Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein has always kind of been the less popular big brother to Doom. Whereas Doom has a deep permeation in the public conscious, the Wolfenstein brand is not really known much beyond committed gamers. Strange enough though and with a total of six mainline titles, Wolfenstein has seen more releases than it’s overshadowing successor series, and while development of Doom 4 drags on at a sluggish pace, Machine Games has managed to deliver another incredibly worthy Wolfenstein entry with The New Order.

The setup for The New Order has us once again returning to the boots of American one-man army B.J. Blaskowicz. After successfully killing off robot Hitler way back in the original Wolf3D, the Allies now face an even greater threat in his replacement, the viciously genius Wilhelm Strasse, better known as Deathshead. Although most of the previous games have focused on Deathshead’s experiments with the occult, The New Order instead shows his more scientific side. Having outfitted his evil empire with powerful new scifi weapons, cyborgs, mutants, and really big robots, the Allies are quickly finding themselves outgunned. Their hope of victory rests in one last all-out assault on Deathshead’s compound, which forms the first chapter of the game. Long-story short, B.J. and his comrades fail, resulting in Deathshead’s successful global conquest. After a timeskip to 1960, B.J. gets back in the action, rejoining with the Kreisau Circle to finally bring down the seemingly insurmountable hold the fascist empire has on the world.

From what I’ve read, Machine Games appears to be composed of a lot of ex-Starbreeze talent, who’s most popularly known for their Riddick titles and the first The Darkness game, both series which have been lauded by fans. If you’ve played either of these series, you know that Starbreeze places a large amount of focus on storytelling, not just using cutscenes but also in-game sequences that are controlled by the player. Put another way, they do not make very “shootery” shooters. Large portions of those games involve the player doing activities other than taking down everyone in sight. The New Order follows in a similar vein. Composed of 16 chapters, there are more than a few levels which actually involve very little action.

At first this seems like a strange fit for Wolfenstein to me. When I think of this series, I think of an oldschool, nonstop run-and-gun, and, although Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein have incorporated a bit of story in them, they have primarily been action-focused affairs. Of the game’s 16 chapters, ~4 of them have you exclusively (or almost exclusively) interacting with your fellow resistance members back at the base, doing various tasks for them. I found these chapters to be rather plodding, but ultimately necessary as the characterization they gave to the resistance is important in the game’s final few chapters. Often games start off really well but fall apart during the ending. This game definitely does not have that problem, and while the story elements feel a little overbearing in certain parts of the game, it all comes together in the final few chapters to create an amazing finale. Otherwise, perhaps my only big problem is that a fair few of the action-focused chapters are kind of short. In these chapters there’s maybe only 3-4 firefights total in the level, although they are really big firefights.

I’m not the world’s greatest game reviewer, so I’m going to be blunt and list all my pros and cons here:

Positive Points:

*The game requires you to use a fair bit of cover, but not through a system where you dock to surfaces. Instead, you hold a button (L1 on controllers) which makes you lean in the direction you push the left analog stick. Yes, that’s right, leaning is back. Actually, this is probably a better way of making a cover-based shooter than a system where you magnetize to a chest high wall. It’s better for level design, since the levels aren’t simply open areas littered with the aforementioned chest high walls. Also, it doesn’t really slow down the run and gun side of the game, since you can more fluidly switch between charging down enemies and peeking out from behind cover.

*Speaking of the run and gun side of the game, aiming is very tight, even when using a controller. I rarely had to rely on aim-down-sights, which makes for much faster paced gameplay.

*I don’t want to spoil much, but I’ll just say that the levels are very varied in style and design. You get into some interesting places.

*The villains are truly deplorable. As you would expect of gloating Nazis, these people are remorseless, pitiless, cruel, vain, conceited, and hateful. You will hate these guys and everything they stand for, and victory will be all the more sweater.

*As I mentioned before, the story comes together for a great ending.

Neutral Points:

*There are a few areas where B.J. is armed only with a knife, and he must methodically sneak through an area and dispatch guards. This is somewhat true to the original Wolfenstein, which, unlike Doom, the enemies did not know B.J. was nearby unless they caught sight of him. If you were out of ammo, then you would have to rely more on sneaking up to enemies with the knife to take them out. The problem in this game is that the stealth really doesn’t have much tension. In the sneaking areas, the guards are usually only armed with knives themselves, meaning if you’re caught, the guards will slowly approach you and engage in a very simple knife fight. Considering their previous work and how significant these sections are in the game, you would think Machine Games could have implemented a more sophisticated and satisfying stealth system.

*In the first chapter of the game, B.J. is forced to make a choice that will affect the story for the rest of the game. This creates two “timelines” which can be seen in the chapter select screen. The story and levels play out differently between timelines, but my impression is that the differences are not very significant. It does create an appeal to replay the game, however.

*The game leaves a very clear loose thread hanging which would likely factor into the setup for a possible sequel.

Negative Points:

*This is a “cross-gen” game and I only played the PS3 game. There are a few technical weaknesses in this version. Load times, which occur each time you die, routinely take ~25 seconds, so if you find yourself in a difficult firefight, you may be spending far too much time at the loading screen. Another issue I had was some really severe texture pop-in, although most of this only occurred back at the resistance base. Finally, in some of areas it can be difficult to spot far away enemies, which may be a symptom of the low native resolution. Again, I only played the PS3 version, and running the game on a competent PC or a next-gen console may mitigate these issues.

*As I mentioned before, more than a few of the chapters felt a little brief with only a handful of firefights. I associate Wolfenstein with being a little more bombastic, and more extensive action sequences would have been more appreciated.

*Some of the character models have really weird eyes. Most of them are fine, but some, including B.J., have the beady-eyed look to them.

In the end, I really enjoyed my time with the The New Order, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys these blockbuster cinematic single-player action games.

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Full Bore and SteamWorld Dig: Games about Digging

I’m a big fan of games about spelunking which focus exploring vast, enigmatic underground worlds. Among these include Minecraft and its 2D doppelganger Terraria, RPGs like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis, retro classics like Boulder Dash and Blaster Master, and of course, Spelunky. I’ve been having trouble articulating specifically what causes me to become so engrossed by such settings. In general, I’m always attracted to the exploration aspects of games, but there is something particularly curious about enclosed, dimly lit caverns and what might be waiting to be found (or lurking) within. These spaces juxtapose an atmosphere that is alien yet still earthly. Down there, the treasure is often untouched by human hands, pristine and plentiful, the resident monsters excel at being creepily odd, and hidden surprises become more secretive. Frequently there is that question: “How did this get all the way down here?” These reasons and more contribute to an exceptionally grandiose sense of discovery, which is at the heart of appeal for all exploration-driven games.

Bonus points are given when players are allowed to dig and excavate their own way through the living earth. Digging around is just a fun thing to do! Most games provide such rigid level structures that being able to bust through on your own path is a refreshing novelty. In this post, I want to call out and discuss two good examples of relatively new releases in this vein that have recently been on my plate: SteamWorld Dig and Full Bore.

SteamWorld Dig launched last year on the 3DS eshop and has since proliferated to Steam and PSN. The titular SteamWorld is inhabited by a cast of steam-powered robots in a wild west setting that takes place during a time when humans have long since disappeared from the Earth. Players take on the role of Rusty, a desert wanderer who has recently inherited his long lost uncle’s mine beneath the mostly abandoned town of Tumbleton. Rusty’s quest soon becomes to help the town get back on its feet by excavating the precious ores still buried deep in the mine, which the town needs badly for income, and to ultimately discover the profound secret far deeper in the mine that had become an obsession for his departed relative.

SteamWorld 1

SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig is first and foremost a game about tunneling. With his pickaxe, Rusty must strategically dig his tunnels to locate ore deposits, mine them, and return them to the town when his bag is full. It’s rare to get trapped in the mine, since Rusty can wall jump his way out of most deep pits, but the game also allows him to buy ladders to access out of reach places and lanterns to keep track of his surroundings. Deep in the mine, Rusty will encounter dangers like trap floors and mutant enemies that creep into his tunnels, which he must fend off to avoid losing his fortune. Occasionally, he will encounter an opening that leads to a special cave, where, after completing some platforming and puzzle challenges, he will find a new ability such as running boots or a rocket jump. But really, the game at its core is about burrowing your tunnels, digging out ore, returning it to the town, and using the money to buy upgrades to your pickaxe and other equipment. It feels sort of like a smartphone game in that way. I don’t mean this in the sense that it has microtransactions or pestering ads (it has none of these for the record), but more in the sense that it is very focused on the upgrade loop. You mine ore to buy equipment to then get even more ore to buy even better equipment. The whole thing would run the risk of getting fairly monotonous if it were not for the fact that upgrades come at a refreshingly brisk pace and the enemies and special areas help mix things up.

Gameplay-wise, Full Bore is a very different experience, being more of a box pushing puzzle game than a freeform treasure hunt. However, Full Bore takes place in a similarly whimsical setting, a world of sentient, talking bores. The player takes on the role of one such creature (named either Frederick or Hildi depending on the gender chosen) who has been framed for the robbery of corpulent industrialist Mr. Gullinbursti’s treasure vault. As punishment, the player must descend into Gullinbursti’s mining operation to recover enough gems to restock the vault to its former glory. Unlike SteamWorld Dig, the bore is mostly working in the framework of an already established mine, meaning that scaffolding and platforms permeate most areas of the game. The goal is then to dig into nearby gem-containing earth tiles from the pre-existing structures. The puzzles of the game are a combination of strategic digging and box-pushing. Your character can dig in any direction (up, down, left, and right), but can’t jump. They can however climb up adjacent steps that are their own height. What this means is that to reach a gem, you will often need to build a tunnel which allows for the maneuvering crates so that a pathway can be constructed for the character to reach the gem. Gravity is your enemy in this game and failure is the result of the character or a necessary crate falling or getting stuck in a path from which there is no recovery. Fortunately, the game offers a Braid-style rewind time feature that makes it easy to undo mistakes and mitigate frustration.

Full Bore 1

Full Bore

Full Bore

All of this is encapsulated in a beautifully detailed pixelated world. The levels interconnect with each in a spiderweb like way to form an open 2D world to explore. Some have referred to this game as a “Metroidvania,” which has regrettably become a catch-all term for any game with such a level structure. While there are a number of hidden areas in the game, there are no unlockable abilities needed to reach those areas. Since this is a rare time that I’m actually playing a game close to its release, I hope to write up a more expanded review later.

Despite the significant differences in gameplay between these titles, I’m struck by several similarities between the two. In addition to the cartoonish settings I mentioned before, there are a lot of these similarities which pop-up across the spectrum of the “underground” games I talked about before, and these qualities are things that really setup (and set apart) a good underground adventure. First and this isn’t much of a spoiler since it’s introduced almost right off the bat in each, their stories both involve uncovering the secrets of a long buried, advanced civilization. Seems like most of these games have you stumbling upon the ruins of a long lost, idyllic society; this was even a major plot thread all the way back in Ultima Underworld. When you think about it, these sorts of deeply buried ruins are kind of a strange contrivance. But really, they sort of play off the “alien yet earthly” aspect I mentioned before. These civilizations are often familiar in some ways, but also exotic as a result of their age and/or advancement. A second major commonality is a focus on unearthed treasure and collecting treasure is always satisfying. Some might say that it’s an unhealthy product of a materialistic society, but collecting shiny objects and watching your cash pile go up always produces a greedy sense of satisfaction, and the act of uncovering these hidden riches creates an empowering feeling of cleverness. And the final thing I want to touch on, most of these games feature multiple “biomes,” things like underground jungles, the aforementioned ruins, lava-filled chambers, underground rivers and waterways, ice caves, etc. Some of this is rooted in reality, but most it is pure invention of the imagination. While a lot of exploration-driven games have differing landscapes, there’s something about all of these realms being secreted deep in the earth that strokes wonderment. It is the thrill of seeing the unseen: that which has always been beneath our feet but only ever speculated upon in fever dreams.

When you really think about it, gaming has always been in love with the underworld. In the real world, the average person rarely ventures beneath the surface, and when they do, it’s usually only because something is broken down there. In games though, we always find characters adventuring around underfoot, not always in caves and mines like I’ve talked about here, but also in dungeons, tunnels, sewers, and vaults.

 

 

 

Chronicles of Mystara: An Arcade Ideal

I don’t believe I really grew up during the heyday of the arcade, which has always seemed to me to be more in the 1980’s, but arcades did still have a presence when I was young. Still though, arcade culture was something I completely missed out on. Growing up in a fairly rural area, the only nearby machines were the OutRun and MK2 cabinets in the local Pizza Hut. Otherwise, I got most of my experience in this area when I occasionally might happen to visit an arcade during a stop-off on a family trip.

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To be honest, I’ve never really gotten arcades. I mean, there are a few arcade staples that I like (I am a huge Sega fan), but overall they’ve never felt as well designed as their home or handheld counterparts. Take beat’em ups for instance. Streets of Rage 2 is one of my favorite Genesis games, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a contender for my favorite XBLA game. But on the arcade side, I’ve always been completely baffled by the popularity of the best arcade beat’em ups (or at least what others hold up as the top-tier). The TMNT and Simpsons brawlers are particularly offensive to me. They sort of crystallize what I feel is wrong with a lot of arcade games: these games aren’t meant to be well-designed challenges, rather, they are meant to push the player’s tolerance limit with cheap and unfair level design just enough so that they can maximize the amount of money extracted from their customers. They are meant to require more luck than skill to avoid having to feed the machine hard earned money to sustain the adventure. This is super frustrating to me, as I enjoy a game that provides a challenge that, while perhaps high in difficulty, is completely conquerable with the right amount of skill and practice. These arcade brawlers make death feel unavoidable, regardless of practice, and ultimately only a test of the depth of one’s pockets.

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Enter Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons arcade brawlers, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara, which were rereleased last year on digital storefronts in the Chronicles of Mystara collection. I’ve seen many arcade experts express admiration for these games, even though they were perhaps not the most widely accessible arcade cabs back in the day. Considering my aversion to these sorts of games, I completely avoided the collection until recently, when a dirt cheap sale online provoked me to give them a shot. Having spent a few hours with the collection, I’m rather happy to report that I don’t find them nearly as bad as the loathsome TMNT and Simpsons games; instead I find they succeed at creating exciting, replayable adventures that don’t feel like hollow cash grabs. I’m not sure I would recommend this collection at full price, seeing as how (for obvious reasons) they can be beaten pretty quickly, but it does feel like a good game for a Steam sale purchase if you can find it for a few bucks.

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The Chronicles of Mystara games take place in the somewhat obscure Mystara D&D setting. I don’t have much experience with this setting (or really D&D) but it seems to be a rather straightforward fantasy setting filled with the standard bestiary (e.g., trolls, kobolds, goblins, ogres, etc.) and a simplistic “stop the evil wizard” plot that requires no prior knowledge to follow. Your characters area actually sort of the standard D&D classes: fighter, cleric, elven ranger, etc. For the most part it’s your pretty standard brawler, although it does have a few nice features that stand out. There are a lot of useable items, throwing weapons, and spells that are dropped by enemies, so you have a fair bit of freedom to mix up the gameplay. In addition, as Mystara is a fantasy setting, the enemies tend to be fairly diverse, contrasting with most games of this genre which limit their adversaries to slightly varied street thugs.  The monsters, characters, and landscapes are fairly well illustrated. A production of Capcom, the game’s Japanese artists did a good job capturing the feel of western fantasy, deftly avoiding the typical big eyes/small mouth anime-style visual template. The resulting aesthetic is enhanced by the major use of pastel colors to generate an artistic style that is somewhat unique, although not entirely unfamiliar for this type of setting.

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What I like most of all about these games is that there is a fairly heavy focus on branching paths and side areas. This gives rise to a fair bit of replayability and, in the context of the arcade, is a much more excellent way of driving repeat business into a machine than just making frequent death unavoidable. The classes are also decently different and likeable enough that you’ll want to experiment with all of them, instead of just lazily sticking to the one you like the looks of the most. Furthermore, the games also seem to be very balanced challenges. Even on the highest difficulty level, I almost never found myself trapped in a situation where I was overwhelmed.   If I took damage, then it was because I was not reactive enough and let it happen. And, although it originally took me a fairly large number of credits to get through the games, with repeat playthroughs my credit count started to diminish, and I found myself becoming more adept at battling through enemy hordes.

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Chronicles of Mystara has resulted in me lightening my attitudes toward arcade beat’em ups. A good arcade game is definitely fundamentally very different from a good home game. For obvious reasons, arcades just couldn’t deliver the long-form adventures that are found on home gaming machines. Although neither of the Mystara games are especially long, the differing paths you can choose to take with each playthrough give these quests an epic quality that is competitive with the best home adventure games of that era.

Manuals: A Lost Art

Old game manuals are something a lot of gamers probably have stashed about. Unlike manuals for standard appliances which usually get neatly organized into a file cabinet somewhere, I’ve always found game manuals to be sort of strewn about various drawers and boxes I keep at the back of my closet. They never deserved to be forced to hang out with the boring, serious papers. Recently, while cleaning out the various boxes I keep stored under my bed (nothing dirty, I promise), I found a small, brown paper bag with an American Eagle logo on the side, within which was a stack of old PC game manuals. Two questions immediately hit me. First, how did they get under my bed in an American Eagle bag of all things? Second, where is the rest of my old collection? I felt a swift pang of guilt for not keeping such treasured documents organized.

Thumbing through them, a recollection suddenly hit me of how awesome game manuals were back in the day. While I can think of a few memorable console manuals, I have almost always found their PC counterparts to outclass them, particularly for RTS and RPG games. While console manuals tended to be booklets that gave a brief outline of the game, for the PC they were tomes of sacred gaming knowledge, far heavier and loaded down with detail. The reason for this is two-fold. First, PC games were generally more complex than console offerings, which necessitated far more involved explanations of gameplay mechanics. Second, PC developers often loaded down their manuals with fluff, which included vast amounts of lore, backstories and character biographies, in-universe short stories, full page concept art, and detailed descriptions of weapons and units. It was a real demonstration of the passion that those teams invested in their work, and I always felt they added to my appreciation of what they built.

Here are a few highlights from my recently discovered stash:

Starsiege: Tribes

Tribes

This game has unfortunately become somewhat obscure. The manual ranks probably number one with me, not just because I love the game, but also because the manual’s content is amazing given some context. Starsiege: Tribes was one of the first online multiplayer-only FPS games, paving the way for games like Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament. It had a ton of unique features that have never quite been imitated, namely a heavy emphasis on massive outdoor maps with giant bases (which often float midair) that must be traversed with aid of jetpacks, which every player has equipped. In addition, it was one of the first FPS games to introduce vehicles. And, unlike QIII:A and UT, Tribes did not have an offline tournament mode with bots, meaning that it was a truly online multiplayer-only game.

The Tribes manual, proudly titled “Warrior Guide,” starts off with a brief installation guide and then rolls into a nine page in-universe short story illustrated with both concept art and images constructed from in-game assets. More fluff follows with histories given for each of the games four tribal factions that are adorned with some nice full-page, full-color concept art. Not stopping there, there is then a six page timeline of the history of the Starsiege universe. After all that, the manual finally begins explaining the game mechanics and menus. Keep in mind that this is a multiplayer-only game with not a single bit of in-game storytelling. All of this lore for a game that tells no story! In that context, the book is marvelously absurd, and that’s the main reason I love it so much. It really shows how Dynamix were so enthusiastic of their craft and gave a lot of attention to every detail, even if the potential existed for those details to be overlooked by players. What makes this stand out even more is that FPS games, even the single-player focused ones, tended not to have the most magnificently acquainted manuals. Both the manuals for Half-life and Unreal, for instance, are nearly devoid of any added fluff.

Tribes Diamond Sword

Tribes Short Story

Tribes Timeline

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

W3

Blizzard always did put a great deal of care into crafting the lore of their games, even if the Warcraft lore of today has gotten a bit outlandish. Warcraft II and Diablo and its sequel all had a lot of nice lore invested in their pages, but with Warcraft III, Blizzard really outdid themselves. The manual is 178 pages long and page 64 begins the start of lengthy, heavily detailed histories for the game’s four playable factions, as well as the non-playable Burning Legion faction, which take up almost the entirety of the manual from that point on (there are small appendices explaining the map editor and for credits). This lore-focused section also contains in-universe descriptions of the game’s extensive unit list. There is a bit of redundancy here, as the front of the manual has a list with more technical details of each unit as they pertain to gameplay, while this back part of the manual gives more flavorful, story-based explanations. Seems like the texts of these two lists could have been consolidated to save space. My only other complaint is that the book is light on art. There are a few black and white concept images, as well as maps of Azeroth’s territories, but really there’s not much here to look at. But man, those histories are a really great read. I was actually quite surprised by how much of it I remembered after all these years.

Warraft Orc History

Warcraft III

Baldur’s Gate and SW:KOTOR

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KOTOR front

Bioware’s manuals feel like the complete opposite of Blizzard’s. There is far more dedication to explaining gameplay mechanics, while lore is almost non-existent in these books. In Baldur’s Gate, there is a mere five pages dedicated to giving some backstory to the various towns and locations of the Sword Coast, which is followed by three pages of flavor text covering the game’s bestiary. And that’s it for lore, only eight pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to introducing the player to more practical aspects, such as the complex menu systems, character structure, spells and abilities, character progression tables, and the joys of THAC0. KOTOR is even more light on setting the scene. Page 2 has a four sentence introduction to the story, and that is the only story-focused content the manual gives. The rest is entirely mechanics.

It seems a bit strange to me that lore would take such a back seat for games that are RPGs. Maybe it was because Bioware was operating in established universes that they didn’t feel the need to flesh out those details. (Though, a snide commenter might point out that Blizzard didn’t establish the Warhammer and 40K universes either.)   Another possibility is that it was easier for Bioware to provide all of it’s lore in-game, which was more difficult for Blizzard to do in an RTS like Warcraft III.

Despite the lack of context-setting lore, these are actually pretty good manuals. They give a high amount of detail for the very sophisticated RPG mechanics found in these games. In particular, they provide a lot of tables to give insight into the numbers game that goes on under the surface. Back in the day, you would usually have to get these tables from a strategy guide, and nowadays you have to wait for someone to discover all these parameters and compile them into a wiki. So all-in-all, they are at least pretty true to the term manual. Also, the KOTOR manual is spiral bound, which I’ve never seen before and is kind of neat.

KOTOR intro

KOTOR tables

Guild Wars

Guild Wars Manuscripts

I always thought Guild Wars had very nice art, both in-game and concept wise, and its manual does it a good amount of justice in that respect. The manual, which is entitled “The Guild Wars Manuscripts” is a nice glossy, full color affair with 144 pages, which is divided into two “books.” The first book covers the lore of the lands of Guild Wars and extends to about page 80. It starts with a 19 page short story and is followed with detailed histories, character bios, enemy info, and realm descriptions. The second book is more focused on technical and mechanical details. Each of these two parts is heavily and magnificently illustrated with beautiful full color art work. The manual is a real stand out in that regard and proudly demonstrates the thoughtfulness Arena.net placed in their aesthetic.

Guild Wars Regions

Tyria History

Going through all these old manuals brings back so many memories. Today’s counterparts don’t even compare. Steam and other digital storefronts dominate PC sales, and, consequently, meaty manuals have become extinct. Meanwhile on consoles, manuals have become nothing more than thin leaflets (if not just a piece of cardboard paper) with little more than a diagram of the controls and maybe the HUD. This is all in a proclaimed effort to be more “environmentally” friendly, which, while a noble motive, doesn’t really seem to stop them from cramming in promotional materials for other games and DLC into the box. Some will retort that manuals have become antiquated with the extensive adoption of detailed in-game tutorials, which is not an entirely invalid point. But still, I mourn the loss of all the lore that we once received through these cherished texts.

Ico Retrospective: Mystery, Imagination, and Immersion

Recently, I picked up The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection for PS3. For those who may not know, these two games form a sort of incomplete spiritual trilogy with each other and are products of Team Ico, a subset of Sony’s Japan Studio. Though gameplay varies a fair bit between titles, they both place a heavy focus on immersion through quiet aesthetic detail and minimalist gameplay. Having played through Shadow before, I’ve focused so far entirely on Ico, which was a completely pristine experience for me. I followed previews of this game pretty closely before its release, back when the PS2 was the hot new platform, but in the end, however, the PS2 original released during a time in which gaming fell away as a priority for me, so until now, I’ve had no experience with it.

Collection

Ico is much more of a puzzle game than its follow-up. For those who have somehow never heard talk of this game from its many enthusiastic fans, the setup for the game is that the protagonist (who I believe is named Ico) must help a princess-like character, named Yorda, escape a deserted castle, where she has been imprisoned by a dark queen. The game is mostly a puzzle game where Ico must figure out how to guide Yorda through a long series of environmental obstacles and ultimately find a way to open the castle’s gates. Occasionally, the pair will be ambushed by shadow creatures, and Ico must fight them off. Interestingly, there is no health bar for this side of the game; rather Ico must keep the monsters from successfully kidnapping Yorda to prevent game over. Regardless, Ico primarily feels puzzle-focused, with the combat only serving as a diversion. This is in contrast to Shadow which is definitely more combat-focused, although some would argue that the means of vanquishing each colossus has a puzzle-like nature to it. So essentially, Shadow is a combat-puzzle hybrid, while combat and puzzles form distinct segments of gameplay in Ico.

In a lot of ways, Ico feels ahead of its time. There was a long period when the term “puzzle game” meant something like Tetris, where pieces of stuff fall from the sky and need to be strategically arranged and eliminated to avoid the screen from filling up. Puzzle adventure games like Ico were very rare and not super popular. I can only think of one other example of such a game from this era which is Luigi’s Mansion, and that game was not especially well received. Eventually, the later releases of Portal and Braid would lead to a huge wave of puzzle adventure games designed by smaller developers, and the Tetris-based definition of the puzzle genre has mostly been supplanted. Ico even has the emotional, sentimental feel carried by a lot of indie puzzle games of this new ilk. By contrast, Shadow of the Colossus is a relatively unique game, focused entirely on seeking out and defeating a long series of bosses. It doesn’t really seem to fall in with any other movements or trends in gaming.

Ico Castle

Ico and Shadow are some of the very few games I’ve played that actually manage to capture an adventurous feel to them, which is a feat considering that they are almost entirely linear. This is, of course, a result of Team Ico’s focus on gameplay in service of immersion. That is, the various challenges placed upon the player are only meant as a mechanism to bring the player closer to the characters and their desperate situation, a means of creating an emotional bond. This is not an adolescent empowerment fantasy as so many games are. Those sorts of games always feel more like a theme park ride, a sequence of vicarious thrills meticulously arranged to wow the player. Ico, on the other hand and despite its linearity, feels more like an expedition into an unknown world, akin to games like Fallout, Dark Souls, and the original Legend of Zelda. There is a grip of danger, uncertainty, and mystery in Ico and Yorda’s quest.

The mystery is a key component of this sort of immersion, I believe. Perhaps the PS2 manual provided more backstory, but the PS3 collection has a thoroughly modern manual, which is to say it is basically a short leaflet with not much more than a diagram of the controls. The cutscenes at the beginning of the game only provide a basic context of why Ico finds himself stranded in the dark queen’s castle. Consequently, we are left wondering about the circumstances of his struggle and the reality of the world beyond the castle. Importantly, our imaginations are engaged in trying to develop these details. When I find myself high up in the dark castle and gaze at the sea and forest beyond its walls, I ponder what could be out there. This rarely happens with other games for me, where, like a theme park, I never consider what is beyond the game’s walls, because I know that the world is only constructed as far as it needs to be. Of course, I rationally realize this is true of Ico as well, but the game provides a creative stimulation that still causes me to wonder.

Thus, Ico is true escapism in a way, absorbing, refreshing, beautiful, and wholly unique.

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