Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Witness: Mystified

 

I have been trying to write this post for a while, but The Witness is not an easy game to write about, I’m afraid.  If you have any interest in the game, you probably already know that it reviewed incredibly well upon release in January.  It’s been a difficult game to discuss, partly because I have trouble articulating some of the thoughts I have about the game, but also because it’s one of those games that really shouldn’t be spoiled for the uninitiated.  The Witness is clearly inspired by the ‘90s hit CD-ROM game, Myst.  It’s an open-ended puzzle adventure game set on a mysterious abandoned island.  But it’s so much more than what Myst was, and it completely outclasses most other games of this type released in the past few years.

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I would introduce the story of The Witness, but I’m afraid to say that there really isn’t much I can say about it.  That’s not necessarily because I want to avoid spoilers, but because there is very little explicitly revealed about the player character or the situation they face.  You are a character that is exploring an island filled with puzzles.  Outside of that the player probably has to fill in the rest with your own intuition and imagination.  The island certainly has a history, for lack of a better term, but, again, nothing is ever directly spelled out.  There may be some secret high-level unlockable content that explains everything that is going on (and I know for a fact that there are a fair few secrets that I haven’t uncovered even after beating it, as I’ve seen them even if I haven’t figured them out), but after my playthrough, I’m afraid that I cannot say with any level of certainty what is actually going on in The Witness.

But does it matter that the story is only an apparition?  Does that mean there is no discovery or compelling reason to explore the island?  No, and in fact, The Witness is a game that is entirely about discovery.  After all, it’s fun to unravel secrets in games, and The Witness is all about mysteries.  Nothing is bluntly given to the player in this game, rather the means to succeed in the game are the result of careful exploration, experimentation, observation, and reasoning.  Consequently, I found there was an immense amount of satisfaction with each bit of progress I achieved in the game.

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The world of The Witness is littered with hundreds of maze puzzle panels, and these serve as the meat of the game.  The maze panels are display screens that exist strewn about the environment, and they are almost the only thing on the island that the player can actually interact with.  To progress in the game, the player walks up to one of these display screens and solves a maze puzzle by drawing a line to connect the start point of the maze to an end point.  In the first introductory area of the game, the puzzles are more like a traditional maze, with only one possible way to connect the start and end points.  After that, the puzzles get more elaborate, and there are multiple ways to connect the start and end, but of all the possible lines that can be drawn to do this, usually only one of them is “correct”.  The solutions to the puzzles then arrived at in one of three ways:

  1. Symbols on the puzzle indicate the correct way to draw the line.
  2. Clues in the surrounding environment are needed to solve the puzzle.
  3. The line drawn on the puzzle affects the surrounding environment in some way.  These tend to be the most unique parts of the game.

As discovery and finding your own way is a huge part of the magic of this game, I don’t want to elaborate too much more on how the puzzles work.  But when the player solves a puzzle, often they’ll notice a wire leading away from the panel becomes lit, indicating that something on the other end of the wire has become activated.  Usually what is activated is another puzzle panel, but sometimes a gateway or door will be unlocked, and occasionally there are other things that will happen.

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Just as the story of The Witness is not explicit, nothing is ever really made explicit about these puzzles.  Not once is the player directly told what specific symbols on the puzzles mean, or given hints as to what to look for in the environment.  Instead, you learn to solve the puzzles purely through experimentation.  When a new puzzle mechanic is introduced, the player is presented with a series of simple puzzles of this new type that are of increasing complexity.  These sequences of puzzles are structured in a way that allows the player to experiment and on their own come to an understanding that will allow them to solve the much more elaborate puzzles that make use of each of these new mechanics.  It felt like a very unique and natural way of challenging the player to master the world of The Witness.

The island is divided into 11 different sub-regions, and the player needs to complete at least 7 to unlock the final area.  Each sub-region has its own distinct visual theme (for instance, there’s a swamp and a castle and a desert), but more importantly, each sub-region has a particular “twist” it puts on the puzzles.  That is to say, each area has its own distinct mechanics it adds to the mazes.  For those that have played the game, I think my favorite of these areas was the castle.  In addition, I have to say, each subregion and the island as a whole are really stunning.  No matter where I was in the game, I was always impressed by the visual splendor of the surroundings.  The Witness seems like a game that was made for taking screenshots and showing them off.

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At first blush, I found myself a bit disappointed with the size of the island.  After leaving the tutorial area, the player is pretty much free to go almost anywhere they want, save for a few locked areas.  What I personally found was that running from one end of the island to the other could be quite fast, which initially made me question how big the game actually was.  But as I familiarized myself with the setting, I found that the island is actually a very dense place.  There’s very little wasted space, and little details and pockets of puzzles and other curiosities are packed in pretty much everywhere.  I was still discovering new points of interest on the island for several hours into the game, and I know for a fact that I haven’t seen everything there is to see.

It’s impressive the tricks the game pulls out of its sleeve for the final stretch..  The puzzles really explode in terms of their creativity and complexity.  But while I was impressed by the final slew of challenges, I also found it to be a bit grueling.  Most areas of the games require the player to solve the puzzles in a sequential order, but if you get stuck, you can always wander off to another area and work on the puzzles there.  But for the final puzzles, they must be completed one right after the other to go forward.  So if you get stuck, you’re just stuck.  In these types of games, when I get stuck for too long on a puzzle that I blocks my progress, I usually just quit the game and wait to come back later with a fresh mind.  What this meant is that it probably took me the same number of real world weeks to finish the final stretch of The Witness as it did to get to that endgame point.

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As you can probably tell, The Witness really resonated with me.  Unraveling the mysteries of the island really spoke to me as more than just a game, but also as a scientist.  The need for experimentation, personal intuition, and analytic and holistic reasoning are what make this a very “scientific” experience in my mind.  Many of you probably know that The Witness was spearheaded by the same designer behind Braid.  I liked Braid well enough, but The Witness really felt like one of those games that is just operating on “the next level” beyond most everything else.  It has both incredibly well-designed fundamentals and is a startlingly highly polished experience.

 

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Game Boy Advance Turns 15

March 21 marked the 15th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance’s first release in Japan.  To me, it always felt like the first true successor to the long-running and super popular Game Boy handheld, a machine that was over a decade its senior, since Game Boy Color was kind of a half-step.  GBA was an amazing system for pixelated gaming that came out at a time when consoles simply weren’t doing these kinds of games at all.  It was in that time between 32-bit 2D games like Symphony of the Night and Mischief Makers and the indie games, like Braid and Super Meat Boy, that would later revive the scene on consoles.

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Considering the long lifespan of the GB, the GBA was surprisingly short-lived.  The Nintendo DS launched roughly 3 years after the GBA and would take off in an enormous way about a year later.  This means that the GBA only had, at best, four really good years of releases.  Nonetheless, I’ve always been amazed by the huge number of incredible titles that came out during its short life.  I think you can probably divide GBA’s best into two groups, original titles and SNES ports.  There were a lot of SNES ports for the GBA, but for me this worked out well, since I never owned a SNES and got to experience a lot of great games that I missed out on.  But I also don’t think you can understate GBA’s original games.  I’m going to outline some of my favorites here.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might remember that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPGs, and it all began with Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga.  That game was a ton of fun and felt like a breath of fresh air among the other RPGs that were coming out at the time.  Considering how serious and convoluted Japanese-style RPGs can be at times, the goofball sense of humor of Superstar Saga really made it endearing to me.  I think I liked it for the same reason I liked the old Pokemon games.  They’re both just fun adventures that don’t really try to be so heavy.  I also really enjoyed the turn-based battle system which incorporates minigames into the attacks and defensive moves.  Often in RPGs, I think the battles against the ordinary minions can get stale pretty quickly, but Mario and Luigi’s battle system managed to make them more engaging and stimulating.

Fire Emblem has been running in Japan since the Famicom days and, from my understanding, is the originator of the console-style strategy RPG.  But for those of us in the West, the GBA gave us our first taste with both Fire Emblem (which was actually a sequel) and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.  My interest in the series began with Sacred Stones.  The notorious permadeath mechanics made for a strategy game that was more intense than anything else I had ever played.  If one of your characters dies in battle, that’s it.  They’re gone for the rest of the game, unless you restart the mission and succeed in keeping them alive.  And since the missions can be fairly lengthy, I think Sacred Stones was the GBA game I’ve sunk the most time into as a result of having to restart so many times.  I leave no man behind.  These Fire Emblem games also had some *excellent* sprite animations (see below).  Along with Advance Wars, Fire Emblem made the GBA a surprisingly good scene for strategy games.

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Fire Emblem Sprite Work

Symphony of the Night created a breakthrough combination of Castlevania, RPG elements, and a Metroid influenced map.  It was a great thing that they decided to continue the formula with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, especially considering that the Castlevania console games they were putting out at the time weren’t so hot.  It’s good that Symphony of the Night wasn’t just a blip in gaming history, and that the GBA (and later DS) was able to provide a home for these games.  Circle of the Moon was probably the best game available at the US GBA launch, although it’s infamous for its dark color scheme that really didn’t appear so well on the dim side lit screen of the first GBA model.  Ultimately, though, easily the best Castlevania on the machine was Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which takes the interesting step of setting the game in the near future after the final defeat of Dracula.  It also has one of the most surprising (and difficult to discover) secret endings that I’ve ever seen, although it comes at the price of a rather boring and lackluster normal ending.

Metroid had a long absence after Super Metroid, but it seemed like out of nowhere there was a sudden resurgence of the series with the announcement of both Metroid Fusion for GBA and Metroid Prime for Gamecube.  I know Metroid Fusion isn’t as good as Super Metroid, but I think it deserves more credit than it gets.  Metroid Zero Mission, which is a remake of the first game, is also quite good.  Too bad there was never a DS or 3DS followup to these games (Prime Hunters doesn’t count).

And finally, as I admitted in my recent Twilight Princess post, I began the Zelda series with Wind Waker, so I never played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when it came out on SNES.  But I was introduced to the game by the GBA version and was blown away.  The world of Hyrule is huge and the quest is absolutely epic for a 16-bit game.  Yet despite the grandiose scale, I find it still has a “pick up and play” quality, because the start of the game gets you almost straight into the action without being bogged down by a lot of exposition.  I still find myself starting this game up maybe once every other year or so, a thing I only do for a few other retro titles.

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The GBA had a huge library, and of course these are only a few highlights for the system.  If anyone else has something they’d like to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

 

Hotel Dusk designers unveil new game.

Hotel Dusk was one of my favorite Nintendo DS games.  Anyone who’s played the game may be able to tell that from the Kyle Hyde avatar I use here.  It is generally regarded as the best game released by Cing, a developer best known for a string of visual novel-type adventure games released on Nintendo platforms which included most prominently Hotel Dusk and Another Code (aka Trace Memory).  Unfortunately, I don’t think Cing ever really found commercial success, and their doors were closed in 2010.

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Hotel Dusk tells the story of Kyle Hyde, a detective in search of his long missing partner, Brian Bradley, and whose investigation leads him to check in to the decaying Hotel Dusk outside of Los Angeles.  The game is exclusively set in the rundown hotel, and its guests and staff serve as the cast of characters.  In some ways, Hotel Dusk can be thought of like a more serious, more story-focused Professor Layton game.  Kyle spends his time exploring the hotel, secretly searching for clues, while also engaging the other guests in conversation.  As the night wears on, Kyle increasingly begins to realize that, although the guests are strangers to one another, they all have profoundly interconnected histories and fates.  Often, Kyle encounters brainteaser-like puzzles that must be solved to progress the story, but it is not nearly as puzzle-focused as the Layton games.

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Kyle Hyde of Hotel Dusk

A sequel to Kyle Hyde’s story was later released in Japan and Europe, and I’ve regrettably never played it.  Cing would go bankrupt shortly after release, and that would be that.  Recently though, former Cing talent have resurfaced with a new game slated for the Japanese 3DS eshop entitled (here goes) Chase-: Unsolved Cases Investigation Division – Distant Memories.  This new title promises to be a mystery novel game in the same vain of Hotel Dusk.  Unfortunately, nothing’s been announced yet in the way of localization, and the game is currently Japan-only.

Chase’s main character also looks a bit familiar:

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Am I crazy or does he look like a Japanese version of Kyle Hyde?

The stories that Cing told always felt very idiosyncratic and unique to me.  Both fate and the weight of the past play heavy roles, both as themes and actors, in their tales.  I’m very much hoping we’ll see an English localization of the game down the road, but I’m afraid I have no certainty that we will.  But …. it does make me feel like Kyle Hyde looking to reunite with his old friend from the past.

 

Twilight Princess HD Impressions

It is a strange thing to admit considering how long I’ve been gaming, but the first Legend of Zelda game I ever touched was Wind Waker on the Gamecube.  The second, naturally, was Twilight Princess, also on the Gamecube.  (I’ve never actually played the Wii version, and I’m afraid I often forget it exists.)  Those two games provide an interesting jumping on point for the series, since, as a pair, they’ve become an interesting dichotomy in many gamers’ opinions.  Wind Waker has ascended in the mindset of many due to its cel-shaded art style which was unconventional for the series.  Meanwhile, Twilight Princess is usually contrasted as a weak game that was overly reliant on the formula established by Ocarina of Time.  

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Personally, I’ve always been a big defender of Twilight Princess.  In some ways, it’s easy for me to be one.  I didn’t play Ocarina of Time until the 3DS version, so of course I never really felt like Twilight Princess was a retread of the OoT formula.  And I didn’t have to bother with the motion controls since I played the Gamecube version.  And while I understand the complaint that Twilight Princess has a lot of filler content, Wind Waker isn’t innocent of that flaw either, considering the slow speed of the boat and the late game Triforce hunt that bogged down the original version.

But I don’t want to be overly critical of Wind Waker in my defense of Twilight Princess.  And to be fair, it’s been a long time since I played TP anyway.  While I usually shy away from HD re-releases of games I’ve already played, as I get older, I strangely find myself becoming a sucker for Nintendo content.  I’m now a few hours into Twilight Princess HD just released for the Wii U.  I’ve just completed the first dungeon, the Forest Temple.  And so far at least, I’m enjoying the game as I did back in the Gamecube days.

Twilight Princess is a really beautiful game.  It doesn’t get often complimented as such, because it’s usually compared to its visually charismatic cel-shaded predecessor.  But playing through the first few hours of the HD version, I’m beginning to realize that Twilight Princess has an artistic flair that is highly underrated.  The world of Hyrule presented in this iteration has a strong fairytale-like quality that reminds me of ‘80s fantasy movies like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal.  The world is covered in dark natural colors, principally greens and browns, that are punctuated by more exotic artificial pigments like violet, jet black, and neon.  And while the Great Sea in Wind Waker served as breathtaking overworld, the dungeons in that game were often incredibly drab and flat. I don’t think the cel-shading served the interior environments as well as it did the outdoor presentation.  Meanwhile, I think the dungeons in Twilight Princess have more character as a result of the interior surfaces actually having textures.  However, one major thing I think Wind Waker has to its credit is that the cel-shading hid the edges of the polygons better.  Twilight Princess very much does feel like a world made up of polygons, with edges conspicuous on many naturally-occurring objects that shouldn’t have them, like rock formations and trees.  

One negative that I’m noticing so far is that the lock-on system in TP is incredibly finicky.  There’s been plenty of times I’ve hit the lock-on button when an enemy was right in front of me only to have nothing happen.  It seems to me that you have to be fairly close to an enemy to get the lock-on to register it.  I don’t seem to remember this being a problem in Wind Waker HD.  Maybe it was a problem in the original TP, but I should think that an HD release like this would have some fine tuning applied to it like Wind Waker HD had.

One final thing I’d like to mention is that the amiibo that comes with the game is actually an excellent figure.  I’m no amiibo super-collector.  I have an 8-bit Mario and a Donkey Kong sitting on my desk that were both gifts, and a Dr. Mario that I bought for myself because Dr. Mario is cool.  But I do have a feel of what quality to expect from them.  The Wolf Link amiibo that comes with Twilight Princess HD is by far the most intricately detailed amiibo I’ve ever seen, both in figure and coloration.  It deftly models Midna sitting atop wolf Link standing on a sloped white rock formation.  The are a good many little details captured on the figure including the golden insignia on wolf Link’s forehead, the ornate grooves on Midna’s mask, the lines of fur on Link, and the broken chain above his paw.  I hesitate to say it, but I actually kind of wish the in-game models of these two looked more like the amiibo.  Of all the amiibos I’ve seen, this is definitely my favorite.

I’m looking forward to playing more of Twilight Princess HD to see how the whole thing pans out, and if my defense of the game for all these years was worthwhile.  So this won’t be the end of my thoughts on the game, and I’ll do a more thorough write-up once I’m finished with my playthrough.

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