Playdate Platform Review
I was once a huge fan of handheld gaming. When I was a kid, it was so much fun to take the Game Boy along on long boring car rides or when I was spending the night with my grandmother. During the time of the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation Portable, I couldn’t afford a large HD TV (and didn’t really have space for one anyway), so instead I had to play 360 games on a small monitor on my desk. If I wanted to play on the couch or the bed, it would have to be a handheld. And I was fine with that! There were so many cool games coming out on the DS and the PSP, and their libraries offered more creative diversity than the consoles at the time which were being flooded by shooter games that were aping either the Call of Duty or the Grand Theft Auto formula.
Somewhere along the way though, I started making more money and moved into more spacious living spaces, and as a result gravitated more to console and PC gaming, since I actually had a TV appropriate for those kinds of games. It, of course, didn’t help that handheld gaming kind of disappeared. Sony no longer makes handhelds, and Nintendo consolidated its handheld and console business into the Switch. And gaming on a smartphone really isn’t the same. So those lazy, Sunday afternoons of lying in bed with the DS held close, stylus pinched in one hand, became a thing of the past.
But then the Playdate came along. An oddly niche little portable gaming machine, its made me realize what’s been lost along the way. And in a time when I’m struggling to find free time to actually play games, it’s made it really easy to just pick up a game, play it for as little as a few minutes, and then move on to whatever responsibility is calling my name next.
The central conceit behind the Playdate (beyond just the novelty of a dedicated handheld gaming device in the year 2022) is that games are released to players on a weekly basis (thus the name Playdate). When you first boot up your Playdate, two games are immediately available. On the next Monday, two more games are unlocked, and this continues on a weekly basis for another twelve weeks until all 24 games in the first “season” have appeared. The first season of games comes free with your device, so you don’t need pay anything additional to get these 24 games. Panic, the company behind Playdate, has suggested there might be future seasons, but has made no commitment to further releases, and I would expect that any future seasons would come at a cost to customers.
The thing to know about the Playdate is that it is a very idiosyncratic device. So much immediately stands out when you first look at it. First off, as well as a traditional d-pad and A and B buttons, it has a crank as an a control method. Some games actually make very interesting and perfectly logical use of the crank. It functions as a very unique analog control method. For instance, in Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, you’re tasked with guiding your character through scurrying patterns of oncoming enemies and obstacles. You make Crankin run faster or slower depending on how fast you spin the crank, and likewise you can send him in reverse if need be by simply rotating the crank backwards.
Other games completely ignore the crank, not finding a use for it in the style of game that its creators were trying to make. The crank is a neat little add-on to the Playdate that creates some opportunities for new gameplay ideas, but its not the point of the Playdate. Really, I don’t know if there is some grandiose core idea behind the Playdate other than just being a cool little handheld device on which to play games. If anything, I think the crank reinforces how “toy-like” the machine is. This is not meant to be the latest and greatest gaming platform for “serious” gaming. It’s just a fun little thing to carry around in your pocket or your backpack for when you need some distraction.
The other feature that immediately jumps out when you flick on the Playdate is its greyscale screen. Yes, greyscale in the year 2022. I don’t think this was a cost-saving maneuver on the part of the device’s manufacturer. Nowadays, mobile color LCDs are incredibly cheap and on virtually everything you buy that has any sort of electronic components inside. Rather, I think this was a clear aesthetic choice for the platform. By making everything greyscale, it gives a cohesive look to all of the machine’s titles, one that clearly marks them as being Playdate games. Some people will think this is a cool idea, others may think the Playdate is trying a little too hard to be unique. Personally, the more games I play on the thing, the more that I find that I like it. The lack of color is the type of restriction that forces game creators to get imaginative, and there is a lot of very creative art design in the games you find on the Playdate.
And despite its lack of color, I find that the Playdate screen really pops. The resolution is quite sharp, and even very tiny details on the already tiny screen tend to be legible as a result. In the right lighting, the contrast between black and white on the display actually looks amazing. I realize that you might be reading this thinking I’m crazy being so enamored by a tiny little black and white screen in the year 2022, but there’s something about it that’s just very eye-catching.
Of course, the key caveat above is in the right lighting. If there is a critical fault that I can find with the Playdate, it’s that the beautiful little screen lacks any sort of backlighting. Thus you need to play it with proper external lighting to really enjoy it. This means no playing in the dark while in the bed at night. It also means that if you’re in a dimly lit room, you have to hold the Playdate at an angle so it catches enough light from whatever lamp or light fixture might be in the room. Supposedly, the lack of backlight is a restriction of this particular high contrast LCD that they went with. But for as much as I love the Playdate, I find this to be an immense flaw. It really limits when and where you can play this thing. Not being able to play in bed in the dark is a huge bummer for me personally.
Playdate’s delivery method might also cause some problems for people. The prospect of getting 24 games along with the machine is hugely attracted. But those games are metered out on a schedule of 2 per week that starts when you register the device with Playdate’s servers. I can sort of respect that they slowly parcel out these games in an attempt to give them space for the player to try out. After all, if they just dumped 24 games on you from the start, it could be kind of overwhelming. But personally, I got behind on testing out each week’s releases, and now that I’m through the 12 week season, I basically have 24 games that I mostly haven’t tried yet, so I’m in that situation anyway. Additionally, I think this could create a “waiting game” for some players. For instance, maybe you didn’t like the releases in a given week, so you’re just stuck waiting till the next one for something to play. Or maybe you’ve heard about a really cool game on the Playdate, but you can’t play it yet since its one of the later week’s releases. The release schedule is really just another idiosyncratic decision that will either delight or baffle those who pick this thing up.
That said, Playdate fortunately has official support for sideloading unofficial games. There are actually quite a few Playdate games right now that are either free or purchasable on itch.io. You can go there, download a game and then upload it to your Playdate over wi-fi, and you’re good to go. The Playdate has a really cool sideloading system for games. You log into your account on the play.date website, go to the “sideload” tab, and then select the game on your phone, computer, tablet, whatever that you want to beam to your Playdate. Once uploaded, your Playdate will immediately begin downloading it from the servers, so it’ll be available to you right away to play. This method is actually really cool since it means I can download a game to my phone at work, upload it to the website, and then its waiting for me on my Playdate when I get home. No clumsy USB connection required like in the days of getting PS1 games onto the PSP.
Overall, I find the Playdate to be a really cool little machine. There are things that amaze me about it, and there are some things that annoy me about it (mainly the lack of a backlight), but ultimately it’s just fun to sit down with this little guy and relax. It has a pick-up-and-play quality that is missing from a lot of modern gaming hardware and software. You can play it for as little as a few minutes and still have a lot of fun. It’s the perfect little companion for your break times. And I just find it really cool that we live in a time when a small company can launch a niche device like this and find an audience for it.
More Steam Next Fest Recommendations
I’ve had time to play more demos on Steam Next Fest. In addition to my picks from yesterday, here are a few more that I really liked!
I’ve seen this one recommended from numerous sources, but for some reason I kept putting it off, and yet it was amazing when I finally played it. Signalis is a top-down game that plays out like (the original) Resident Evil – limited ammunition, slow lumbering monsters, progress gated by item puzzles, little story bits laying around in discarded documents. The graphics are what I can only term as “lo-fi”, in that they’re evocative of pixelated retro games, but in a style that’s not really comparable to any game that I personally know from back in the day. The game takes place on a crashed spacecraft, and what I initially thought was straightforward scifi horror (like The Thing) took an unexpected twist toward the end. I highly recommend checking out this demo for fans of horror games.
This game has one very clear inspiration, and that’s Sonic the Hedgehog. It has everything from a mad scientist who entraps the local wildlife in robotic eggs to a character that rolls up in a ball to gain momentum. That said the game felt very technique-driven when compared to Sonic. The player must really become skilled in using the character’s speed and momentum to clear each stage. So, it’s sort of like how Sonic should work in theory at least. I didn’t expect much out of such a blatant Sonic wannabe, but I was impressed by how fun this game turned out being.
Another horror game with pixelated graphics. Unlike Signalis, this game is actually a graphic adventure that plays out mostly through text. It is very well written from what I experienced, creating nuanced characters as well as some really creepy situations. By the end, I definitely wanted to see where the story was going. This one releases in July, and I will definitely check it out later.
Yesterday, I wrote about Selaco, an FPS that appears to be inspired by the likes of System Shock and Doom. Exophobia takes it even farther back, clearly evoking the look and feel of Wolfenstein 3D – a run and gun shooter set in simplistic 3D environments. You can’t even look up or down in this game! Yet despite its primitiveness, I had fun exploring the large maze-like level in the demo. The game also has a slide move that helps the player dodge enemy fire and can be used to stun enemies if you knock into them, which adds a fun twist to gameplay.
The Fridge is Red
I vacillated a bit on recommending this game. It is a horror game set in the new creepy internet fad of liminal spaces – mundane settings that make a deeply unnerving impression. The game seemed cool to me, but I got nauseous while playing it and couldn’t finish the demo, so take that for what it is.
Steam Next Fest 2022 Recommendations
Last year I had a ton of fun with Steam Next Fest, a summer showcase event featuring a huge number of playable demos from indie developers. Unfortunately, the event only lasted a week, and not being prepared, I didn’t have time to try out everything I wanted to see. Now that Next Fest has come around again, I’ve had a little more free time this week, so I’ve been able to check out a lot more demos from this new crop of indie games. Below are my recommendations.
This game was the highlight of all of the demos I played so far, and I was happy to find out it’s slated to come out in July, so there won’t be much of a wait. The game is basically a series of escape rooms set against the story that you’ve been inducted as a student into a secretive school that trains master escape room escapists. Why such a school exists is not really explained in the demo, but even if the story ends up being nonsensical, I think I’ll enjoy solving these puzzle rooms enough that it won’t really matter.
My only issue was that the game didn’t really run that well on my decently-powered PC. The frame rate was quite choppy while playing. Normally, I wouldn’t be so concerned with a game’s performance from a demo, but with it releasing so soon, it does make me slightly uneasy.
And as a heads up, there is another game with a similar title in the event called Escape Room Academy. Don’t get this confused with that!
Rog & Roll
I actually played this one last year and thought it was merely “okay”. I almost didn’t try it again this year, but I’m glad I did. This new demo shows that the game has made considerable leaps since last summer. Rog and Roll is a sidescrolling platformer that combines sprite-based characters with simplistic polygonal environments. The way it looks sort of reminds me of Kirby.
What I like about Rog and Roll is that it is a fairly straightforward platformer. Most platformers made by indie developers try to have something “extra”, like it has a heavy focus on puzzles, or it tries to tell a heartbreaking story, or it cranks the difficulty way up. Rog and Roll really just has a focus on platforming – running and jumping – which is not to say that it’s easy or lacking in intrigue. It has a difficulty level that is reasonably challenging, but nothing extremely tough, and the levels have enough branching paths and secret areas to make them interesting to explore.
Along with Escape Academy, this game was the highlight of the event. Can’t wait.
At first, I didn’t really think much of this game – it’s another game wanting to be Super Metroid – there’s like ten of those released on a weekly basis. But it really grew on me. The combat is a mixture of melee and ranged shooting, and there is an interesting mechanism through which the game encourages you to mix it up between those two types of attacks. While it didn’t immediately feel particularly special, I think the lonesome atmosphere of the game eventually grew on me. It’s very very much like Super Metroid – a sci-fi warrior exploring a hostile, lonely plant – but with elements of Dark Souls and anime cyberpunk shaded in. I’m definitely intrigued.
An indie first person shooter(/kicker). There are a lot of indie first person shooters coming out right now, but most of them are inspired by games like Doom or Quake and use graphics that strongly resemble those inspirations. Anger Foot looks quite a bit more modern. Playing the game reminds me of Hotline Miami in how the player is expected to just bust through the levels, making their way through using a combination of speedy aggression and trial and error. Enemies can do a lot of damage very quickly, so it often takes some experimentation with how to tackle the level before you can complete it. That said, the game is so fast paced that dying a few (or several) times doesn’t really become aggravating.
In contrast to Anger Foot, there is Selaco, which is totally one of those Doom-inspired games I was talking about. It’s even built in the GZDoom engine (yet it still looks really cool despite the vintage software). That said, it was a cool run-and-gun game with a setting that reminded me of System Shock 2. Very interested to see how this one will turn out in the end.
This game bills itself as a 3D platformer in the style of those that were on the N64 and PSX. Certainly, it looks a lot like a PSX game, but when I think about comparable games on the N64 and PSX, I think about stuff like Banjo-Kazooie and Spryo the Dragon, and this game is very “flat” when compared to those games. The “frogun” concept is that the character has a little gun that shoots out a frog tongue that can be used like the grappling hook in Zelda – it can pull the character to distant surfaces or be used to pull enemies and objects toward the character. It was kind of fun, although I worry that the gameplay might not have enough depth to sustain my interest through a full game. Still, I’m definitely interested to see how it turns.
I’ve played quite a few more Next Fest demos than what I’ve mentioned above, but these were the ones that I specifically wishlisted on Steam so that I could check them out when they release. The Next Fest event ends on Monday (6/20). I think it’s really unfortunate that they only let this event last for one week and not longer. There are just too many demos to try and one week doesn’t give me enough time in my busy schedule to check out everything. I’m squeezing in time whenever I can to try more of these, though.
I am going to rant about the Switch Online Expansion Pack
I am going to rant about the Switch Online Expansion Pack.
I have been a subscriber to the Switch Online service since its inception. I would not call it a great service, but I have found its value justifies its price. I was a huge fan of Mario 35 (which came free with the service) last year, although I am of course enormously frustrated that they took the game down in March. I get that they launched the game to celebrate Mario’s 35th anniversary, but why develop a game to just have it available for a limited time? It would be one thing if the player base had fallen off and the cost of maintaining the game wasn’t worth it anymore. But all the way until the end it seemed to me like Mario 35 had a very engaged audience. I tried PAC-MAN 99, which was sort of a follow-up game, but it just didn’t engage me like Mario 35. Then there’s the online multiplayer aspect of the service. I don’t play a lot of online games on the Switch. I got my fill of Splatoon on the Wii U, and I mainly use the Switch online functionality to play Mario Kart 8 on very rare occasion with family and to download levels for Super Mario Maker 2.
The most appealing feature of Switch Online to me has always been the NES and SNES games that become accessible through the subscription. That said, I don’t think there is really much special about the NES and SNES libraries on the Switch. Most of the main draws are games that I personally have played to death on other platforms and, in some cases, I’ve technically bought multiple times over in some fashion or another. (For instance, I own Super Mario Bros. 3 on NES, Game Boy Advance, 3DS Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console, and NES Classic Edition.). And to make matters worse, these libraries grow at a trickle with months going by without any new additions.
And yet despite all of its shortcomings, I still find myself using this feature of the service the most. There are times when I’m in a funk, and I don’t want to play a new game, I just want something old and comforting. Times when I just want to decompress and boot up Donkey Kong Country for the umpteenth hundred time. I think these retro games offer two benefits that appeal over just playing something more modern. The first is that they are nostalgic comforts. I mentioned I own numerous copies of Super Mario Bros. 3, and the reason for that of course is that sometimes I just want to play Super Mario Bros. 3 on a whim. That game holds a special place in my heart, some of my earliest memories are of playing that game. And there are times when I’m feeling down that I can go to that game and be reminded of all I’ve been through in life and all the challenges that I’ve faced and then I feel better because I realize that what I’ve been feeling is just another bump along the road.
The other reason why I like to have this library of retro games just waiting for me there on the Switch is that there is a straightforwardness to many retro games that is difficult to find in more modern offerings. Modern games can often be really hard to zone out to. They have lots of cutscenes and story elements and tutorials and other bits that you have to pay close attention to, even in situations when you just want to shut off your brain and engage with pure mechanics. A lot of older games tend to put a significantly lower mental load on the player. You don’t need much of a tutorial to play Donkey Kong Country, it’s just a game about running and jumping. You don’t need long cutscenes to convey the Shakespearean tragedy of the plot in Kirby’s Adventure. You just boot the game up and play. At the end of a long, hard day, it’s nice to just have a collection of games that you can just peruse and boot any one of them up at random with no worry given to how much time you’re going to have to spend getting the introductory cutscenes and tutorials out of the way.
So of course I was thrilled a few weeks ago when Nintendo announced it would be expanding the Switch Online service to include N64 and Genesis games. I was slightly annoyed by the plan to charge extra over the existing subscription fee, but I figured the new price couldn’t be that much, maybe ~$10 more at the most. After all, despite it’s shortcomings, Switch Online’s rather small $20/year fee has always made it rather easy to balance out the cost-benefit equation for this product. …..And then the actual price came out……$50/year……meaning a $30 up charge over the existing service……over twice the price of the base subscription.
That’s a lot. Well beyond what I ever thought could have been a worst case scenario. And really, not that many games are included at launch. A mere nine N64 games and fourteen Genesis games. Of course, they promise more will be coming, but with how they’ve slowly trickled out NES and SNES games, the safe assumption is that it will be a long time before this “expansion pack” sees any sort of expansion.
I also worry about the Genesis games. There is an existing retail collection of Genesis games on the Switch: the “SEGA Genesis Classics” collection. One would assume purchasing this collection of games outright would be a better option than paying $30 year after year to play these games on your Switch, but the emulation in the retail collection is actually quite poor. There is noticeable input lag that makes the fast arcade style games that the system is known for less responsive and more of a slog to play. Much as I’ve scoured the news on this service, I can’t find any details on the emulation for the Genesis games being released on the Switch Online service. My fear is that its the same emulation that is currently used for the retail classics collection, and if that’s the case, then these games simply won’t be worth playing on the Switch. If it’s better emulation, then that would be awesome and make the service quite a bit more appealing (although at the same time I suppose it would be a kick in the shins to the people who bought the classics collection).
As excited as I was for the service initially, I do not have plans to pay for the upgrade when it comes out. Maybe down the road when a significant number of new games have been added (if that ever happens) I will reconsider. But the thing is that while I can rationally reject this as an overpriced product, I know myself well enough to foresee how I could potentially break down and pay for this. Some day I’m going to come home frustrated and tired from work and in my ill temper I’m going to think “Hey, it would be a real great pick-me-up to just be able to play Star Fox 64 right now.” All it takes is really just one moment of weakness to cave in and pay for something you feel like you shouldn’t.
And is that so bad? Probably not really. I’m deeply annoyed by the pricing of this service upgrade and don’t want to support it. But ultimately, this is not some sort of great moral crisis. The only principle at stake here is the principle of not paying for something that is blatantly overpriced. There is no reason to abstain from buying it other than that. Nintendo is not really scamming customers here. They are, if anything, being brutally honest about how little value they’re delivering for the price. And I don’t know of any issues with employee wellbeing that might lead me to want to boycott their products. Of all the scummy things that happen in video games, this is extremely tame in the grand scheme of things. The world will not flood and children will not starve if all of a sudden I break down and pay the money. So if it happens, it happens. I’ll feel like a hypocrite for a little bit, but life will go on.
But…….seriously……thirty dollars……what are they thinking.
Blair Witch follows the mythology of the 90s hit found footage horror film, The Blair Witch Project, although as it tells a relatively self-contained story, I don’t think its necessary to be familiar with the movie to enjoy the game (it does however probably help some). In the fictional world of Blair Witch, the residents of Barkittsville, Maryland hold onto legends that warn of murders, mysterious disappearances, and supernatural forces that inhabit the surrounding Black Hills Forest. All of these legends seem to loop back to the Blair Witch, a piece of local folklore that has existed since colonial times.
Taking place seemingly some time after the events of the original film (but before the 2016 sequel), Blair Witch focuses on the story of Ellis Lynch, a police officer still suffering from the psychological trauma incurred during his time serving in Iraq (or maybe Afghanistan, I don’t think the game specifically says). After a local boy goes missing and the police suspect that the youth has run away into the forest, Ellis shows up late to the search party with his emotional support dog, Bullet. With the other searchers already deep into the forest, Ellis sets off onto his own path with the aid of Bullet and his keen sense of smell. As sun sets, Ellis unsurprisingly finds himself lost and entrapped in the supernatural nightmare of the forest.
Blair Witch is primarily an exploration adventure game. Ellis, lost in the forest, soon discovers that the missing boy didn’t run away, but was kidnapped by a dangerous assailant who resides in the woods. To catch the killer, Ellis must follow clues through the forest, solve puzzles to overcome barriers gating progress, and occasionally contend with hostile entities that stalk the forest. It’s an extremely story heavy game but does make a reasonable use of conventional gameplay elements.
The woods themselves are a genuine masterwork of atmosphere and mood. There’s something about a deep, primordial forest, especially at night, that stokes a special kind of primal apprehension. Forests are wide open, leaving one vulnerable to threats from all directions, yet closed enough to reduce visibility to what may be lurking in the surroundings and to block out light from the moon and the sun. And then there is the labyrinthine nature of the thing. Man can get swallowed up, lost and never to return from the gulf of their enormity. The greatest factor favoring the survival of modern man is his connection to civilization, and deep within the obscurity of the forest he is cut off, unreachable and unfindable by the outside world that has been warped to uniquely suit his survival.
For a long, long time, video game forests kind of sucked. Technology was just too limited to create something in which the player could truly feel lost. In most cases, the player realized they were obviously on a very clear path with dense trees rising up around them to act as invisible walls that prevented the player from wandering off the intended path. Things started to get better around the time of the Xbox 360. Alan Wake is one of my favorite action horror games because it did a really good job of capturing the all-engulfing foreboding of the woods at night. Probably the first game to truly create the sensation in my mind. And now I think Blair Witch does probably an even better job. You truly feel lost, alone, and helpless in this game, even when you are really on the track the the designers intended.
However, the fearsome awe of the natural is only one aspect of this game’s horror mechanics. Unsurprisingly, there is a heavy dose of the supernatural. Reality is fluid within the forest, seemingly guided by the incomprehensible eldritch machinations of the mysterious Blair Witch, a force that clearly pervades the game although rarely ever referenced directly. Specters, hallucinations, shadow entities, and the unseen predation of the kidnapper himself stalk and strike at Ellis. While the tense atmosphere of the forest is excellent, the supernatural terrors form more of the core of the game’s straightforward scares. And they work mostly fine as such.
What I consider to be a bit of letdown is how overt the supernatural elements are. As a horror movie, The Blair Witch Project was notoriously subtle about the influence of the supernatural. Until the very end, every supposedly supernatural event had an element of “plausible deniability” to it. What I mean by that is that the bizarre events happening around the main characters could be explained by supernatural forces, but the audience could just as easily accept more grounded and “realistic” explanations for what was happening. Since the original film, the sequels and this game have really done away with the “plausible deniability” aspect that catapulted the franchise to popularity and instead have focused on more explicitly supernatural occurrences largely to the dismay of fans of the original.
Possibly, I think the designers may have wanted to give an element of this “plausible deniability” to the game through Ellis’ trauma-induced hallucinations. We are told very early in the story that Ellis is suffering mental trauma from his time in service, and there are frequent flashbacks to a generically Middle Eastern setting throughout the game. From a certain perspective, once could see the otherworldly transpirations as a result of Ellis’ increasingly unstable mental state. This creates a confusing layered reality of the real world, Ellis’ illusions, and the supernaturally twisted reality created by the witch. To be honest, the war trauma angle is something that I didn’t particularly care for. Beyond its implications about mental health, these jumps to the Middle East just take the player away from the place that I think really shines in the game which is of course the densely atmospheric forest.
One good element that the mental trauma plot thread brings to the game is Bullet, Ellis’ emotional support dog that accompanies him through the ordeal in the forest. Ellis can issue commands and interact with Bullet in a way that encourages the dog to help with puzzle solving and fending off the spectral creatures that inhabit the forest. There are very rudimentary combat encounters wherein the pair are occasionally ambushed by invisible creatures that Ellis needs to kill with his flashlight, and the player must keep Bullet close by and pay attention to the direction the dog is barking to uncover where these invisible enemies are hiding. This game could have been a very straightforward “walking simulator” where the player just explores the forest while spooky stuff happens around them, but I think the challenge provided by the rudimentary combat and puzzles does create some sense of player agency and thus betters immersion in the game’s setting and atmosphere.
Horror tends to fall apart when it becomes excessive. If a game is throwing scares at a player every few seconds, then the player eventually just becomes numb and the game loses its edge (see Dead Space 3 as possibly the most egregious offender of this phenomenon). The trick, from what I can tell, is to balance segments of foreboding and ominous atmosphere that builds tension with segments of direct threat where the player is in a heightened state of alarm. Horror comes from oscillating through a cycle of gradually increasing tension which culminates in a state true of danger and duress wherein the player is explicitly threatened. After the danger has passed, then there must be a cool off period where the tension is released and the player can then begin the aforementioned emotional buildup anew.
The scariest horror games tend to be those that are very good at this cycle. But where a lot of them fall apart is in the climax, where they tend to go overboard in trying to create an experience that tops everything before it, and the result is something that feels more like a big spectacle than something truly dreadful. I felt like Blair Witch definitely suffered from this problem. The final stretch of the game is fairly overbearing with reality constantly warping into new demented configurations around the character as he’s drawn toward the final confrontation with the kidnapper. I guess I could see how individual pieces of this story segment could be scary on their own, but when they are all just piled together like they were, it just loses its edge and I felt like I was ready for all the spooky stuff to get out of the way so I could see the game’s final conclusion.
The game’s ending is utterly predictable. I’m not going to spoil it or anything, but I think most people will figure out how the story resolves very early on. In addition to the “standard” ending, which could probably be considered the bad ending, there is also a slightly more positive good ending. The game tells you from the very beginning that it is judging your actions and the outcome will be affected by your choices. I got the bad ending and after looking up what is necessary to get the good ending, I’m not sure it’s at all possible to intuit how to get the good ending on your first playthrough. There is a long list of actions that must be completed for the good ending, and I’m not sure the reward is really worth the effort. The ending is kind of lame, so I think that to enjoy this game one must focus on the journey rather than the destination.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed Blair Witch. It is a very good horror game, even if it has a handful of stumbles. It’s got great atmosphere, some great puzzles and challenges, and some very spooky scenarios, even if the main character is kind of annoying and the climax of the game falls apart. It’s also a gorgeous game and really makes its haunted wilderness come to life with excellent lighting, detail, and fidelity. I played on PC and for a long while I thought it was hideous. I would compare what I was seeing on my screen to the screenshots on Steam, and I was certain they had posted doctored screenshots. About 70% of the way through the game, I started fiddling around with the settings and realized that I had something turned on that was greatly degrading the image (HDR). After fixing that setting, I was blown away by how great it looked. The joys of PC gaming and all that! I’m really regretful that I didn’t play through the whole game with those improved settings.
Hidden Gem Recommendations for the 2020 Steam Summer Sale
In these deeply uncertain times, one thing you can always count on is Steam’s seasonal sales. Steam’s Summer Sale is ongoing now through 10:00 am PST on July 9th. I always enjoy the Steam sale as it’s a great opportunity to take advantage of some of the exceptionally low prices to take a risk on games I’m curious about but not entirely certain I’ll enjoy. As such, each year during this time I’ve made it a tradition to recommend lesser known “hidden gems” that go on sale for under $5. If these deals aren’t enough then previous years recommendations are, of course, still valid.
Nex Machina is a top down twin stick shooter from Housemarque, a group that is known for its arcade-style action games. In this game, the player fights an unrelenting horde of rogue machinery amidst a world streaked by the neon chaos of explosions, laser blasts, and voxelated destruction. As an arcade-style game, it’s relatively short, choosing to focus on high score and replayability, and some people may be turned off by the lack of a save feature, meaning that if the player quits their session, they must start over from the very beginning. This is a great game for people looking for fast-paced action and non-stop sensory overload without the trappings of more story-oriented action games.
I’ve written about Little Nightmares before, and it’s now available at a great price. As a “nightmare” puzzle-platformer game, it’s impossible to not compare this title to the likes of Limbo and Inside. In Little Nightmares, a mysterious child navigates a dementedly distorted world using their wits to evade the grotesque monsters that hunt her at every step. Little Nightmares is a great game for players who enjoy puzzle-platformers with a focus on aesthetics and cryptic world building.
Gato Roboto is a fairly recent release in the “Metroidvania” genre. After surviving an emergency crash landing while on patrol in space, a simple house (space?) cat dons high-tech power armor to explore a hostile abandoned installation to find help for its human companion. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the game is its stark monochrome visual presentation which can be a “like it or hate it” kind of thing. In-game collectibles can be found to unlock new color palettes, but they are all composed of simple 2-color variations. While the game has many elements of a Metroid-style adventure, it can be very linear in progression, so those that enjoy the sequence breaking and exploration focus of those games may need to look elsewhere. Gato Roboto is a good choice for players who like sidescrollers that are equal parts action and platforming. The heartfelt and goofy journey of this cat who becomes an unlikely mech pilot to save its human will also resonate with pet owners who love their companions.
I wrote about this game a long, long time ago when I played it on the 3DS, and while I think it is one of the best sidescrolling platformers I’ve played in the past 10 years, it’s also a game that is highly divisive. 1001 Spikes follows Aban Hawkins as he explores dangerous, trap-laden ancient ruins in search of a long lost treasure. This game is hard, with as much emphasis as I can put on the word, and borderline unfair. It’s the “borderline unfair” part that makes the game so polarizing. Traps in the game are hidden incredibly well with only subtle hints to their existence (if any), often leaving the player with a frantically tight window of time to react when triggered. As such, it can often be viewed as a trial and error ordeal. The gimmick, though, is that the player starts the game with 1001 lives to complete the challenging quest, and after they run out, there is a reasonably generous continue system that only incurs a small penalty to progress. 1001 Spikes is a game for people who like super challenging platformers like Super Meat Boy and Celeste and have the patience and tenacity to stick with it.
I try to keep this list to lesser known games, but that’s based on my personal perception, which is not always the best gage. With that in mind, Vanquish may be the most well-known game on this list as a product of the acclaimed director Shinji Mikami and Platinum Studios (of Bayonetta fame). Vanquish feels like Mikami’s attempt to do a cover-based shooter in the vein of Gears of War. Gears of War, of course, was heavily influenced by Mikami’s Resident Evil 4, so this is a snake eating its own tail situation. Vanquish involves the ultra-American protagonist Sam Gideon ona mission to reclaim an American orbital city colony (an O’Neill cylinder to be exact) from Russian androids. What sets Vanquish apart from other third person shooters is that Gideon has an extraordinary amount of mobility due to his ability to rocket slide around the combat zone. While the game has plenty of chest high walls to hide behind, Vanquish’s enemy encounters are designed in such a way that Gideon can’t stay in one place for too long, meaning he has to constantly rocket boost from point-to-point to evade enemy fire. The result is a more kinetic action game than was typical for games of that era. I recommend Vanquish to all players who enjoy big, bombastic action shooters.
Another game that I’ve covered for Halloween, Night Trap is the legendary interactive movie from the Sega CD that heavily contributed to the creation of the ESRB in the US. Night Trap tells the story of a group of high school girls that have been lured to the trap-infested Martin house to be captured and fed to pseudo-vampiric entities known as augurs. The player is an agent of an outside security force that has hacked into the traps of the house and intends to turn them against the augurs. The player must cycle through video feeds of the house party, keeping an eye out for signs that an augur is preparing to strike and triggering the appropriate traps when necessary. In hindsight, the moral panic that surrounded this game was laughable due to how utterly tame the “violent” content actually is. Night Trap is goofy and cheesy, and I’ve found it to be fun while it lasts (which is really not very long). The brevity of the title will turn many people off, but I think this game is an interesting artifact of gaming history, worth it for those who are fascinated with the culture of gaming that existed in the ‘90s.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a compilation of two arcade beat’em up classics, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara. These games are mostly notable for their relative depth when compared to other arcade beat’em ups of the time, featuring RPG mechanics, branching paths, and equipment and spell mechanics that set them apart from their contemporaries. For fans of the arcade originals, there are a fair few extra goodies to unlock. I recommend this compilation to anyone into ‘90s beat’em ups.
Serious Sam Double D XXL
The Serious Sam series has had a few smaller spin offs made by indie creators in partnership with CroTeam, and Double D XXL is an enhanced version of the first of these spin offs to be released. The game reframes the Serious Sam formula as a 2D sidescroller similar to Contra. Serious Sam games are all about fighting off giant swarms of alien enemies that are advancing from all directions, which doesn’t necessarily translate perfectly when a dimension is stripped out, but Double D makes up for it with some of its own ideas. The most notable is their gun stacking system, that allows Sam to combo weapons together to equip as many at one time as the player wants. Serious Sam is a series known for its strange enemy design, but Double D XXL somehow manages to out weird the mainline entries in this respect. Mutant stacks of pancakes that blast vuvuzelas are seemingly too bizarre for even CroTeam’s main team to touch. I recommend Double D to players who are into tough, dumb, action games.
Games and Stuff From 2019
I have always enjoyed posting on my blog, but life over the past two years has really put a squeeze on my writing hobby. My output in 2019 was particularly poor with the only bright spot being that I managed to keep my Halloween writing tradition going with three posts with which I’m reasonably pleased. Changes in both my personal and professional life have incurred new taxes on my free time that mean I have less of it to devote to gaming and in turn both less inspiration and time to write.
While I can’t deny that I’m somewhat mournful of this new challenge to my hobbies, the changes I’ve faced in life over the past couple of years have ultimately been for the better, and I’m thankful for that. Going forward, I hope I can find a way to use my free time more efficiently and reinvigorate this blog as a hobby. With all of that out of the way, I have put together this long rambling post, where I talk in an abbreviated fashion about all the games and gaming stuff that became personal highlights of 2019.
Sega Genesis Mini
I picked up one of these around its launch a few months ago, and it’s been a ton of fun. A major function of games for me right now is to serve as a means of blowing off steam, and Genesis games are great at that purpose. During its heyday, Sega was really all about bringing the arcade experience into the home, and as a result, Genesis games often have a “pick up and play” quality that makes it easy to jump in for some action that can be as little as 5 minutes or as long as an hour. I own a few of the other classic consoles, and this is by far the one I’ve invested the most time in for that reason. I also plucked down the money for the wireless controller from 8bitdo, and it has been an excellent controller so far, well worth the money. (I have another 8bitdo controller that I use with my tablet, and it is also excellent. They make great stuff from my experience.) Hopefully, I will be able to write more about this machine in the future.
Super Mario Maker
This game also follows the theme of using gaming to blow off steam. I really enjoyed Super Mario Maker on the Wii U, and the sequel simply carries that game over to the Switch while adding some excellent new bells and whistles. While I’ve really enjoyed making levels on the Wii U, I haven’t really gotten around yet to making my own levels on Switch. I feel that the lack of an in-built stylus in the Switch makes level designing less approachable than on Wii U. I’ve really just been downloading levels to play when I have some spare time here and there. I haven’t picked up the game up for a little while now, but the arrival of playable Link complete with his own special abilities makes me want to go back.
Resident Evil 2
I’ve already written about this game for Halloween, but I just wanted to reiterate that it was probably the highlight of 2019 for me.
Assorted 3DS Games
Most people have probably completely moved to Switch, but I’m still clinging to my 3DS. I’m having a really hard time letting go. I think it’s mostly because the 3DS is more portable than the Switch, being smaller and having a more robust clamshell design that folds up to protect the important bits, which makes it easy for me to take along to play at lunch breaks or when I’m traveling. There’s also just a huge library of great games on the system that I haven’t managed to get around to yet, which means there’s always something new for me to play. Right now, the machine really just sort of lives in my backpack.
My go-to game for the past month or so has been Super Mario 3D Land, which is a game that I’ve beaten before, but makes for good replay due to the amount and creative variety of content. It’s honestly a bit mind boggling to me to play this game and see how well Nintendo translated the scope of a 3D Mario game to a handheld device. Throw in the fact that this game is sort of a spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 3 (my favorite Mario game), and I’ve come to realize that I’ve really underappreciated it for a long time. For this playthrough, I challenged myself to collect all of the star coins in each level, something that I tried but never accomplished the first time I beat it. In typical Nintendo fashion, the reward for doing such an above-and-beyond feat is incredibly basic, a simple star tagged to the save file, but I’m fine with that. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’ve waded into the 3DS version of the first Luigi’s Mansion.
I bought Rage 2 completely on a whim around the time when it came out. All of the reviews at the time mentioned how mediocre the game was, and I have to concur. It does mindless action very well, but enemy variety, world building, and level and mission design are just let downs and leave the experience feeling like it could have been so, so much more. Nonetheless, I played the game all the way to completion of the story and cleaned up some of the larger optional side missions. I did enjoy what I played, and occasionally go back to do some of the open world missions that I haven’t completed when I just want to zone out to a game, because again it does mindless action very well, but it is not a game that I would put very high on my recommended list.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
This has been my go-to game lately. Star Wars is something I’m not quite as passionate about as I was when I was a high schooler, but games like Jedi Outcast and Knights of the Old Republic remain among my favorites that I revisit every handful of years. So far, Fallen Order is shaping up to meet the high standards of those particular titles. I’ve heard this game described as Souls-lite as it has a combat system that is very similar to Dark Souls melee combat, although not nearly as tight or graceful, in addition to other borrowed elements like a bonfire-style save and recovery system and worlds that just sort of weave in and out of themselves in a similar manner to the lands around the Firelink Shrine.
I only have two major complaints about the game. First, the game is heavily focused on lightsaber combat with force powers as a supplement (there are no blasters that the main character can use as far as I know). For the most part it works fairly well, but the character can feel clumsy at times. This is particularly true since so many other elements of the game scream Dark Souls, but the melee combat just isn’t as tight as what an experienced Dark Souls player might expect. The second issue I have is the enemy variety isn’t that great. It’s mostly humanoids (usually stormtroopers) that carry various flavors of blasters or energy weapons and a handful of very basic Star Wars monsters. There’s nothing that really captures the imagination to the extent that the menagerie of grotesqueries that appears in the Dark Souls series does.
Those complaints out of the way, I still think the game is really cool. The planets the player visits are fun to explore, and they look incredible. If the game can keep up the momentum it has had so far, it may actually dethrone Jedi Outcast as my favorite Star Wars game.
This is a game I downloaded to my phone, and it’s been a good way to entertain myself when I only have access to my phone. In general, gaming on phones has usually felt like a wasteland to me because of the soul-destroying monetization schemes that are hard to escape. If you had told me a long time ago in a world before smartphones that people in the future would carry around computers in their pockets that were more powerful and had a faster internet connection than the computer I grew up with, my video game addled brain would have immediately started imagining all the amazing gaming possibilities that such devices would open up. And then if you had told me that all the games on these things would suck, I think my brain would break and my faith in the future of humankind would have completely shattered.
Grindstone is, fortunately, one of the too few mobile games that is actually worthwhile. A product of Capybara Games, who also made Critter Crunch and Sword and Sworcery, their house style is definitely on display here. The game is sort of like a match 3 game (e.g., Bejewelled) but with no actual matching. Instead, each level is a grid of differently colored monsters, and the player takes control of a Viking warrior that occupies one of these grid spaces. Enemies are defeated by running a line from the Viking character through consecutively adjacent monsters of the same color. The catch is that if the Viking lands on a space adjacent to an enemy that is readying an attack, the player will take damage. Enemies that are defeated are replaced by new enemies that fall from the top of the screen. Levels are usually completed when the player defeats a certain number of enemies.
While all of this may sound complex due to the haphazard way I’m describing it, it’s actually fairly simple once seen in action. The game has a huge number of levels that keeps this fairly simple formula interesting by introducing new elements such as special monster types, environmental upgrades, and unlockable abilities.
This is the kind of game that I’ve personally found is best for me to play in short, disciplined bursts. The game can be addictive in a way that reminds me of the rabbit holes that I’ve gone down in over the Picross series. Every time I complete a level, I have this impulse to start the next one, telling myself I’ll only play “just one more”. If I’m not careful, way too much time evaporates, and I’ve long stopped having fun and, at that point I’m really just chasing after a dopamine kick. It’s like gorging on a bag of potato chips. That first chip is super salty and delicious, which makes you want to eat one more. Then you eat the second and third chip which are a little less tasty due to your brain becoming numb to the repetition of flavor. But you keep eating because you’re chasing after the satisfaction that the original chip gave you. Eventually, you’ve found that you’ve eaten way too much, should have stopped a long time ago, and that momentary pleasure has given way to self-loathing originating somewhere deep inside the body. Just like the potato chip, it’s best not to let oneself binge on these kinds of addictive games. Play a level or two here and there and then just let it go.
Last but not least, not too long ago I managed to complete my long personal quest to complete all of the games in the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. The third game in the series has always been my favorite, and after having a tough time with Crash 1 and 2, I was pleased to find that Crash 3 is still mostly agreeable to me. I plan to write more very soon on both the surprises and disappointments that the Crash 3 remake delivered, as well as why it took me an incredible amount of time to actually finish.
Resident Evil 2!
I arrived at being a Resident Evil fan through a somewhat tortuous history. Despite being a huge fan of the Playstation, I never actually played any Resident Evil games on the system, despite the series being one of the console’s best sellers. I certainly thought Resident Evil looked cool, and I did get to mess around with Resident Evil 2 at a friend’s house, but for some complicated reasons, I never actually got a hold of those titles for myself. The first game in the series that I actually got to spend appreciable time with was Resident Evil 4 which was a marked departure from what had been the series’ convention.
Eventually, I would play those original Resident Evil games through the DS port of RE1 and the PS1 on PSP releases of RE2 and 3, which is to say that my first experiences with those games were through handheld versions. And despite playing those games in their diminutive forms, I thought they were amazing, and it really solidified me as a fan of the series going forward. Resident Evil 2, in particular, left an impression on me. I still vividly remember downloading it to my PSP in college before heading home for Christmas to spend a week with my family and getting some Racoon City action in on the side. Despite that break being a busy holiday week with lots of family stuff going on, I was so enamored with the game that I somehow managed to squeeze in enough time with it here and there to complete both the Leon and Claire campaigns. As I get older, I feel myself getting less and less excited for games long before they release, but I was super pumped a few years back when Capcom announced that Resident Evil 2 would be getting a modern remake.
Resident Evil fans will know that the series can be divided into two separate eras. There was the original era of Resident Evil that used fixed camera angles, tank controls, and limited items and ammo to produce slower, less precise, but more methodical action games. With the advent of Resident Evil 4, the series majorly shuffled things up and pioneered the modern over-the-shoulder action game. While the series has maintained its horror theming, emphasis was put more on precise aiming, less restricted ammo, and linear level design that contrast with the more backtracking oriented earlier games. The shift in direction for the series has been a huge point of contention for some Resident Evil fans, but I personally enjoy and find merit in both styles.
The Resident Evil 2 remake is a case study in wanting to eat your cake and still have it. It tries to combine the limited ammo and less linear level design of the original Resident Evil 2 with the over-the-shoulder combat experience of the more modern games. And for the most part, I think it succeeds at creating a delicate fusion of these contrasting gameplay styles. It even manages to incorporate elements of the offbeat Resident Evil 7 in a way that just clicks.
Resident Evil 2 offers two campaigns, one from the perspective of Racoon City police force newcomer Leon Kennedy and the other from the perspective of Claire Redfield, the biker sister of Resident Evil 1 protagonist Chris Redfield. The game starts with the player’s chosen protagonist making their way into Racoon City, Leon to start his new job and Claire to find her brother who has gone missing. What awaits them when they reach the outskirts of town is a doomed city overrun with a zombie outbreak. In a turn of fate, Claire and Leon cross paths and one of gaming’s greatest duos is born. After teaming up, Leon suggests to Claire that they make their way to the Racoon City Police HQ to figure out what’s going on and hopefully find safe refuge. Upon entering, they find the building nearly abandoned by the living, save for one dying officer who hints at a hidden escape route that could help the pair make their way to safety.
Within the massive RCPDHQ, the player is immediately greeted with a great many locked doors and blocked pathways. Exploration and backtracking is thus necessary to slowly open up new areas and progress in the game. RCPDHQ is essentially one big mystery that players need to work through. Eventually, players move beyond the police department, but each subsequent area is similarly structured.
For those unfamiliar with Resident Evil 2, the game is comprised of two separate campaigns, each focusing on one of the main characters. While Claire and Leon cover much of the same ground in their individual stories, they access most rooms and areas in a different order, gain different weapons, and there are certain important areas that are campaign specific. In addition, each protagonist interacts with a different set of characters along the way, meaning they each have a fairly unique story. When all of these aspects are taken into account, I feel like each campaign is distinct enough that a second playthrough with a different character doesn’t simply feel like a retread, and it’s worth playing both of them to see the complete story in all its glory.
As a remake, the new Resident Evil 2 is a fairly extensive reenvisioning of the classic. Much of RCPDHQ will be familiar to returning players, but new key areas and story beats have been added such that the game feels like a new experience while still strongly evoking nostalgia for its forebear. By far the biggest change is the more modernized camera and combat. Ditching the fixed camera angles and simplistic aiming system of the original for the over-the-shoulder style that became the norm with Resident Evil 4, the new Resident Evil 2 walks a thin line of trying to recapture the elements that made the original resonate with so many players, while also upgrading the game to the standards and expectations of 2019.
Personally, I think it’s very successful. Initially, I had doubts that the much more precise and agile gameplay would work well with Resident Evil 2’s monster design. When Resident Evil 4 arrived, the series replaced its iconic zombies with more intelligent and nimble enemies to compensate. Slow, shambling zombies might have been a threat in the earlier games with their clumsier controls and more claustrophobic environments, but it seemed difficult to believe that such monsters could present any sort of danger when headshots could be easily pulled off with true analog stick aiming. Fortunately, this remake does make them a sufficient challenge through both their herky jerky movements that makes targeting specific body parts more difficult and the fact that they can take a fair bit of ammo to bring down, ammo for which there is a reasonably constrained supply. And of course, zombies aren’t the only monsters that Leon and Claire face off against.
In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X, a mutant supersoldier sent in to clean up witnesses to the outbreak, would stalk the RCPDHQ during whichever character’s campaign the player chose for their second playthrough. The new remake turns Mr. X into the star of the show, with both Leon and Claire having to contend with him for a fair portion of their individual campaigns. While Mr. X would seemingly appear at random in the original game, the remake greatly expands his role into a persistent and pervasive threat that is always hunting for the player.
A near unstoppable foe, after his initial appearance, Mr. X’s loud footsteps can always be heard lurking the halls of RCPD. The flow of the game is radically changed by his presence. It becomes a struggle between cat and mouse. The player must always be listening for his approach, and when he does happen to reach the player, the best strategy is usually to cut and run for safety. Furthermore, loud noises like gunfire summons him toward the player’s position. No longer can the player calmly take their time to bring down zombies and other monsters with well aimed shots. The threat of Mr. X means the player must more or less always be on the move.
In terms of scare factor, I must admit that, while it has a moody, desperate atmosphere, Resident Evil 2 is not really particularly close to being the scariest action horror game I’ve ever played. There are definitely some good scares here and there, and Mr. X creates a low boiling tension that always simmers in the back of my mind while playing, but I can think of a few action horror titles that are far better at creating dread and suspense, such as The Evil Within and Dead Space. To be honest, even the original game wasn’t really super-scary, and it definitely injected what felt to be more of an action movie feel into Resident Evil. With that said, I really enjoy the game for what it is, an excellent horror-themed action game, and would rather not dwell on what its not.
Resident Evil 2 will probably be the highlight of 2019 for me (at least in terms of the world of video games). It’s super nostalgic while also standing on its own as an entirely new game. To be honest, the game kind of makes me wish they would team Leon and Claire back up again for Resident Evil 8 or something. They are easily the stand out protagonists of the Resident Evil series to me. And with Resident Evil 7 essentially being another reinvention of the series’ survival horror formula, I can only wonder if the next game will continue what it started or use Resident Evil 2 as its template. Both are excellent games in my opinion, and it’s incredible to see the series turn itself around after the mess that was Resident Evil 6.
Phantasmagoria is a mid-90s horror adventure game from Sierra and the creators of the vaunted King’s Quest series. At that point in time, adventure games were undergoing a decline, not necessarily due to quality, but due to the growing popularity of action and strategy games on the PC. In that light, Phantasmagoria feels like an ambitious attempt to establish a new generation of adventure games that would propel the genre into the next century.
I think in my mind, I’ve always seen Phantasmagoria as a grander and more important game than it actually was. That’s because as a kid I first saw this game when it was featured in a brief segment on the local evening news. While the game did garner some controversy due to its depiction of violence against women, the segment I saw was actually more of a fluff piece extolling the game’s story and use of digitized human actors. In my little kid brain, it was clear to me that if an institution as important as the local Fox affiliate had deigned to give Phantasmagoria air time, then it must be a really great game! As an adult, of course, I understand that segments like these are used by news stations as padding for when they don’t have enough real news stories to cover their 30 minute block. Nonetheless, the praise this game received has been ingrained in my head for two decades since, and I’ve always held Phantasmagoria in high esteem, despite never having played the game.
The lesson here is that you shouldn’t trust what you see on the news.
Phantasmagoria is a horror-themed, story-driven adventure game that follows Adrian Delaney, a semi-popular novelist, and her husband Don, an equally semi-famous photographer who have decided to move to the quiet New England town of Nipawomsett so that Adrian can peacefully work on her next novel. As hip young affluent weirdos, the couple have decided to make their residence in the abandoned (but surprisingly well-kept) home of Zoltan “Carno” Carnovash, a 19th century magician and serial widower. What could possibly go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, Carno’s seemingly bad luck in love was no mere coincidence, as he was in fact under demonic possession and driven to murder his wives by otherworldy forces. And while Carno may be long dead, the dark spirit of his madness still lies dormant in the house and finds a long-awaited vessel in Don. This plot really exists somewhere in a spectrum between Stephen King’s The Shining and one of those terrible Lifetime channel movies where the female main characters are more or less tortured by their husbands for 90 commercial-saturated minutes.
The first chapter of Phantasmagoria starts with Adrian and Don settling into their new home, and the place really is something else. The peculiarities of this quasi-mansion estate include a giant face sculpted into the side of the building, sphinxes guarding an ominous locked door in the foyer, a live electric chair, a room filled with creepy baby laughter, and a secret chapel hidden behind the library amongst other things. As someone who recently became involved in the home buying process and came to realize the intense scrutiny it requires, the absurdity of the house leaves me wondering who would ever buy into something like this. What’s more is that Adrian and Don seem barely cognizant of how bizarre their surroundings are. Early in the story, there are some throwaway comments where they make fun of the builder, but that is the one singular time that I can remember where they express concern over the eccentricities of the house. Never do they ever seem bothered by the fact that there is a WORKING ELECTRIC CHAIR IN THE GUEST BEDROOM.
Haunted houses work best when they have a modicum of subtlety, otherwise the audience will struggle with suspension of disbelief. Characters that choose to live in a place that is overtly unnatural or dangerous just aren’t that believable, especially when those characters are people of means like Adrian and Don who could easily afford to live wherever they want. But to be fair, in the starting chapter where the player gets to explore the house for the first time, the house did manage to capture my imagination even if it clashed with my incredulity. “Hmm, I wonder what’s waiting behind this scary door guarded by sphinxes,” I said to myself. “I can’t wait to see how the story uses the electric chair,” I thought. As stupidly overt as the house is, it sets up curiosity for the rest of the story. Unfortunately, when compared to these expectations, the rest of the game up to the climax feels rather uneventful.
Phantasmagoria is a seven chapter ordeal. At the end of the first chapter, Don becomes possessed after Adrian unseals the demon that’s been trapped in the house, and it feels like the story is about to take off, but then………..well not much really happens. Adrian spends the following chapters somewhat aimlessly poking around town and the house, as Don becomes more aggressive and abusive toward her. It’s hard to articulate how empty the plot of Phantasmagoria can be at times. Adrian’s motivations are often unclear, and she is seemingly oblivious to the growing danger in her own marriage. Most chapters involve her exploring a new area of the estate, and unlocking little snippets of Carno and his victims’ story. The problem is that Carno’s story really isn’t that interesting. It’s the very cliche story of a stage magician whose lust for true magic leads him to becoming the thrall of dark forces.
……And then there’s Harriet and Cyrus. A not insignificant chunk of this game is taken up by a bizarre subplot where Adrian discovers a homeless mother and son living in her barn, who she promptly puts to work doing household chores and lawn work. The questionable undertones of this story element aside, these characters do very little to advance the core plot of Don’s descent into madness or play into the horror that is supposed to be the game’s core. They simply serve to be emblematic of the padding that fills out this game.
While Phantasmagoria aspires to be a grand horror game, there’s not a lot of scares to be had in the first six chapters. Although Don is slowly becoming more and more of a dick, Adrian is never in any real danger. The scares come at specific points in the story when Adrian has visions of the various ways in which Carno murdered his wives. The scenes are pretty gruesome and really exist more for shock value than to develop true suspense and tension. As you can tell from the screenshots, Phantasmagoria uses digitized footage of live actors, and when the game was released, it came under a fair bit of controversy for its depiction of violence against women. The whole affair reeks of 90’s schlock. There’s even a painful to watch sex scene midway that crosses the line into rape and just feels incredibly tone deaf compared to the rest of the game.
Outside of the story, the game is sprinkled with light adventure game puzzle solving. It’s standard adventure game fare: find items to get other items to clear obstacles that are in the path of your progress. The puzzles are actually surprisingly easy. At the point in time when this game was released, adventure games were starting to come under fire for the obtuse and absurd logic they required, with Sierra, the company behind this title, being one of the largest targets. Phantasmagoria is incredibly easy when compared to this standard as a result of taking this criticism to heart and wanting to focus more on the story.
The final chapter of Phantasmagoria is a major departure from its preceedings. The game’s climax turns into more of an interactive movie with Don finally breaking down into a murderous rampage. In an extended chase sequence, Adrian must evade Don while finding a safe path out of the house. This segment is very trial and error in nature: go down the wrong hallway or into the wrong room and Don will meet Adrian with a gruesome death. This is the part of the game where it best approaches proper horror, and yet it still doesn’t quite reach its goals. As a deranged killer, Don, himself, is more cartoonish than threatening, and once again the game falls back on its primary means of achieving horror which is to simply use cheap, gratuitous blood and gore for shock value, although I will admit the practical special effects used in these scenes is quite impressive.
Horror is fairly relative, especially in the context of time. I’m left wondering if I had experienced this game for the first time as a kid in the 90s, would I find it scary? Maybe I would and maybe I’m just too old and desensitized now to get any chills from cheap gore. Certainly, the game reviewed and sold well upon its release. On the other hand, time and age may account for the scares falling flat, but it doesn’t excuse the story for feeling underdeveloped.
Phantasmagoria was a late in life product of Sierra, known for many classic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. I have honestly never played a Sierra adventure game other than this one, so I can’t say if its representative of the company’s typical quality or not. Reading the history of this game, it’s clear the team went into this project with a lot of ambition, but became ensnared in practical constraints such as time, budget, and early 90s technology. For its time, Phantasmagoria was an unparalleled production, and I can respect the work and aspiration that went into this game even if I think it has aged poorly.
Dusk is badass. I don’t know of any other way to start talking about this game other than to just get that out there. Dusk is a first-person action game that is more similar to Quake than to the story and spectacle heavy FPS games that come out today. This is immediately apparent when you first get a look at its grungy, low-poly visuals. But beyond the superficial, Dusk perfectly encapsulates what made those early first person action games so much fun, and, in a lot of ways, it exceeds those inspirations. That said, it might seem like a strange choice for a Halloween game, but I was personally surprised to discover that it was one of the most gruesome and disturbing experiences I’ve played in a while.
Dusk begins in media res with the player character waking up as an unwilling cult sacrifice in the basement of a farmhouse guarded by hooded men wielding chainsaws. After managing to escape captivity, the player emerges into a quiet countryside where monsters and cultists lurk in every dark corner. Eventually, the player reaches the government-quarantined town of Dusk, deep beneath which a secretive archaeological site has unleashed cosmic horror upon the world. The player’s ultimate goal becomes traverse a strange parallel dimension that spawned the twisted alien abominations that are assaulting the very fabric of Earth’s reality.
Dusk doesn’t have much overt storytelling. The motives of the mute main character are never explained in-game. There are no cutscenes and no other friendly characters with which to interact. The cult leader will occasionally telepathically taunt the player, but there’s no one to instruct the player on specifically what they should be doing which contrasts with the majority of action games released today. Storytelling is really more environmental in nature. The player learns about the world of Dusk via the places and things they witness along their journey.
I think the low-level storytelling is a key part of Dusk’s appeal. Modern video games, especially big budget ones, tend to have a preoccupation with making sure the player always understands exactly what is happening and what they should be doing. As a result, they often tend to get bogged down with cutscenes, radio conversations, tutorials, setpieces, etc. Dusk, on the other hand, just lets the player run loose. As I have limited free time for games these days, the fact that Dusk just cuts straight to the fun stuff is incredibly refreshing.
The key to this is in how incredibly well-designed Dusk’s levels are. They tend to be highly non-linear, offering the player multiple paths and directions to explore at any given moment. Stages like these could falter by becoming too confusing or maze-like, too easy for the player to get lost, but I never really had this issue with Dusk. It is complex without being confusing. Each area feels distinctive and memorable, which makes it easy to find one’s way around. I really enjoyed exploring this game, discovering what oddities and horrific sights lay around every corner, unlocking the vast number of secrets the game hides, and getting hooked on the adrenaline rush that each enemy ambush brought.
With 33 levels divided across 3 episodes, I was a bit worried that the game would start to get repetitive. Fortunately, the game has a ton of imagination packed into its sweeping journey. What starts off as a struggle for survival in a dark countryside filled with cultists and killers eventually morphs into a trek through secretive high-tech facilities harboring strange and unrestrained experiments and eventually across the warped landscapes of cosmic abomination. With each loading screen to usher in a new chapter, I always felt on the edge of something strange and surprising.
As an action game, Dusk is a lightfooted run-and-gun. Like Serious Sam or Quake, the player has gotta always be moving, less they become an easy target. There is a good variety of weapons, and the enemies are designed in such a way that makes most of the weapons fairly useful to the player. In a lot of Dusk’s classic counterparts, I usually found myself defaulting to using only one or two weapons that were clearly the most powerful, and only grudgingly using the lesser ones when I was out of ammo for the favorites. Dusk, on the other hand, does a good job of designing different situations that uniquely suit particular weapons, thus giving the player fairly frequent reason to mix things up and not simply rely on the shotgun or rocket launcher.
Despite the fact that Dusk is a fairly kinetic and aggressive action game, I was impressed by how well the developers were able to infuse it with the atmosphere and tension of a horror game. You wouldn’t necessarily think that an action game where the player is routinely outgunning dozens of enemies at a time could be scary, but Dusk can often be truly suspenseful. There were a ton of times when I was getting goosebumps because I knew a disturbing reveal was being ominously teased. The game oozes atmosphere, and I thought it was great at psyching me out. One of my favorite levels features the player descending downward through a cave that leads deep into the Earth. As the cave got narrower and more tortuous, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about what I would find at the end of the long, downward spiraling tunnel. Something that really helps is the grungy, low-poly graphics which go beyond being a sentimental call back to classic games and provide a level of abstraction, aliennes, and crudeness that greatly enhance the murky and unsettling nature of Dusk’s world. Simply put, the game does an amazing job at balancing the power fantasy of taking on huge hordes of enemies with a feeling of vulnerability toward the hidden threats that lie in wait for the player.
Dusk is a quintessential example of a nostalgia trip done right. It doesn’t merely exist as a desperate attempt to recapture the fond memories of the past. Rather, it understands the elements that made those classics so great, elements which are often discarded or downplayed in modern game design, and then it enhances and advances those elements with its own ideas in a way that exceeds its inspirations. I honestly have no hesitation in saying that Dusk truly outdoes many of the action games that it seeks to honor.