Monthly Archives: June 2014

Ten Underrated Steals from the Steam Summer Sale

The Steam summer sale is once again upon us, that time of year when miserly PC gamers become glued to the Steam storefront. I always use this time as a good opportunity to try to check out lesser known games that I would feel a little risky buying at full price. For those like me, also interested in finding some hidden gems in the Steam store, I’ve compiled a list of 10 recommendations of my favorite underrated games that you can currently get at a good bargain. My list has two criteria. First, I’m trying to avoid popular games that most people have already heard of (or at least that I perceive as being lesser known). Second, all of these games have a regular sale price of ~$5 (I’ve listed all prices in USD) or less to keep with the spirit of the list being about inexpensive games to discover. Of course, it’s always probably best to follow the golden rule of these Steam seasonal sales and wait for the daily deals (or flash/community deals) and if a game you want doesn’t come up during one of those, then you can still buy it on the last day for the regular sale price. The current summer sale will end at 1:00 PM EST on June 30, at which point all games will revert back to their normal store prices.

Super House of Dead Ninjas

Dead Ninjas

Regular Sale Price: $1.74

Super House of Dead Ninjas was the first release in Adult Swim Games portfolio of offbeat titles that they started releasing on Steam last year. This is a fairly straightforward arcade action platformer, where the player controls a swift-footed ninja who must fight his way down the floors of a deadly tower brimming with enemies and traps. The hook of this game is that it is *fast*. As your character is on a timer that is extended with kills and powerups, you must quickly race down the tower, swiftly maneuvering through obstacles and dispatching enemies, to reach the next boss before the tower’s clock claims the ninja as another casualty. The fact that the ninja is moving down the tower, instead of up, only enhances the sense of speed, as gravity aids movement in the direction you’re meant to go instead of inhibiting it. Like most sidescrolling games, I strongly recommend playing this one with a controller if you have it.

The Oddbox

Oddbox

Regular Sale Price: $4.99

The Oddbox is a collection of the four Oddworld games which are rooted in the bizarre and cartoonishly alien world of Oddworld. This compilation contains all four games found on Steam: Abe’s Odyssey, Abe’s Exodus, Munch’s Odyssey, and Stranger’s Wrath. The real standout in this collection is Stranger’s Wrath, a game that was an incredibly designed blend of first-person shooter, 3D platformer, and stealth game set in a Wild West-themed region of Oddworld. The other games are also quite good as well, although in completely different genres. The Abe games were sidescrolling puzzle platformers that were fairly innovative for their time, while Munch is a more generic 3D platformer. The only issue with these other games is that, unlike Stranger’s Wrath which has been updated for modern hardware, the Abe and Munch games are much older and may not run as fluently on modern PCs. Still, I recommend buying the entire collection since it is the same price ($4.99) as just Stranger’s Wrath alone, so even if you don’t play the Abe and Munch games, you’ll still come out even.

Super Puzzle Platformer

Puzzle Platformer

Regular Sale Price: $1.99

Another Adult Swim game, Super Puzzle Platformer is kind of like a modern reinvention of Wario’s Woods. If you’ve never played Wario’s Woods, imagine a game that is like inverse Tetris. Blocks fall from the top of the screen, but at random instead of under player control, and the player controls a little man running around on the blocks that have stacked up at the bottom. The goal of the little man is to blow up the stacked blocks so they don’t fill up to the top of the screen while at the same time avoiding being crunched by the falling blocks. Attacking a block also damages chains of adjacent blocks with the same color, so it’s most efficient to focus on clearing out these chains first. Like Tetris, the goal is simply to control the stack for as long as possible before you inevitably die. The game does have a bit of a single-player campaign where you can visit a handful of different levels that have different gimmicks, such as fireballs that jump up from lava at the bottom of the level and spider webs and other traps that fall from the top. There are also unlockable characters with different abilities to add to the replay value. For two bucks, the game is definitely a good diversion that will keep players hooked for at least a little while.

Ms. Splosion Man

Ms. Splosion Man

Regular Sale Price: $2.49

The original Splosion Man was a headliner for an XBLA Summer of Arcade, but its sequel, Ms. Splosion Man, was not treated to the same promotion, which is unfortunate considering the massive improvements that went into this follow-ups. If you’ve never played the Splosion Man games, they’re sort of like modern Donkey Kong Countries, possessing heavy character physics with tight, bombastic acrobatics and lots of stunts using objects such as barrel cannons and grind rails. Ms. Splosion Man builds upon the foundation of the first game with expanded platforming features, such as new grinding rails, rocket cars, mine cart-style levels, secret exits, etc. And while the first Splosion Man only made use of a single steel laboratory background, the levels of Ms. Splosion Man have quite a bit more diverse scenery. Many consider the first Splosion Man to be a hard game, but it really pales in comparison to the challenge presented at the peak of the sequel. This is perhaps the only issue I have with this game, particularly for the third world where the difficult level shoots way up.

Half-Minute Hero

Half-minute Hero

Regular Sale Price: $2.49

Half-Minute Hero was originally a PSP game that managed develop a cult following and was subsequently ported to XBLA and PC. The game is fairly unique, in that it is primarily a deconstruction of Japanese-style RPGs. The game consists of 4 different and unique modes in its single-player campaign. The hook of the game is that each single-player level is meant to be completed within a 30 second timer (although the game offers a means for the player to extend the timer which most will need to make use of during their first playthrough). In the primary mode, players take on the role of the chosen warrior of the time goddess, who is hunting down a wizard that is spreading a spell to the evil lords of the realm that will end the world in 30 seconds after being cast. Basically, in each level the chosen warrior rolls up to a village, is alerted by the time goddess that the apocalyptic spell is being cast nearby, and then he must roll out in the village surroundings to grind up to a point where he can tackle the evil lord in his castle before 30 seconds are up. Battles are random and are played out automatically, the only thing the player really controls in combat is whether or not to run from the enemy, and the gold received can be paid to the time goddess to reset the 30 second timer. It might seem fairly simplistic, but the game manages to make it interesting through the use of story events and sidequests in each level. There are three other story modes aside from the main attraction, each with their own protagonists: one is a Pikmin-like RTS, one is a shmup, and one is a defense-oriented hack-and-slash. Each mode has a story that introduces a lot of comedy and charisma. I highly recommend this game to people looking for a Japanese-style RPG that is less heavy and more straightforwardly amusing than the usual affair.

Gunpoint

Gunpoint

Regular Sale Price: $4.99

Gunpoint was a game that released on Steam last year that I think flew under most people’s radar. It’s actually a very cool sidescrolling stealth game starring a corporate spy whose missions require him to infiltrate secured buildings with the aid of unique gadgets such as pants that let him jump to the height of buildings and a coat that muffles the sound of breaking windows. In the late game you can buy a gun that can only fire a single bullet, but otherwise it is almost a pure stealth game with very little combat. If a guard catches sight of the spy, he’ll likely dispatch with your intruder right there. Outside of the missions, the game reveals what is actually a fairly clever storyline with a protagonist whose flippancy can drive a lot of joking absurdity. The only drawback, perhaps, is that the game is kind of short, probably ~2 hours for most gamers, but it does have Steamworks integration for the ability to download and share user created levels. I have a feeling this one may come up during a flash or community sale, so if my description sounds appealing to you, I would keep an eye out for it.

Super Splatters

Splatters

Regular Sale Price: $3.99

Super Splatters was a game released on Steam last year that mostly went unnoticed. It can best be described as belonging to the Angry Birds genre of flinging stuff into other stuff with the intended goal of destruction. In this game, the player flings strange blob-like gelatin creatures around an arena with the goal of spreading their juices across explosive orbs that burst into fireworks when wet. I know that sounds incredibly strange and weird and maybe kind of gross, but the blob-like characters are actually given personalities that have a lot of heart. The hook of the game is to fling the blobs in such a way to achieve stunts, such as sliding along ramps to achieve high speeds, creating explosive chain reactions, or performing reversals of trajectory midair, which contribute to the maximization of the player’s score. Definitely I recommend this to people interested in a fun arcade-style game with a lot of personality and cool effects.

The Blackwell Bundle

Blackwell

Regular Sale Price: $4.99

Blackwell is a 5-part series of point-and-click adventure games which chronicle Rosangela Blackwell’s, a spiritual medium, and ghost buddy Joey’s task of helping the troubled spirits of the recently departed accept the reality of their situation so that they can move onto the next world. The Blackwell Bundle collects the first four parts of the series, with the final fifth chapter, The Blackwell Epiphany, having only been released very recently. Despite the fact that it incompletely compiles the series, there is plenty of content here which will hold gamers over until they’re ready to buy the final chapter. In each adventure, the protagonists encounter a new lost spirit (or spirits) and must investigate the causes of their death with the goal of using that information to help the apparition come to the realization of their post-mortal state. As point-and-click adventure games, these focus far more on dialogue, investigation, and putting together clues than they do on impenetrable inventory puzzles. As you might imagine, the stories of this series can be fairly bittersweet at times, and fans interested in good adventure games that leave behind many of the vices of their old school counterparts should definitely check these out.

Legend of Grimrock

Grimrock

Regular Sale Price: $5.09

Legend of Grimrock is a pretty cool take on first person dungeon crawlers. You assemble a party of prisoners cast into the dungeon confines of Grimrock prison, working under the promise of your jailers that if your party can reach the exit of the prison, you’ll be absolved of your crimes and earn your freedom. The game allows you to create a party of fantasy characters from a few different class-types and race-types (humans, insectoids, lizardmen, and minotaurs). I should make it clear that this is a dungeon crawler in the style of Wizardry, not Diablo. Each floor of the dungeon was thoughtfully designed by the developers. It is not a randomized game, and enemy and loot placements were specifically designated by the developer. Consequently, the game provides a balance between combat, solving puzzles in the dungeon, and exploring for secret areas. It is really a fantastic dungeon crawler, as it captures a striking feel of wandering through a dark, dangerous, claustrophobic dungeon filled with magic and mystery. When you look down a corridor and see the partially obscured form of a creature crawling around in the shadows, Grimrock definitely leaves an impression.   Although it is not as insanely large in scope as the later Wizardry’s, I definitely recommend this game to fans of old-school dungeon crawlers and dark fantasy games.

System Shock 2

Shock2

Regular Sale Price: $3.99

Before there was BioShock, Irrational Games produced this sequel to Looking Glass’ original System Shock, and if you’ve played this game, you’ll know that it creates the template from which BioShock was made. The main character wakes up from cryosleep aboard mankind’s first faster-than-light starship, the Von Braun, only to find that the ship’s main computer has gone insane and the ship has been taken over by a horde of mutants and insidious worm-like aliens. The rest of the game sees the player exploring the spaceship to find a way to escape, as well as to neutralize the alien menace. Seems pretty simple, but the story actually gets more complex than that in ways that I don’t want to spoil. Additionally, you really don’t need to play the first game to understand the plot, as the opening FMV does a pretty epic job of establishing the setting. This game is actually a hybrid of first-person shooter and RPG, with an experience point-like system that the player uses to level up their abilities in three prime areas: weapons, psionics, and technical skills (e.g., hacking and repairing systems). The game also has shades of Dead Space in it, as the atmosphere is survival horror-ish and the structure of the Ishimura was based on the Von Braun. (Supposedly, Dead Space started out as System Shock 3.) I count this among my favorite games and one of the greatest games ever made.

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1001 Spikes and Creative Maturity

Aban 5

Aban Hawkins and the 1001 Spikes is a content-enhanced port of a “popular” Xbox 360 game originally called….Aban Hawkins and the 1000 Spikes. I use the term popular in quotes since the original game was released through the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, the oft ignored little brother of XBLA. But while XBLIG was a mostly obscure platform, a few of its denizens did manage to rise to a relative amount of prominence, and I feel that Aban Hawkins was one of them. This new edition doubles the content of the main adventure through the addition of a new world and produces a few new unlockable modes to serve as side attractions to the central single player mode. There are also several unlockable characters, many visiting from other indie game series, that have unique abilities which adds to replayability. I played the game on 3DS, but you can also find it on Steam, Wii U, PS4, and Vita.

Aban 2

1001 Spikes is a big pixel-styled, Indiana Jones-esque platformer that hangs its hat on a brutal difficulty level. The game stars Aban Hawkins, an adventurer tasked by the departed father he hated with delving into the lost temple of Ukampa to plunder the untouched riches guarded within. The name 1001 Spikes has a two-fold meaning: the temple is loaded with spike traps (amongst other hazards), but also the player is given 1001 lives at the beginning to complete the game (there are other means of gaining additional lives, however).

Aban 1

1001 Spikes finds itself in the company of games like Super Meat Boy or Ms. Splosion Man, but unlike those games, the platforming physics are more humble. Unlike the fast slippery fluidity you’ll find in Super Meat Boy, Aban Hawkins is governed by relatively more limited mobility that is more similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 than many modern platformers. There is no wall jumping and your ability to control your trajectory while in mid-air (air control) has a fairly limited range. While Aban does have a means of attacking enemies through the daggers he can throw, there are actually very few creatures you’ll have to contend with in the temple. It is very much based around dealing with the various traps (spikes, boulders, pits, fireballs, falling ceilings, etc.) that Aban will have to maneuver through to escape the temple alive. In this context, the dagger is primarily used to intercept and deflect daggers being spit out being wall traps. The traps are all laid out in a fairly grueling pattern, and the game very rarely holds back on the player. In most games, after completing a fairly arduous series of challenges within a level, the designers will make the rest of the level a fairly easy path to the exit. This is, of course, not how 1001 Spikes works. Odds are, after surviving a harsh sequence of traps, you’ll only be given a slight breather before you find yourself again on a pathway expertly primed for your death.

Aban 4

And yet, despite the fact that it is an immensely hard game, it does try to be a very fair game. Traps are usually telegraphed before being triggered through (sometimes subtle) visual or audio clues which provide the player with a chance to evade oncoming death. These clues prevent the game from being completely trial-and-error like I Wanna Be the Guy (which is a game that is intentionally unfair), as careful observation will signal you onto the presence of a trap without needing to die on that trap first. Yet despite the subtle cues for these dangers, you will still die…a lot.

I’ve classified 1001 Spikes in the same company as Super Meat Boy, another notoriously difficult platformer, but really, 1001 Spikes feels like a game that is several steps up the ladder in terms of challenge. The level of precision timing and movement that is required in 1001 Spikes is exceptionally high, even for this type of hardcore platformer. Currently, I’m halfway through the second map of the adventure, and even though the levels are small in size, the harder ones have been taking me between 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete. I’m someone who usually goes for these types of ultra-tight challenges, but this game sometimes just feels too much for me in ways that its alternatives never have. It has crossed the line between being a daring test and a frustrating trial more than a few times. The experience is definitely not for everyone, and gamers who dislike daunting challenges should probably just avoid it. Regardless though, I remain hooked by the game despite the ills it casts upon me. It just pinches a nerve in me that refuses to allow me to be back down before something as trivial as a video game, and after I’ve conquered a particularly rough level, the cathartic feeling of triumph that brings is extremely gratifying.

Aside from relating my experiences with the game, I decided to write this blog because 1001 Spikes and the recent E3 event has me thinking about the maturity of games as a creative effort. It takes a lot of confidence from a designer to make a game like this. The designer has to have faith in the player that they won’t just walk away from the game at the merest sign of hassle, and the designer has to be comfortable with the thought that not everyone will find enjoyment in their game as a result of reasons that are perfectly rational. You see this more commonly in small scale development than you do in big budget games. Big budget games often feel so desperate to avoid the player from ever experiencing a second of discouragement that they are loaded down with quick hints to easily-solvable problems, constant nagging of the player to remind them of what they should be doing, and heavy use of scripted events to relate dangerous events (a “tell don’t show” mentality). At times, the designer’s assistance to the gamer can get so overbearing that these “sanitized” adventures feel bereft of excitement and thrill despite the bombastic action game trappings. Other times the desire to avoid frustration actually induces frustration. I remember an annoyance I had at the beginning of Borderlands 2 when the little robot wanted me to come over and flip a switch for him. Problem was, at the time, a group of monsters were beating down on me, and I had to deal with that situation before I could obey the orders the game was giving me in regards to the switch. Yet still, the little robot didn’t recognize my predicament and kept incessantly nagging me over and over and over on a quick audio loop insisting I flip the switch. I’ve experienced so many situations like this, when a game is trying to remind me where I need to be, but I’m busy doing my own thing at that time. Maybe I’m looking around for ammo or loot or just exploring the area to see what I can find, but since I’m not in the exact place the game wants me to be, it retaliates by spamming audio and visual reminders about where it wants me to go next. The desire to provide assistance to the player in avoiding confusion has become a rigorous demand for obedience.

I think there exists a difference in maturity between the big budget and small scale developers. I don’t mean maturity in the sense of tackling high-minded themes or in the sense of having excessive levels of violent or sexual content. I mean they are more mature in how they treat their games as a creative effort. The big budget developers remind me of teenagers desperate to make everyone think they’re cool. This is reflected in their game design by trying to make games that are as stress-free for the player as possible, but also in the ways they represent themselves in promotional and marketing material. E3 had a lot of good examples of this. So many big budget action games have these incredibly sappy trailers that want to give the appearance that the game is super deep on an emotional-level, when in fact, the games being represented are fairly straightforward and cookie cutter shooting game with little artistic resonance. (The Division struck me as an extreme example of this.)

Small scale developers, on the other hand, tend to design games that reflect a greater level of self-confidence. To take the professional and financial risk of striking out on your own requires a true passion for one’s own vision. These developers are simply putting their dream out there and, while maybe not everyone will “get it,” hopefully there is a following that will understand and enjoy their work. If big budget developers in this analogy are high-schoolers straining to be popular, then indie developers are the college-aged kids who have matured to a level that negative self-consciousness doesn’t hold them back.

I understand that there are perhaps rational business reasons for why big budget developers act the way they do. Those games represent massive capital investments that require the employment of hundreds of people, and, therefore, the major publishers are building and marketing their game to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. But the results of such behavior can often feel watered-down and inoffensive. It is like the difference between Bud Light and a microbrew. The Bud Light is designed with minimization of flavor in mind to appeal to a lowest common denominator standard. Meanwhile, the microbrew is tailored to be more flavorful, but this comes at the expense of turning off potential drinkers. For the case of 1001 Spikes, the high difficulty will surely turn off many gamers, but there is a fanbase out there who definitely jam on this sort of thing.

In the end, I don’t want to begrudge the big developers too much for why they build games the way they do. But if you consider games as artistic efforts, then I think the point still stands, regardless of commercial considerations, that small scale and indie developers have a much better developed sense of creative pride and artistic maturity.

My Top 10 E3 2014 Highlights

I have a somewhat uneven interest in E3. I’m not one who really has much time or interest in reading preview coverage of games, and I really loathe the trend of releasing “teaser trailers” that are completely uninformative about the games they pretend to portray. I usually rely on post-release word of mouth and a few podcasts to fill me in on any new games that are worth playing. But despite this inclination, there is definitely something about the sheer spectacle of E3 that usually causes me to tune into the big press conferences and to take time to watch/read some of the preview coverage that trickles out of the event. It’s a bit of a love-hate thing. It’s great that a lot of cool stuff is shown in rapid succession, but there’s also a lot of obnoxious fluff like cheesy celebrity appearances, long speeches about features and services that no real person will ever use, and the worst offender in my eyes, the awkward game presentations that try to emphasize how EMOTIONAL! the player is going to get during what is actually a generic cookie-cutter action game.

This year was actually fairly tame on those offenses. All-in-all the press events seemed to be a little more snappy and straight to the point, with maybe the exception of EA. So much of their presentation was showing off concepts and prototypes, while having their development teams talk about how much they love to make games in an odd documentary style. But the platform holders did manage to show off a lot of cool stuff, so I’ve decided to compile a list of what I thought were the best highlights of this year’s convention. These are in no particular order:

Bloodborne

I’m a huge fan of the Demon/Dark Souls series, so naturally I’m excited for Bloodborne. This game is the From Software/Sony Computer Entertainment collaboration that leaked a few weeks ago which went under the codename Project Beast. Unfortunately, only a short teaser trailer (blah) was shown of the game with no actual gameplay on display. However, the leaked gameplay footage makes it clear that this game is essentially a next-gen Dark Souls. One interesting thing to note, they seem to be moving on from the medieval setting to something more Victorian-era in aesthetic (there was a definite Jack the Ripper vibe going on). This setting choice is reinforced by both the attire and the crude guns appearing in the leaked footage. What I find interesting is that this game wasn’t given a “Souls” title. Hopefully, that means that this game will be a significant evolution over the Souls titles in the same way that the Souls games were an evolution of King’s Field. I suspect that they are planning to publicly release gameplay footage later this year at TGS.

Splatoon

Splatoon is Nintendo’s take on the team-based multiplayer shooter, a completely new style of game for them that surprisingly isn’t attached to any existing Nintendo characters. This game is sort of Nintendo’s take on paintball, a territorial control game where two opposing teams try to splash-paint the map with their own color to get ahead, and whichever team’s paint covers the largest percentage of the map is the victor. One interesting twist is that players can switch on the fly between human and “squid” form. Yes, I know that seems completely random, but Nintendo-logic is at work here. In human form they can shoot paint at the environment or opposing players. In squid form, the player will sort of “merge” with a painted surface to “swim” really fast across it for heightened mobility (they can also sort of hide in the paint). The reason I’m most excited about this game is that Nintendo is a company that refuses to “color within the lines.” That is to say that they never really conform to established genre norms (unless they were the ones to establish said genre norms) when they take on this sort of new project. In the same way that Pikmin was a new and refreshing take on RTS or Metroid Prime was a fairly unique take on FPS, I’m hoping that Splatoon can provide just as remarkable of an experience.

Mario Maker

I’ve never played much LittleBigPlanet. The only version I’ve tried was the PSP version I got for free after the PSN apocalypse. While playing that version, I really couldn’t shake the feeling that the user-created content focus would be way more attractive for an established platforming series like Mario, and now at long last, Nintendo is jumping on that train with Mario Maker for the WiiU. The game allows you to create and share Mario stages playable in either the NSMB or original 8-bit SMB aesthetic. This was another game that I heard leaked ahead of the show, but now we have actual details. Unfortunately, it is a Wii U only game, which is not really my preferred Nintendo platform. The leaked images showed the WiiU stylus so this was not entirely unexpected, but I thought maybe it might appear on 3DS as well (like Smash Bros.), since it’s concept is so well suited to handheld gaming. Alas, that’s not to be the case. Nintendo had a pretty good “digital event,” showing a lot of cool new stuff, but it was heavily WiiU focused, with only Smash Bros. and the Pokemon remakes being shown for 3DS. I’ve been somewhat worried for a while that their WiiU ails would cause them to shift the bulk of the resources toward developing for the WiiU, and this showing did not allay my fears. I hope they have more to show for the 3DS later this year, because right now 2015 looks barren for the handheld.

Sunset Overdrive

I haven’t invested in either of the new consoles yet, but I’ve mostly written off Microsoft, mainly because they’re exclusive offerings with the 360 eventually whittled down to an endless repetitive cycle of Gears/Halo/Forza. Their conferences also tend to be littered with ancillary content that they try to make a big deal of, but no one ever really uses and is not as impressive as they think it is (see Smart Glass, Xbox Music, Twitter/Facebook apps, Bing on the dashboard, etc. etc. etc.). Purely out of cynicism, I almost skipped this conference, but I managed to catch like maybe the last half of it and was actually quite surprised. They defied my expectation of Gears/Halo/Forza by showing off some new exclusive games like Crackdown 3 (did not expect this series to come back), Fable Legends, and Scalebound. The rest of the conferences was actually surprisingly snappy, with little of the aforementioned fluff content. After launching a $500 console that was meant to compete with the $400 PS4 and steal customers from vastly cheaper boxes like Roku and Apple TV (that don’t hide content behind a $60/year subscription), Microsoft seems like they might be starting to pull through this mess that was their own making.

The big draw of their conference for me was Sunset Overdrive. Although this game has been shown off before, I’ve never seen it until now. A third-person shooter from the prolific Insomniac, it actually looks like a lot of fun. It seems to be sort of an evolution of their previous action-platformer series, Ratchet and Clank, with lots of acrobatics thrown into their quirky shooter design. The only thing I didn’t like about the trailer was that the mutant enemies seemed to be sort of boring, beige with glowy bits monsters. Hopeful the finished game adds a little more diversity on that front. Another reservation I have is about Insomniac’s capabilities. They were really not at their best last-gen. A few of their R&C games stood out (namely A Crack in Time), but their Resistance series always felt like a mediocre, “me-too” entrance in that genre. Their first multiplatform game, Fuse, was by most accounts garbage. They do give an impression that Sunset Overdrive is a game that they really want to make, so hopefully they’re all hands on deck for this new release and can achieve the relative quality of their PSX and PS2 output.

No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky has been capturing a lot of imaginations since its reveal last year. A sort of communal multiplayer exploration experience, in which players travel through space to explore planets in a vast procedurally-generated shared universe, the footage really speaks for itself. It kind of feels like what a lot of people dreamed Mass Effect of being before its release. Hello Games’ Sean Murray describes the game as born out of his childhood fascination with Heinlein-style space operas and, in particular, their illustrations. I was a huge scifi reader as a kid, and that really resonates with me. My only fear is that this game seems really ambitious for a small studio whose only other releases have been the Joe Danger games. I’m sure it will be a good game, but I think it’s best to keep expectations in check.

Tomb Raider

Catching two birds with one stone here, two new Lara Croft games were shown off, Rise of the Tomb Raider, a sequel to last year’s reboot, and Lara Croft: Temple of Osiris, a sequel to the top-down Guardian of Light game. Very little was shown of either game, but I was definitely surprised that they decided to continue with the Guardian of Light skein of this series. That game was one of those excellent XBLA-style spinoffs that often tend to fall through the cracks when it comes to considerations for a sequel.

Grim Fandango

The era of the LucasArts adventure game occurred just a little bit before I really started to get into PC gaming in the late ‘90s, and I’ve always been a little remised that I let myself miss out on those titles. The tremendous acclaim for these games has always a piqued my interest, but aside from Monkey Island 1 and 2, they’ve never been rereleased and the old versions of those games aren’t available for sale on any digital storefront (they are a gaping hole in GOG’s catalog). Sony’s announcement of a Grim Fandango HD-remake for PS4 and Vita definitely got my attention. The remake is being done by Double Fine, which is fitting as Tim Schafer has always been given principal creative credit for the original. I am left perplexed, though, by Double Fine’s huge stack of projects right now. Across Kickstarter and Steam early-access, they have like 4 unfinished games, and I wonder if they’re getting spread a little too thin, which might have an adverse effect on the quality of all these projects. Otherwise, I’m hoping that this is actually a sign that Disney may be beginning to open the LucasArts vault a little and allow for some of these old classics to find their way to modern releases.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Origins was a pretty cool RPG when it came out. Long in development, it was BioWare’s fairly successful attempt to return to Baldur’s Gate-style fantasy after their excursions into scifi with KOTOR and Mass Effect and the more eastern fantasy-styled Jade Empire. Unfortunately, what felt like the promising start of a new top-tier RPG series was quickly dashed the following year with the lackluster-at-best release of Dragon Age 2. Why BioWare/EA thought it was a good idea to rush out a sequel after less than one year of development, I’ll never understand. Fortunately, they seem to be giving a proper go at Dragon Age: Inquisition, due out later this year. The game at least looks good (something that couldn’t be said about its predecessor), although who knows how the story will turn out. Also, they seem to be going back to the more tactical combat of Origins, as the top-down battlefield view mode has returned. Personally, I feel that this is make or break time for Bioware. Both Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 left a bit of sour taste in fans mouths, and they really need to make a good impression with this game to reestablish themselves as one of the premier RPG studios.

ABZU

ABZU is the creation of Giant Squid, a new studio featuring talent that formerly worked on Journey. It’s difficult to get a grasp of what exactly this game is right now, but, at the Sony conference, a very vivid trailer showed off the game’s breathtaking deep sea settings. I can only speculate how the game will play (perhaps some sort of exploration puzzle game like Journey?), but the developer’s credentials definitely makes me feel that they can ace atmosphere and evocative environments. Definitely looking forward to more details on this one.

Alien: Isolation (note the singular)

Alien(s) is a franchise that on the surface appears ripe for translation to the video game medium, but capturing the actual soul of that series is something that no game has ever been especially successful with. There have been some good games born from this series, such as Alien Trilogy for the PSX, but they’ve only been superficially similar to the movies. Video games tend to be heavily built around the “one man army” structure where a lone hero fights his/her way through a massive onslaught of opponents (e.g., Mario vs. the Koopa tribe, Gordan Freeman vs. the Xen invaders, Max Payne vs. every able-bodied man on Earth, etc.). Xenomorphs are not very conducive to this structure. The menace of the xenomorphs in the film franchise is that they are portrayed as being literally the perfect predators. They are superhumanly strong and fast, stealthy, highly intelligent, and their wounds are potentially lethal to the one inflicting the damage. To have a lone space marine advance against hundreds of these creatures completely robs them of the quality that makes them such an immense terror in the movies.

After striking out with the atrocious Aliens: Colonial Marines, which does employ the one man army trope, Sega looks to do the spirit of the series right this time with Alien: Isolation. From what I gather from previews, this game stars Ripley’s adult daughter during the era of Ripley’s long cryosleep after escaping the Nostromo. The setup is that Ripley Jr. appears to be trapped on an abandoned space station which also happens to be occupied by a lone xenomorph. The game is a part of the new-wave of evasion-focused horror games, like Amnesia, and Ripley Jr. is given little means to directly combat the alien aggressor. A major aspect of the game being touted by the developer is the sophisticated AI of the xenomorph which is capable of pursuing a highly complex cat-and-mouse game with the player. In addition, there appears to be a large crew of hostile human scavengers aboard the station, which the player must either sneak their way past or outwit into getting trapped in a confrontation with the prowling xenomorph. That last part is interesting. Since the xenomorph is attracted to noise, there are a number of ways the player can attract the xenomorph to the human hostiles, such as placing a noise emitting gadget or provoking the hostiles to fire at Ripley Jr. Assuming the player can get out of the xenomorphs path fast enough, this can be an effective way to deal with human hostiles if there’s no way to sneak past them.

All-in-all, this is might be the game I’m most excited for this year (being a year so scant on releases doesn’t hurt it). I’m also glad that a big publisher like Sega is investing in such a unique title.

To Conclude

While this was an exciting show, I would be a bit remised if I didn’t express my disappointment for how little of it was slated for this year. If anything, I feel justified in holding off buying a next-gen console for a while. The only console I’ve bought at launch was the PS2, and despite how huge a spectacle that launch was, there really was not much to play for it at the time. At launch, I can only remember SSX and Timesplitters as being worthwhile, and neither really justified the console. A few months later, Onimusha came out, which was the first big game for the PS2, and the only one for a long while. Twisted Metal Black came out ~5 months after that, in June, and then there was next to nothing until the release of Metal Gear Solid 2 that holiday, after which the PS2 library finally picked up steam. Consoles always seem to have these dead times post-launch, and the PS4 and Xbox One don’t seem much different. But at least, 2015 is shaping up to be a banging year.

Should Resident Evil abandon zombies?

Resident Evil has already had one rebirth after the lackluster Resident Evil 0, when Capcom took decisive action to mix up the standard formula and breathe new life into the weary series with Resident Evil 4. Two sequels and an unnumbered spinoff later, it feels like the series is on its last legs again in the wake of the abysmal Resident Evil 6. This time, though, with much of their visionary talent having defected from the company, I’m far less certain that Capcom can develop a cohesive plan for reinvigorating their old standby megaseller.

Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4

Personally, I wouldn’t be too upset if Resident Evil just faded away. Some great games have come out of this series, many of which are still worthwhile today. I’m also much more confident now of the preservation of the horror genre going forward without it. Particularly amongst smaller developers, there seems to be renewed interest in delivering games in this arena, and the quality of these new efforts is definitely there. And if Resident Evil is to survive as a popular brand that people remain enthusiastic for, I think radical changes are once again needed, and these changes will need to be informed by the new trends in the genre that are occurring outside of Capcom’s doors. Unfortunately, my lack of faith originates precisely from Capcom’s ability to perceive the new environment in which it needs adapt.

Although horror games are getting a bit of a new wind, “survival horror” in the vein of the classic Resident Evil or Silent Hill games is rather scarce. Those games were action games with a heavy emphasis on having to choose between offense or evasion. During a monster encounter, there was a calculation between fight or flight: can I successfully evade the enemies in this area and maneuver around them without getting hurt, or do I need to expend limited ammo to eliminate them as a threat? Modern horror games don’t really have this balance and instead gravitate toward one of the two extremes, being either heavily offense focused (e.g., Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Evil Within) or heavily evasion focused (e.g., Amnesia, Outlast). In the action-focused offensive games, protagonists are well-armed and empowered, but the enemies they face are mercilessly aggressive monstrosities capable of applying extreme violence (or sometimes extreme numbers) to overpower their otherwise formidable prey. On the other hand, the evasion-focused titles are more like Clocktower than Resident Evil: there are only a few powerful monsters who the protagonist must stealthily outmaneuver or conceal themselves from, as they are incapable of responding to the threat in kind.

Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2: A good example of action-focused horror.

Part of the reason the balance has disappeared is the result of advancing technology. The PSX Resident Evils had notorious “tank controls” that were a product of the PSX and Saturn controllers lacking analog sticks for smooth 360° movement. Consequently, sidestepping zombies and other monsters unscathed was not a simple trick, otherwise you would never need to consider attacking them. Similarly, aiming wasn’t particularly fluid as a result of the camera angles imposed by the pre-rendered backgrounds. Both control methods and graphics have improved since then, so these limitations would only appear in a game if they were self-imposed, and since gamers seem to be more frustrated by controls that deviate from accepted norms, developers rarely choose to implement old-school control schemes.

So where does that leave Resident Evil? Resident Evil 4 already took it down the path of being amongst the action-focused games, and probably for good reason. Resident Evil always gave the impression of being influenced by B-tier action movies, and combined with the fact that most of the protagonists are law enforcement agents, it’s logical that it would eventually move farther down that route. I don’t see the alternative, of Leon Kennedy running away from the monsters to hide under the bed, as being fitting for RE.

But still even with the action-focus, I feel that RE is lagging behind its counterparts in this area. My main problem with modern RE is that the enemies simply aren’t all that threatening. I felt Dead Space really exceled at making aggressive, dangerous monsters. When you hear a necromorph growling and snarling from down the hall, you know that it is coming straight for your throat, and when the creature is bearing down on Isaac, wildly firing at it won’t help. The player has to keep focus in the face of panic to strategically target limbs and appendages to neutralize the threat. For these reasons, the necromorphs maintain an ability to create tension and dread, even though Isaac is outfitted like a futuristic supersoldier. In contrast, the enemies from the last few REs have been relatively limp. Resident Evil 5 drove me crazy in this way. The monsters are definitely holding back in that game. For instance, majini would often charge at Chris and Sheva, only to stop short upon reaching them and sway back and forth for a few moments before making an attack. In reflection, even Resident Evil 4 had a similar problem with the Ganados. When you realize that these unnatural foes are playing with kid’s gloves, much of the tension disappears.

So what is my proposal? This might be sacrilege to some, but I say get rid of the zombies. And not just the shambling classic zombies, but the more intelligent Ganado-type enemies as well. As I discussed above, these sluggish enemies just aren’t that hazardous when the player is using a modern control scheme which allows them to outmaneuver such slow opponents easily. I know some might groan at this suggestion, as zombies tend to be central to the identity of Resident Evil, but should they be? There are so many more monsters in Resident Evil that are much more interesting, such as regenerators, lickers, hunters, scarmigliones, verdugos, etc. These are what the next RE should be looking at when developing new creatures. And these new creatures should be brutal, like necromorphs, unrelenting in their belligerence, which is necessary to outmatch the well-armed and combat-seasoned protagonists we have in these games. They’ve already sort of made the move in this direction as RE:Revelations mostly nixed the zombie-style enemies in favor of more grotesque mutants.

Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4

Some might complain that my plan might permanently take Resident Evil out of the “survival horror” milieu into what might be better categorized as “action horror.” My counterpoint would be that Resident Evil was never really a game about “survival” in the first place, and in modern gaming, that label is better reserved for games such as DayZ and State of Decay which are actually about survival in a zombie-ravaged world, not just ammo management.

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