generation of a magic Mirror – but can the surface reflection of a Mirror really reveal the internal measure of an adventurer’s talents and destiny?”
  • Admiralo Island Witches Club – “Admiralo Island Witches Club is a women-positive narrative-driven game focusing on the player’s relationship with the five other girls in the club. How the player chooses to spend their time after school allows them to explore the island, interact with the supernatural beings that live on the island, and build up friendships with the other island residents.”
  • Steeplechase – “Steeplechase is a 2 – 8 local multiplayer game where you need to stay in the match longest to win. In the match, the level auto-generates itself, so no two levels are ever the same. Be forewarned though: this is not a runner. You need to keep a cool head while traversing pits, level speed ups, other players, and gravity switching. Good luck!”

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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garden story

Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together

Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.

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Death Stranding

Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.

While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death. 

Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.

Death Stranding

This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s. 

Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.

The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.

Death Stranding

The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .

In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.

Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope

One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community. 

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.

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Game Reviews

‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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