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Severed!

I love the Vita, but I often find myself only really getting around to playing it when I have some travel time and I want something to take with me.  I think part of the reason I do this is because exciting new releases for the Vita are often spread so thin on the calendar that I don’t really feel any pressure to get around to anything when it comes out.  This is usually reinforced by the fact that a lot of Vita titles are ports of games that had already been out on existing platforms for a while, so there’s a chance I’ve already played them.  Furthermore, a lot of these ports often end up running poorly on the Vita, making it more attractive to play them elsewhere, even though I like to play games handheld.  It’s a very rare occurrence for a game to release first on Vita, and offer arguably the best experience on that platform.

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I recently discovered, though, that one such game that excels on Vita is Severed, a first person dungeon exploration game by the same team that created Guacamelee.  It originally released exclusively for the Vita last year, but since then found its way to 3DS and Wii U, as well.  Taking place in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, it pairs an oddly vibrant art style with a contrastingly gloomy and ominous atmosphere.  The combat system is probably the most unique aspect of Severed as it relies entirely upon the Vita’s often underused touchscreen.

While exploring dungeons, enemies appear as glowing white orbs, and combat is initiated when the player moves onto spaces occupied by said entities.  When the main character, Sasha, incurs upon an enemy party in such a way, the player is surrounded by the group of monsters, while facing only one at a given time.  The foes outside of the player’s first person view are indicated as icons at the bottom of the screen that keep check of information such as their health, buffs, and status of their charging attacks. The d-pad/face buttons are used to switch focus between enemies, but the rest of combat is carried out on the Vita’s touchscreen.  When the current enemy in focus reveals their weak point, the player does damage by slashing their finger back and forth across the vulnerable spot.  Severed’s battles are real time, not turn-based, which means the faster the player can swipe their finger back and forth on an enemy, the more damage Sasha will deal.  

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Conversely, enemy attacks can be countered by swiping against the motion of their attack, so, for instance, if an enemy slashes at Sasha, swiping in the opposite direction against the motion of their claws  will negate any damage dealt to the player.  The icons at the bottom of the screen signal if an enemy off-view is about to attack, and monitoring these indicators and performing successful counters is critical to success in the game, since Sasha’s health is never large enough to take more than a handful of hits each encounter.  The game has a decent variety of enemies, each which have different attack patterns and quirks that managed to keep me on my toes and ensured battle never became a particularly tedious affair.  

In a lot of ways, Severed sort of reminds me of a game from the heyday of the Nintendo DS.  There was a period of time in the DS’s early life when there was just a huge amount of titles making innovative use of the touchscreen.  Since those days, touch-based gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside.  I can’t think of many 3DS or Wii U games that really made heavy use of the touchscreen element in an essential way.  There have been some really great touch-based games on phones, like The Room series and Lara Croft Go, but for the most part I find really exciting releases on such mobile platforms to be very few and far between.  But while it’s disappointing to see this side of gaming whither, Severed at least manages to do something new and interesting in this area.

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Unfortunately, there’s a slight ergonomic toll inflicted by Severed.  I find the easiest way to play the game is to hold the Vita with one hand, gripping the middle of the system with my palm, which leaves the other hand free to use the touchscreen and face buttons.  This method works fairly well and isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds.  The problem really comes from the rapid swiping motions the game encourages the player to make.  Like I said, combat is real time, meaning the faster the player can move, the more effective they will be.  So for instance, some enemies open up weak points for limited windows of time, during which I found myself swiping as furiously as I could to inflict maximum damage before the opportunity closed.  Situations like this had a bad affect on my wrist, and often I would find my hand getting a little stiff and sore after only a small (30 minutes to 1 hour) play session.  I don’t want to leave the impression that I was in excruciating physical pain or anything, it was a mild discomfort, but it’s probably the only real negative I found to the game.

In recent years there have been a lot of RPGs I’ve found myself getting bored with after I’ve sunk in significant playtime due to how tedious their repetitive battle systems can become.  Fortunately, I felt like Severed managed to dodge this sort of fatigue, partly due to its relative brevity, but also because the game does a good job of continuously adding new wrinkles to the battle system that keep it from getting stale across the duration of Sasha’s quest.  The game has a fairly decent variety of enemies that it rolls out, each which require their own strategies to counter, but it also introduces some new mechanics that require the player to continuously adapt their play style.  

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It’s a bit difficult to give an overview of Severed’s story due to the hazy and cryptic way in which the game opens.  It’s not Dark Souls level of vaguery, but the whole game definitely has a dream-like quality that implores the player to use their own imagination and intuition to fill in the blanks it leaves.  Here is the best explanation I can put together for how the game opens:  A young warrior named Sasha arrives in a strange, nightmarish realm to find her missing family that were abducted in a struggle that left Sasha without her left arm (hence the title).  She is guided by a shadowy, almost demonic figure of ambiguous intention and origin to set out on a quest through the nightmare world to discover their ultimate fate.

RPGs tend to be games about heroes who embark on epic journeys to counter existential crises that threaten the entire world, but Severed is a deeply personal story about loss and survivor’s guilt.  Sasha is no savior of mankind, merely a young woman on a hopeless quest to save her loved ones, nothing more.  Additionally, her journey is a solitary one with only a few recurring NPCs occasionally interjecting her dungeon diving.  Yet despite the much more humble stakes of Severed, I still found myself thoroughly invested in Sasha’s unfolding tale up through its poignant and bittersweet conclusion.  And while it might not be a game about saving the world, I still found the final boss fight to be an epic struggle against a terrifying foe.

Severed is a great game for the Vita.  It’s not super long, only about 6 hours, which is probably just as long as it needs to be to not outstay its welcome.  It’s kind of sad that it hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as its predecessor, Guacamelee, but I think that’s probably due to the touch-based gameplay restricting the platforms it can be available on.  Regardless, I feel like the team should be commended for taking a risk to create a touchscreen-focused experience.  It goes a long way to disprove the popular theory that games that use controls besides the standard DualShock/Xbox controller or mouse and keyboard can only be empty gimmicks.

 

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Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed: Toot Toot Sega Warrior

 

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is the sequel to Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, which was released a few years prior.  (I have a feeling these titles are going to make for a confusing post.)  I liked the original Sega All-Stars Racing a lot.  It was actually a pretty good kart racer for the Xbox and Playstation platforms, which have rarely put up much competition to the Mario Kart juggernaut.  However, All-Stars Racing Transformed just completely stomps all over its predecessor.  It outperforms it in nearly every aspect, and I feel it’s gone somewhat underappreciated.  Not only is it an excellent racing game, it’s an incredible tour of Sega nostalgia that I think will excite and delight any fan of the company’s long and remarkable creative history.

Honestly, I hesitate to call All-Stars Racing Transformed a kart racing game.  The series was obviously meant to combine Sega nostalgia with the Mario Kart formula, and I would easily consider the original All-Stars Racing a Mario Kart clone.  But I would argue that Transformed is more of an arcade racer.  The main reason is that the speed of the races are way higher than I think any Mario Kart has reached, not counting the 200cc DLC for Mario Kart 8.  And to go along with the faster racers, the tracks often feel massive in scale.  The game of course includes weapon pickups as well as a heavy emphasis on drifting around turns to gain speed boosts, and these features I think clearly tie it to the Mario Kart series.  But otherwise, I feel like Transformed manages to break out of the template of Mario Kart that its predecessor was firmly crafted in.

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As implied by the title, the big gimmick for All-Star Racing Transformed is transforming vehicles.  In addition to land-based racing, the racers’ vehicles will transform to take to the water (like a jet ski) or to the sky (like a little airplane) during certain segments of each track.  This initially draws similarities to the hang glider and submarine transformations that were introduced in Mario Kart 7.  However, All-Stars Racing Transformed makes far more effective use of these alternative racing methods.  While I felt like Mario Kart 7 and 8 only made very light, gimmicky use of the hang glider and submarine concepts, All-Stars Racing Transformed devotes substantial sections of each track to racing that doesn’t take place on land.  And most importantly, aerial vehicles and watercraft are fun parts of the racing experience.  Each of these modes are different enough to require reasonably different strategies for racing, but not so different that they feel confusing or bothersome to control.

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My favorite aspect of All-Stars Racing Transformed is that it does an impressive job of creating tracks that cover the breadth of the Sega-verse.  Tracks are themed around games pulled from the Genesis era up through the post-Dreamcast era.  There are a few obligatory courses themed around Sega’s headliner Sonic, but otherwise the game culls from a diverse arrangement of classic titles such as Skies of Arcadia, Burning Rangers, Jet Set Radio, House of the Dead, Shinobi, etc.  Each track feels giant and epic in scale, and they work well at evoking their namesake series.  The size, scope, and variety of tracks is probably the biggest improvement that All-Star Racing Transformed makes over the original All-Stars Racing, which reused a lot of assets between courses and the tracks had settings that were heavily repeated.  In the first game, for instance, there were three tracks based on the Casino Night zone from the Sonic series, three tracks that took place in Curien Mansion from House of the Dead, three tracks themed around Samba de Amigo, etc.  Transformed, on the other hand, has no repeated settings, and each course feels distinct and exciting in its own way.

I will say that while the tracks do serve as an impressively broad tribute to Sega’s history, the racer selection is not quite as varied as I would have liked it to be.  Several racers return from the original, like B.D. Joe, Beat, Amigo, Ulala, and the obligatory Sonic cast members.  There are also a few absolutely excellent inclusions to Transformed that weren’t in its predecessor, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia and Joe Musashi from Shinobi (I’m a big Shinobi fan).  But there are some unfortunate absences that don’t make a return.  The original All-Stars Racing included some off-beat characters like the Bonanza Bros., Opa-Opa (Fantasy Zone), and Zobio and Zobiko (House of the Dead EX).  I know these aren’t super popular character in Sega fandom (well, maybe Opa-Opa is), but I really enjoyed geeking out over these obscure inclusions.  In addition, the coolest characters in the original were Akira & Jackie (Virtua Fighter) who raced together in a red sports car that resembled the Ferrari in OutRun.  What a badass idea that was!  Unfortunately, they don’t make a return for Transformed.  Ultimately, this game does have a good selection of characters, but I just felt that the original game really amazed me in that regard.

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I also thought the game’s soundtrack was a great collection of uptempo remixes of classic Sega themes that played well at pumping me up for some high-speed racing.  Particular standouts, I felt, were the remixes from Burning Rangers and Golden Axe.  There’s also a good remix of “You Can Do Anything” from the Japanese and European Sonic CD soundtrack.  (It is my great shame as a patriotic red-blooded American that I prefer this song to Sonic Boom.  Please, no one reveal this dark secret to my family or Obama!)  One big disappointment, however, was the lack of the iconic Samba de Janeiro from Samba de Amigo.  It was present in the original All-Stars Racing, but in the sequel it’s been replaced with a more generic latin electronic track.  I guess they just didn’t want to pay the royalties for that one.20160507212103_1.jpg

All-Stars Racing Transformed is a lot of fun, but it’s one tinged with sadness and regret.  The heyday of Sega and its creative prime have long since past.  Things like this and the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS always serve as a bittersweet reminder to me of that.  They were always a restlessly creative company.  Nintendo may be innovative and produce games of immense polish and attention to detail, but they were never quite as off-the-wall as Sega.  Nintendo reached a point during the time of the SNES where it was mainly focused on evolving and refining its core series like Mario and Zelda, and they always relied on their well-established franchises to introduce new ideas and innovations.  Meanwhile, even into the Dreamcast-era, Sega was constantly going out on a limb to deliver characters and games that were created entirely from a blank slate.  They may never have been the best game designers out there, but there was just a coolness to Sega that I don’t think anyone else has quite been able to replicate.  All-Stars Racing Transformed is a good reminder of those things.  It’s a great game in its own right, but for a Sega fan, the full-on nostalgia blast is vindication of enthusiasm for a company that was always the underdog.

 

Star Fox Zero: Flying Too Close to the Sun

Well hey, look it’s Star Fox!  Back in action again.  I had always thought he had been relegated to the pile of beloved Nintendo series that are likely to never see the light of day again.  But no, he’s back!  I’m a big fan of Star Fox 64 (and to a far lesser extent Star Fox Command), so I honestly had to give the game a go, even if the Star Fox series hasn’t had the best track record since its 64-bit glory days.

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Star Fox Zero is a sort of reimagining of Star Fox 64, which was already a sort of reimagining of the original Star Fox.  The story has essentially the same premise as 64 with starfighter pilot Fox McCloud leading the Star Fox team into battle against the forces of Andross, who has instigated all-out war in the Lylat System against the peaceful planet of Corneria.  The history of Fox’s father’s battle against Andross and the rivalry with Star Wolf team also feature prominently.  The levels are entirely new, although they mostly take place in familiar settings like the planets of Fortuna and Titania.  If you’ve ever played Star Fox or Star Fox 64, this game will feel familiar without necessarily feeling like a repeat of earlier adventures.

Star Fox has veered around a bit since the early popularity of the series, as Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault had a  heavy focus on on-foot combat and adventuring.  Star Fox Command for the DS dispensed with the on-foot action and focused solely on in-air combat, but the catch was it only had simple arena-style levels as opposed to the fast-paced, highly-detailed linear levels that most gamers seem to prefer from Star Fox 64.  Star Fox Zero sees the series attempting to return to basics with a roughly equal mix of the beloved linear “corridor-style” levels and the “arena-style” levels that the series refers to as all-range mode.

Star Fox Zero is squarely focused on vehicular combat, primarily in the series’ iconic starcraft, the arwing, however attention is also paid to a few other rides.  The landmaster tank makes a return from Star Fox 64, and the “walker” transformation from the cancelled Star Fox 2, in which the arwing transforms into a bipedal mech, is also strongly featured.  The fourth vehicle is a gyrocopter that moves more slowly and methodically than the other three vehicles.  I enjoyed the arwing, landmaster, and walker, although I felt the walker was underutilized.  These three actually control very similarly.  The right analog stick functions like the c-buttons did on the N64 controller, i.e., push up to boost, tap twice left or right to do a barrel roll, etc.  The gyrocopter, however, controls very differently with both sticks required for basic movement.  I must say I really did not enjoy flying the gyrocopter, it’s too slow and I felt the way the sticks were used was counterintuitive.  Perhaps more importantly, I just didn’t think combat was fun in the gyrocopter.

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Not a screenshot from the game…..

I’m afraid the biggest disappointment I had with Star Fox Zero was the level design.  The levels are generally pretty short and inelaborate, and I would argue they do not make good use of the fundamentals the game establishes.  What I mean by that is that I think SF0 under utilizes the ideas and gameplay concepts that it introduces.  For instance, there’s one segment where Fox needs to infiltrate the interior of a battlecruiser to disable its shields in the midst of a large space battle.  To do this, Fox lands on the enemy vessel and transforms into the walker to enter the starship through a hatch.  Inside, he fights a few enemies that are guarding a corridor with the shield computer he needs to hack at the end.  I could have imagined a much more intricate and involved sequence playing out inside the battlecruiser, but it’s really just a few simple enemies you need to kill on the inside and then you’re done.  There are many segments like this strewn across the game that could have been much more interesting than they were, but ultimately lack proper development.  The result makes the game feel low-budget in a way, as if they didn’t have enough funds to fully actualize their ideas for the game.

But despite the levels being rather short and very basic in design, I do think they did a good job in making most of them memorable and distinct.  Nintendo has a way of designing their games to have stages that are each infused with their own unique imaginative twist, and most missions of Star Fox Zero had some resonance with me.  And even though I felt like the stages often came quite short of living up to their potential, I did feel like I became fully engaged with the game.  Underneath all of its flaws is an exciting arcade action game that makes you feel like a hero caught up in a massive stellar conflict.  

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The most contentious aspects of Star Fox Zero come in how it implements the screen in the Wii U gamepad and that it uses the gyroscopes in the gamepad to augment the aim of the analog stick.  If you keep up with game reviews from mainstream sites, you’ll know that Star Fox Zero is being hammered on account of both of these features.  Let me give a short explanation for those unaware or for those still confused.  While playing the game, the television screen shows the “standard” Star Fox view with the camera behind the player’s vehicle.  Simultaneously, on the gamepad a view from the player’s cockpit is shown.  The idea is to use both the third-person view and cockpit view together.  The third person view gives the player a broader view of the obstacles and enemies in the environment, while the cockpit view has a more accurate targeting reticule and is useful for precision aiming.  

I think a lot of detractors get hung up here, because they find it hard to switch between looking at the TV screen and then having to pivot their head to look at the gamepad screen.  I honestly didn’t have much trouble with this.  I think the problem is they are try to shoot everything by looking at the gamepad while still using the TV for maneuvering, which causes them to have to constantly switch focus between the two screens.  In reality, I would say ~80% of the time it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the TV screen or the gamepad.  For instance, when facing large enemies or swarms of enemies, I think you can do just fine using the less accurate targeting reticule that is displayed on the TV screen.  You need the gamepad view in circumstances where accuracy is important or when you’re trying to shoot in a completely different direction than you’re flying.  So, for instance, if you’re trying to lead a very fast specific enemy (like one infamous wolf who will go unnamed), it’s best to use the cockpit view on the gamepad.  

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Meanwhile, in addition to using the left analog stick for aiming and controlling the trajectory of the vehicle, the player can also tilt and rotate to gamepad to move the targeting reticule.  Since human wrists are anatomically more capable of precise movements than thumbs, using these tilt controls grants the player a greater level of accuracy.  In addition, sometimes one needs to aim in a way different direction than the arwing is travelling.  For instance, in one landmaster level, there are these giant robot spider enemies who have weak points on their underbellies.  To hit these weak points, you drive the landmaster underneath the spiders and tilt the gamepad up to aim at their glowing bits and fire.  To aim directly upwards like this essentially requires fully pivoting the gamepad so that it is almost upside down above your face.  These sorts of situations that require the player to tilt the gamepad to such an extreme occur every now and then in the game.  I didn’t have such a problem with them, and, in some cases, I found them to add a clever twist to an enemy encounter.  But I’ve seen other reviewers and posters express dissatisfaction with needing to make such sweeping motions with the gamepad, and I guess I can understand where they’re coming from as it could be uncomfortable or awkward depending on your seating arrangement.

I’m a big fan of gyroscopic controls.  I find that they permit precise aiming that is close to what you would get using a mouse.  This is because mouse and tilt control make use of wrists as opposed to thumbs, and because there is a 1:1 correlation between player movement and action on-screen.  Not many companies use this feature, however.  Mostly, it’s just been Nintendo who most notoriously used tilt as the default aim option in Splatoon, but they’ve also incorporated this control scheme into the HD Zelda games for items like the bow and grappling hook.  The PS4 controller also possesses gyroscopes, but the only game I know that uses tilt to aim is Gravity Rush Remastered.  

Gyroscopic aiming, I think, works best as an augment to the traditional analog stick control scheme.  The analog stick works best for making broad, sweeping movements of the camera, while the gyros excel at finer, more precise movements that tweak the position of the targeting reticule.  Honestly, I haven’t really had any issues with this feature in Star Fox Zero or any other game for that matter.  I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to understanding why so many people seem to hate this control scheme.  I guess it’s just hard for some people to learn a new way of using the controller, especially when the standardized dual analog control method has become so ingrained in modern gaming.  Oddly enough, the situation reminds me of the early days of polygonal gaming when controls for 3D games hadn’t become so universalized, and every game seemed to have its own twist on how to handle movement in three-dimensional space.  Amusingly, I guess that’s suitable for Star Fox, which itself is an artifact of that early era.

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Star Fox Zero is an ugly game.  There, I said it.  While the Wii U doesn’t exactly possess bleeding edge graphics technology, both Platinum Games and especially Nintendo have shown that they can get really impressive looking results out of it.  Star Fox, on the other hand, is quite crude in its visuals.  Every object in the game is made of a shockingly low number of polygons draped with very simple texture work.  The game appears bereft of any modern lighting, shading, or particle effects.  At its very best, the game looks merely acceptable at times.  Meanwhile, there are some times where the game is a downright muddy eyesore that would be unsightly for even a PS2 game.  I believe Nintendo wants us to believe these simplistic visuals are meant to be an homage to the N64 era, but I think more than likely they are a result of the game’s approach to using the Wii U gamepad.  

As discussed above, the gamepad displays a cockpit view that is completely different from what’s shown on the TV screen.  That means that the Wii U is actually doing double-time.  It is rendering two completely different images of a 3D world.  The vast majority of Wii U games don’t render two separate 3D images for the TV and the gamepad.  They either render one image of the game and display it on both screens (like Smash Bros.), or they render one 3D image of the game and then something simple like a map or inventory screen for the gamepad (Zelda HD remakes).  It’s almost certainly quite taxing for the Wii U to render two separate 3D images concurrently.  The only other game I know of that does this is Nintendo Land, which also has rather underwhelming visuals.  Furthermore, Star Fox Zero runs at a mostly stable 60 frames per second.  So while the game looks very modest, it’s likely pushing the Wii U to its limits.

Ultimately, Star Fox Zero is an incredibly ambitious game, and it suffers for it.  I have to wonder in the end if these features were really worth it.  I’ll reiterate that I like what they’ve set up here.  But, the graphics clearly suffer greatly in service of a two screen experience.  There’s some clear advantages to the approach they’ve taken.  I think gyro aim is a good addition to the Star Fox formula, as it allows for a game that is faster-paced and more precise than what I think would be achievable with purely analog stick aiming.  But, I’m not sure if the cockpit view was really needed.  Like I discussed above, I have a feeling that 80% of the time it doesn’t really matter if the player is focused on the TV screen or the gamepad.  And most of the utility of the cockpit view would be eliminated simply by placing a more accurate reticule on the TV screen.  I think getting rid of the technical hurdle of the cockpit view would have allowed them to build a game with much more elaborate levels and greater visual appeal, especially seeing as it is a point of consternation for many.

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I guess, in my head, I have this image of what a modernized Star Fox should be.  I imagine these colossal space battles with laser beams whizzing by, bright fiery explosions ripping through the hulls of battle cruisers, swarms of enemy fighters scrambling about, and all kinds of debris chaotically being hurled about the battlezone.  I imagine these bombastic action sequences like Fox escaping bases and starships on self-destruct as fire cuts loose all around.  I imagine futuristic cityscapes being torn asunder by the mayhem of an invading alien force.  But, this game does not live up to the lofty heights my imagination vividly conjures up for Star Fox.  Rather, Star Fox Zero’s primitive graphics and short and concise missions only very crudely simulate these things.  That said, this is a very fun arcade action game, and if you’re able to accept its status quo-defying implementation of the gamepad, I think most Star Fox fans will enjoy it.  I can say without hesitation that I had a ton of fun with the game, even if it is tinged with disappointed………..

But, I simply don’t think I can recommend the game to anyone on the fence who doesn’t have a hardcore love for Star Fox, certainly not at full price.  I would only recommend a game unqualified when I feel there is a fairly high probably that most people will enjoy it, and in the case of Star Fox Zero, there are too many easy justifications for disliking it.  These are principally the game’s brevity, its low budget feel, and the fact that the gamepad implementation has shown itself to not be for everyone.  And please understand how painful these words of warning are for me to write, simply because I am so conflicted about this game, and that I want to see Star Fox succeed and become a series that lives up to the potential that I believe it has.

As an addendum, the retail release of Star Fox Zero comes packaged with another game called Star Fox Guard.  This is a tower defense game that grew out of a Wii U tech demo that Nintendo showed off some years back.  I haven’t torn into this game yet, so I can’t yet comment on its quality.  But because some people might be curious, I will say that I am impressed that the games are packaged together in a cardboard box that has two proper Wii U cases on the inside (one for each game).  The Wii U cases each have a disc for their respective games, so no having to deal with download codes for the e-shop.  I’m very pleased that Nintendo decided to have physical copies of each of these games, when it would have been easy neglect a physical version of Star Fox Guard.

Gravity Rush: Dazed and Amazed

The Playstation Vita has had a regrettably tough life as a consumer product, but you can’t blame that on lack of games, although that’s more in spite of Sony than because of them.  Nowadays, the only people that seem to be supporting the device are niche Japanese studios and indie developers making cross-platform titles.  Sony themselves have been clear that they have no interest in pursuing development for Vita any further.  I suppose when one of the handheld’s earliest hits, Gravity Rush, was announced to have a sequel in the works for the Playstation 4, Vita fans should have despaired at another lost potential title, but I guess we all saw it coming.

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I never actually played Gravity Rush on the Vita, but I did pick up the “remastered” version that was recently released for PS4.  This version seems to specifically exist to prep the uninitiated for the upcoming sequel.  Not having played the Vita original, I’m afraid I can’t really compare the two.  The graphics in the PS4 version are presumably better, but they are clearly from an upscaled Vita game.  The open-world of Hekseville is composed mostly of very angular polygonal structures with simple texture work, and there is a hazy fog that clouds the long distance view of the city, which is almost certainly there to hide a limited draw distance.  Furthermore, NPCs that roam around the city just sort of pop-in as Kat runs and flies around.  Still, I wouldn’t say the game looks bad.  It doesn’t look great, but it’s acceptable.

Gravity Rush tells the story of Kat, a young amnesiac woman who awakens to herself falling into the skyborne city of Hekseville.  Kat is accompanied by a mysterious black cat named Dusty, who grants her the ability to control the force of gravity.  Essentially, this power allows Kat to fly.  Soon after awakening in Hekseville, Kat realize that her powers are key to defending the city from the attacks of the Nevi, a species of amorphous, shadowy monsters who have been wreaking havoc on the city’s peace and safety.  However, as the story progresses, we come to realize that there are greater threats encroaching on this floating metropolis, and the Nevi appear to be mere pawns in a much greater scheme.

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The city of Hekseville lies in a world shrouded in mystery.  The cityscape hangs suspended in the sky, held aloft on the branches of a large, tree-like pillar which seems to extend both upward and downward into infinity.  The citizens of Hekseville seem to have no knowledge of the world beyond their city limits, nor do they seem to give it any consideration.  The mystery of Hekseville’s very existence is a central plot point in this narrative, and the player is slowly fed tidbits of information that hint at the true nature of this reality.  I found the existential mystique of this world to be comparable to what you would find in anime like Fullmetal Alchemist or The Big O.

The story is what I ended up feeling to be the main draw of Gravity Rush.  In addition to the existential enigmas of Kat’s world, the characters she encounters in her tale are incredibly charming and heartfelt.  Kat, herself, is a peppy, friendly, and incredibly sincere young woman, who you’ll want to root for as she takes on a super hero-like status amongst the citizens of Hekseville.  

Despite the fact that I found the story to be the best part of the game, it’s not without its faults.  The plot chaotically meanders throughout the game and is not content to focus on any specific story thread.  The game begins by introducing us to the threat of the Nevi, but subsequent chapters introduce numerous additional conflicts that Kat must contend with.  Hekseville starts off in chaos due to parts of the city being inexplicably swallowed into alternate dimensions by gravity storms.  A master thief named Alias, who seems to have a history with Kat and has the ability to control the Nevi, is threatening to steal the “Sacred Gems” which protect the city in unspecified ways.  Furthermore, there is also a rival gravity shifter, named Raven, who comes to blows with Kat.  These are just the conflicts set up in the earliest chapters of the game, while even more villains and mysteries are introduced as the story progresses.

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By the end of the game, I have to admit I was frustrated by a lack of any sort of resolution.  The early chapters set up so many intriguing mysteries.  “Where did Kat come from?”, “Who is Alias?”, “Why are parts of the city being swallowed into alternate dimensions?”  “What exactly are the Nevi?”  You would expect later chapters of the game to begin answering these questions, but, instead, they just set up even more mysteries, of which very few are given any sort of closure.  Ultimately, I was left with way more questions than answers.  I understand that the designers wanted to build a series out of this game, and that it’s smart to leave hanging some loose plot threads to build the story of future sequels on.  But Gravity Rush just left too much up in the air.

Gravity Rush might be described as an open-world game, as Kat is free to roam about and explore Hekseville between missions.  While exploring the city, Kat can take on challenge and side missions, talk to a few select NPCs, and collect gems which are used to level up various stats.  The main missions are generally relatively simple.  Kat goes to point A on the map, a swarm of Nevi appears, she beats them down, and then moves on to point B where the same thing happens.  Occasionally, there are simple tasks to complete on the way, usually stuff like fetching items or using Kat’s abilities to carry NPCs to safety.

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I’m afraid I never found the Nevi to be particularly fearsome enemies.  They tend to just sort of mull about and only become aggressive when Kat gets very close to them.  I guess the lack of pernicious enemy AI is probably the result of the game being designed for the Vita’s more diminutive CPU.  When engaged with a Nevi, combat is also pretty simple.  The goal is to target glowing magenta weak spots on the Nevi’s otherwise shadowy bodies.  If they are on the ground, attacks consist of mostly walking up to the weak spot and mashing the X button to do a series of kicks.  If Kat is attacking from the air, the player can tap X when targeting a Nevi’s weak spot, and she will zoom in for a kick attack.  All in all, this particular aspect of the game is nothing really exceptional.

Gravity Rush is at its core a game about flying…or more precisely falling.  Tapping the R1 button causes Kat to become weightless.  Point in a specific direction and tap R1 again, and the pull of Gravity on Kat will change to that direction.  In this way Kat can “fall” in any given direction, which essentially allows her to fly about the city and reach places no one else can.  She can also use this ability to run along walls and ceilings.  There aren’t really a whole lot of games about flying, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the game.

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It’s not without its problems, though.  Later in the game, Kat finds herself fighting a lot of flying Nevi, which requires her to take flight to fend off foes coming at her from every possible direction.  This gets complicated since you can’t possibly be aware of all the enemies in the space around Kat.  While the Nevi are kind of slow and not particularly aggressive (as I discussed above), some of the flying Nevi shoot homing projectiles that are difficult to evade once they get close enough.  This means that you’ll get hit by a lot of projectiles from off-screen since you can’t possibly be focused on everything going on around Kat at once.  The only real tactic I found that worked in this situation was just to prioritize defeating the ones with homing projectiles as fast as I could.   

Worse yet, after doing a flying kick attack, Kat bounces off the enemy in a way that often made me lose my frame of reference in the environment.  This left me completely disoriented at times.   This particular issue I feel could have been easily solved by having a button to lock the camera onto targeted enemies (like Zelda).  Hopefully, this will be remedied for the PS4 sequel.  While this game mostly featured very basic and simplistic combat, because of these issues, it could often devolve into a spastic and frustrating mess later in the game.

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And that’s basically Gravity Rush.  A game that starts off with lots of momentum due to both intriguing gameplay and story elements.  But ultimately, the game just sort of falls flat, as it has no idea what to do with what it started.  Regardless, I really enjoyed the world of Hekseville, and I have high hopes for the next PS4 entry.  They really need to step things up a few notches for this upcoming sequel, but I think this first game serves as a good foundation to build upon.   While I’m a huge fan of handheld gaming and the Vita, I hope that the more technically-sophisticated PS4 platform will give the developers the ability to fully realize the promise that this initial installment has shown.  

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Insert Uncharted Pun Here

I have to admit that I don’t have a significant history with the Tomb Raider series, and mostly that is due to personal oversight.  For as big of a fan as I was for the original Playstation, I just never picked up that series.  I was in middle school at the time of those original games, and my peers who were into those games were into them more for the allure of the Lara Croft character than anything else.  The awkward sex appeal that was attached to those early games was kind of a turnoff to me, and thus I never really thought highly enough of the series to give it a go.  When the rebooted Tomb Raider was released in 2013, I was completely surprised by the number of Tomb Raider fans that were suddenly vouching for the quality of the older games.  It made me a little bit ashamed that I had waited so long to get into the series, especially for a game that many long-time fans considered to be a departure from what made the earlier entries special.  Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 Tomb Raider and was excited when its sequel, the boorishly titled Rise of the Tomb Raider, finally made it to PC last month.  

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The story of Rise of the Tomb Raider I feel is by far its weakest part, both in plot and in characters.  The plot synopsis of Rise is simple: Lara must get to the magical artifact of the week before the bad guys do.  In this case, the object of obsession is the Divine Source, a device used by an ancient Byzantine prophet to grant himself and his armies eternal life.  Long since faded into myth, the Source was the obsession of Lara’s father, Lord Croft, and his dogged pursual of the artifact eventually earned him the enmity of the shadowy organization known as Trinity.  Trinity pulled strings within the UK media to discredit and publicly humiliate Croft which led to his apparent suicide when Lara was young.  Flash forward to the present day and Lara has discovered new evidence which points to the Divine Source having found a resting place deep within Siberia.  Before she can depart, however, the information is stolen by Trinity, which triggers a race to reach the long lost antique.

I guess the story of Rise isn’t particularly bad.  It serves its purpose in that it gives proper motives for Lara to complete the various objectives she’s tasked with across the game.  I guess my main problem with it is that it’s not very unique.  The “reach the artifact before the bad guys” plot is of course the story of most of the Indiana Jones movies (all save Temple of Doom) which in turn has been used in almost all of the old Tomb Raider games and every single one of the Uncharted games.  That might seem like an odd thing to take issue with, but I enjoyed that the 2013 reboot story differed from this archetype and instead focused on a group of survivors trying to endure and escape a cursed island.  It was a welcome change of pace.

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The lack of originality is also weighed down by the fact that the characters just aren’t very interesting this time around.  Lara is accompanied by a returning character from the 2013 game, but here he’s really just sort of “there” from time to time.  He doesn’t do much interesting and nothing about his character or his relationship with Lara are developed further.  As Trinity gets closer to the Divine Source, Lara makes an alliance with a native group that are trying to protect the secrets of the artifact, but I can’t say anything was particularly engaging about them, either.  They merely fill the “native tribe resisting a powerful invading force” slot that these types of stories have.  I also didn’t really care all that much for the villains.  While the secrets of the shadowy Trinity group could have been interesting to unravel, we don’t actually learn anything about them.  Instead, the villains are a mercenary group that serve as the enforcement arm of the organization.  There is some interpersonal drama between the two leaders of this rival group, a brother and sister, but, again, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about how their relationship plays out.  The entire story is pretty predictable, and as a consequence, I was neither invested nor intrigued in seeing the resolution, as I had already worked everything out in my head.

Fortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider really shines in its technical feats.  The environments are huge, but nonetheless filled with a gorgeous amount of detail.  The outdoor landscapes teem with lush foliage and striking terrain, and the enclosed areas are no less impressive.  Particle effects were particularly eye catching and put to good use to fill the screen with snowflakes, ash, ember, and the like during the appropriate scenes.  Fire effects are also really impressive, both visually and for the way fire spreads through surrounding structures during certain sequences.  And being a Lara Croft adventure, often entire levels will begin to collapse in spectacular fashion as Lara makes a mad dash to safety.  I think the visual appeal on display was what ultimately made the game stand out to me, which might seem like a shallow thing to say, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little bit of high-tech eye candy.

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The original series of Tomb Raider games could probably be described as a mixture of acrobatic platforming, with Lara jumping, tumbling, and swinging her way through ancient ruins, and puzzle solving to overcome environmental obstructions (either manmade or the result of natural obstacles) rounded out with some action sequences.  A major criticism of the 2013 Tomb Raider from long time fans of the series was that it significantly rebalanced this mix of gameplay toward being more about action and shooting, with the puzzle solving almost completely relegated into optional side missions.  More or less, the same is true of Rise.  I think the game is about a 50/50 split of acrobatic platforming (similar to the old games) and action shooting segments.  There is almost no puzzle solving to be found in the main quest of the game.  Like the last game, there are secret “tombs” whose entrances are hidden throughout the game’s sprawling outdoor areas, and these tombs serve as a kind of side mission which contain puzzles that Lara must solve to earn a reward at the end of the ordeal.  While many long time fans may lament the lack of puzzles in the main mission sequence of the game, I will say that, to Rise’s credit, the optional tombs seemed far more intricate and lengthy to me than in the previous game, and the items that were earned by completing them always seemed highly worthwhile.

It’s no secret that the newly rebooted Tomb Raider series has taken cues from Uncharted when it comes to the design of its action sequences, and naturally one can’t help but compare this game to Naughty Dog’s series.  Action sequences during the main missions of the game are often linear in nature, with the player constantly being funneled along a straightforward path composed of sequential areas where enemy encounters are staged.  I will say that I probably prefer the action in these new Tomb Raider games to that of Uncharted.  While it’s clearly a follower not a leader in this aspect, I find the enemy encounters in both the 2013 game and Rise to be far more satisfying than Uncharted’s design philosophy of spamming the player with waves of bullet sponge enemies, as they inspire me to be far more thoughtful in my offensive approach.

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However, unlike the Uncharted games, Rise isn’t purely a linear “rollercoaster ride” type game.  While the main missions are highly linear in nature, in between these missions Lara has freedom to roam around and explore a series of large interconnected areas that make up the game’s overworld.  In these areas, Lara can search for hidden tombs, take on side missions, root around for collectibles, and she can collect crafting items by hunting animals and gathering plants.  Pleasantly, I felt that these big open areas gave the game a bigger sense of adventure than the Uncharted series.

New to Rise of the Tomb Raider is a crafting system that wasn’t present in the 2013 game.  There are a wide variety of crafting items that can be collected in a number of ways (see above), and these items can be used to unlock new abilities for Lara, as well as craft ammo, grenades, and health packs on-the-fly.  On-the-fly crafting works simply by holding down the button associated with a specific object.  So, for instance, if you have the bow equipped, you can craft arrows simply by holding down the button that you press to fire the bow (the right trigger of the controller).  If you have the requisite crafting items in your inventory, a meter will appear on screen that will fill up to complete the crafting action.  You’ll often need to do this in the heat of battle to generate more ammo, especially for the bow, since arrows usually aren’t dropped by the enemy.  I think the game wants you to spend time exploring the large open areas of the game to hunt animals and gather plants for these crafting items, but I generally never found myself having to go out of my way to stock up on these.  If this whole system sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s very similar to the crafting system used in The Last of Us.  Considering these games already draw enough comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I was more than slightly amused that they just went ahead and wholesale copied the crafting system that Naughty Dog introduced in The Last of Us.  

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While I’m sympathetic to the bristling of long-time Tomb Raider fans at the action-oriented approach of the rebooted series, I think I’ve grown to enjoy these games a lot, and, in fact, I find that I prefer them over the Uncharted series that inspired them.  For many of the reasons I’ve outlined above, Tomb Raider just feels like a more substantial adventure than Uncharted.  It may not have the best characters or story, but Tomb Raider really does present a world that feels dangerous and alive.  Meanwhile, the Uncharted games feel more like a theme park attraction to me, where the focus is more on cinematic heroism that is all smoke and mirrors.   And I hate to sound so down on Uncharted, as I really liked Uncharted 2, but I think Uncharted 3 left me with some disdain for the series, and I’m looking forward to see if Uncharted 4 can bring me back around.

Putting Uncharted aside, however, I do wonder about the future of the Tomb Raider series.  I really enjoyed this game, but I don’t think you can say that it is anything but an incremental improvement over its predecessor.  If this series wants to sustain a future, I think it’s going to need to evolve a lot more in the next iteration.  This series has already seen one short-lived revival with the Legends-Anniversary-Underworld games, and I fear that this latest round of the series is on the same trajectory toward stagnation, which I think would be a real shame.

Halloween Gaming Finale: Stasis

The final game of The Maximum Utmost’s Halloween Gaming for 2015 is here!  Stasis is a point-and-click adventure game that released just a short while ago on Steam.  An isometric adventure game with “inventory”-type puzzles, Stasis leans heavily on a disturbing and shock-ridden atmosphere to lay claim to its horror roots.  The game was actually a fair bit longer than I expected, and that’s why, unfortunately, this post didn’t make my Halloween deadline for it.

In Stasis, the player wakes up as John Maracheck, a man who has been in cryostasis for an unknown amount of time.  The last thing John remembers is entering stasis with his wife and daughter as they embarked on a vacation to Jupiter.  John now finds himself in orbit of Neptune in a derelict research vessel that has been overrun by the vile products of the human experimentation that had been carried out by the now deceased and slaughtered crew.  Setting out to find the whereabouts of his wife and daughter as well as a means of escape, he’ll have to face the grotesque abominations of science that call the ship home.

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Stasis is heavily inspired by an old isometric PC adventure game called Sanitarium.  I think when most people think of old isometric PC games, they usually associate this type of perspective with RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Diablo, Icewind Dale, etc., but Sanitarium was interesting in that it was actually a point-and-click adventure game in the vein of Monkey Island or Sam and Max.  It was a game that lacked combat, but instead focused on puzzle solving mainly around creative problem solving using items (and combinations of items) found in the environment.  I’ve never played Sanitarium, but after reading about it, it actually sounds pretty cool, so I may give it a shot sometime.  

Stasis shares a lot of common factors with its inspiration.  The gameplay is focused on finding items and figuring out how to use them to overcome obstacles that block progression.  And the stories of each game kick off in a somewhat similar way with protagonists who are “waking up”  in a setting where things have gone terribly awry without any memories of how they got there.

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But the key commonality between Stasis and Sanitarium is their focus on psychological horror (which in some ways is a natural consequence of the puzzle-focused gameplay chosen).  There are no enemies in this game to fight or run and hide from like in most other horror games.  There’s no combat of any sort, and there’s no enemies that will ever really kill the character in this game.  It’s possible to die, but this happens only occasionally when the player screws up a puzzle, rather than it being the result of an action actively done to the protagonist.  Instead, the tension and dread of this game originate from the intensely disturbing and unnerving imagery and scenarios that play out as the player progress through the starship.  There’s some really shocking and depraved stuff that the player will see during this game, and these disturbing discoveries are the main driver of the horror aspects of this game.  I found that the game definitely delivered when it came to macabre and grotesque scenes that I won’t forget for some time.  

But the focus on shocks rather than scares is both what makes the game unique, but also what leaves it being rather uneven and poorly paced at times.  Considering he’s on a ship that was overrun by mutated creatures that slaughtered the crew, it’s odd that John Maracheck never really finds himself in a situation where he directly encounters these monsters.  He certainly witnesses the gruesome aftermath of the massacre of the crew, as well as the perverse experiments that were being performed by the ship’s depraved science team.  But I never really felt like he was in danger.  I understand that this is a game focused on puzzle solving rather than action and combat.  But as I felt that John was never in any real danger, I think it created a disconnect between my reactions to the game’s events and John’s increasingly panicked and emotional state.

To elaborate further, I found the character of John Maracheck to be frustratingly intrusive sometimes, especially toward the end of the game.  When arriving at an unsettling scene, I would begin to start taking in the grotesquery that I was witnessing, only to be interrupted by John loudly panicking with weeping and wailing and insipid cries of “How could they do this!?!?!” and other such trite comments.  Given his situation, I perfectly understand why he is so emotional throughout the game.  My problem is that I find that his reactions disrupt my reactions to the disturbing things that play out in this game.  They’re more distractions to me as I try to fathom and process exactly what it is I’m seeing.  Imagine if Jill or Chris started freaking out everytime they came across a zombie or some new horror in the Spencer Mansion.  I think it might have been a better choice to have John be a silent protagonist or to only give his feedback during the game’s particularly troubling scenes.

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The other issue I have is that the game is rather uneven and poorly paced.  There is a large stretch in the middle of the game where nothing particularly interesting happens.  This occurs in the crew and medical quarters.  I think the player is supposed to be appalled by all the dead and desecrated crew found in this section, but it just fell flat for me.  The game starts picking up in a big way when the player reaches the labs, but, unfortunately, I think the long, unnecessary, and forgettable middle sections made me grow tired of the game just as events were starting to pick up toward the climax.  As a result, I was beginning to feel that the game was overly long during the parts I should have been the most engaged with it.

Another major pacing complaint that I have is that the game is filled with TONS of text logs.  I really really hate to sound like some sort of illiterate here, but I think a lot of these text logs needed to be trimmed out.  Almost all of them are overly long with no concision to be found.  And more than a fair few of them are filled with mundane details about the crew that don’t really enhance the story in any meaningful way.  I understand that the writer of the game probably wanted to establish the crew as real people so that the player would feel terrible for what happened to them.  But I really felt that all the tedious details that were given to the lives of some of the dead crew just disrupted the pacing of the game.  Unfortunately, the game establishes very early on that sometimes these text logs contain important pieces of information that are necessary to progress, so I felt compelled to read everything I came across, regardless of my dwindling patience for it.

That said, there’s some really great and disturbing material in these text logs, particularly when the player reaches the labs. And the writer(s) actually do a good job of slowly revealing the extent of the depravity that was occurring on the ship via these logs.  But I feel like at least 50% of it could be cut out without detriment to the player’s understanding of the story.   

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While I have issues with the back loaded nature of Stasis, I do think the people behind the game succeeded at what they set out to do with the game.  It also makes me very curious to try Sanitarium.  For players looking for a traditional survival horror experience, I don’t this is the game for them.  Afterall, the monsters are very much a detached part of this experience.  But if you like point-and-click adventure games with dense atmosphere, I think you’ll jive with Stasis despite its pacing flaws.  I found the puzzles to be well-designed, not too easy, but not too hard.  The solutions weren’t always immediately apparent, but they always made sense to me, and I was never so stumped and frustrated that I needed to consult a walkthrough.  I just feel that with some trimming or tweaking of the less impactful parts of the game, Stasis could have been much more of an indie gem.

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn

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The explosion of the indie gaming scene over the last couple of years has led to the popularization of a handful of new genres like survival games, run-and-hide horror games, “walking simulators”, etc.  And every once in awhile these new types of games manage to pierce into the highly homogenized world of $60 boxed releases.  As a game, Until Dawn easily falls in line with the “interactive movie” style adventure game that was popularized by The Walking Dead.  There’s less a focus on puzzle-solving and more a focus on rich storytelling that gives the player some choices to make in the game which ostensibly controls the trajectory of the plot.

Until Dawn can best be described as a game made in the mold of a teen slasher movie.  The template of the slasher movie is an interesting thing for gaming to broach.  The vast majority of gaming is focused on powerful lone heroes overcoming massive quantities of enemies.  Even most horror games are made in this mold with protagonists like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Isaac Clarke, Harry Mason, etc. forcing their way through armies of horrible abominations that are meant to be scarier than the average video game enemy, but nonetheless go down in great numbers to the protagonist.  The slasher film, on the other hand, is an inversion of this.  You have a group of protagonists that are facing a single overwhelming and resilient enemy who will inevitably succeed in thinning out the heroes to some extent.  So as someone who has been playing games all his life and is interested in seeing creative new directions take form in this realm, Until Dawn had my interests piqued.

Until Dawn focuses on a group of eight teenagers who have come together for a night of partying on the secluded Blackwood Mountain.  The mountain is owned by the parents of one of the teens, Josh Washington, who we’re told (and shown) are exorbitantly wealthy.  This is no cabin retreat, rather it is a massive lodge that once served as a high-end hotel before the mountain was abandoned by its previous owner.  This same previous owner also ran a sanitorium and mining operation on the mountaintop until the mine collapsed.  The sanitorium and mine are now abandoned.  And one year prior to this particular party, Josh’s sisters went missing on the mountaintop, and he’s throwing the party in their honor.  Can you see where all this is starting to go?

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The only way up and down the mountain from the lodge is by cable car.  And of course, the cable cars become cut off as an escape option, and the teens find themselves assailed by a murderous “mystery man”, as well as facing the dangerous secrets of the mountain’s dark past.  You trade-off controlling each teen as the story dictates.  Sam is the closest to what I would consider to being the main character, as she’s the most morally-centered and shows the most focused-thinking.  She’s also the only female character that doesn’t turn into a whimpering mess when faced with harrowing situations.  Aside from her, the teens mostly follow very well established tropes.  There’s the funny guy, the funny guy’s girl next door love interest, the athlete, the class president, the hot girl, etc.  But I thought there was a small amount of subversion of these tropes.  For instance, I found Matt the Athlete, who would in other forms of this template be the most self-centered of the characters, to be the most reasonable and diplomatic in the face of interpersonal conflict.  Meanwhile, the more academically-accomplished and intelligent Mike and Emily are the most manipulative and cruel of the protagonists, far from the meek, socially-inept nerds that they would be in other uses of this trope.  And the “hot girl” Jess, who to the others appears shallow and superficial, shows real depth in moments of self-reflection and confessions of her insecurities.

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Over the course of the story, we see conflict and betrayal as well as selflessness and loyalty evolve in these characters.  Some might call these individuals “flawed”, but I’m not sure that I would use that exact wording.  Rather, I just think they’re very realistic.  They can be cruel to each other, they make mistakes, but they also have redeeming qualities and moments.  The game features a “celebrity” voice cast led by Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. I’m usually very skeptical and annoyed by big name voice actors, since most of the time they don’t take gaming seriously and do poor jobs.  But I have to say that this crew mostly does quite well in their roles.  

Choice is something that developers have been enamored with for quite some time now.  After all, video games are an interactive medium, so it’s logical that players should have some ability to influence the course of events that occurs in a game’s plot.  Unfortunately while this is a great ideal, in the real world it’s a rather hard thing to implement probably because having significantly deviating paths in a game requires the production of a lot of additional content by the developer.  As a consequence, most choices in games tend to work like little diamonds.  The player’s choices can have some impact on the unfolding of immediate short-term events, but the story is set up such that in the long-term the divergent story paths find a way to come back to the same point.  I think most gamers have caught on to this, but developers still love to use the concept of highly consequential “choices” as a selling point for their games.

And Until Dawn is no exception considering its genre.  The game begins by introducing the player to the butterfly effect and explaining how their choices will result in significantly diverging events in the game’s story.  There’s also a menu in the pause screen that shows you the critical determinant choices and actions the player has made.  I’ve only played through the game once, so at this time I can’t really say how radically different the story can play out.  But as far as I know, the three acts play out roughly the same regardless, with the first act introducing us to the characters and setting up the rest of the night’s events, the second act sees the slasher’s plans set in motion, and the third act brings together all the mysteries surrounding the teens’ ordeal.  There are pre-scripted parts where a specific teen can die if the wrong decisions or actions happen, but, as I understand, that doesn’t change the story beats.  I think it just changes which characters are involved in each event (and their collective survival odds), not which events happen.  But like I said, I really can’t say for sure, as I haven’t exhaustively explored the game’s many divergent paths.  

But what about Until Dawn as a scary game?  After all, this is a Halloween Gaming post.  I have to say Until Dawn probably isn’t one of the scariest games I’ve played.  It does have an appropriate atmosphere and mood for the story it’s trying to tell, but I was never really spooked by it.  There were a few exceptions that did really rattle me, though.  In particular, the abandoned sanitorium that the player must visit really set my teeth on edge for some reason.  It might have just been the mood I was in at the time, and maybe a function of how many drinks I had that night.  I did worry about the teens survival, but it wasn’t really dread or fear I felt for them.  It was just that I liked these characters and wanted to see their stories play out.  I managed to keep all the teens alive until the climax of the game, and the first time one died I was so disappointed with myself that I turned the game off in anger at myself.  

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One thing I will say about this game is that it likes its jump scares.  This is particularly true in the first act of the game where there’s really not a lot of danger, and the focus is on introducing the protagonists, their relationships with each other, and the mountain location that they find themselves on.  This part of the game, in particular, has a lot of cheap “BOO!” moments even though there’s really not much threat to them.  I suspect this is because the developers didn’t want the player to forget that they were in a horror game considering how peaceful things were at the start.  I have to say, the jump scares got kind of annoying after a while.  

One thing I did like about the game was the fixed camera that it employs.  It made me nostalgic for the survival horror games of old that used this perspective, even though this game isn’t survival horror, itself.  I definitely think the camera was a big part of the tension I felt in the sanitorium that I mentioned above.

Although I didn’t necessarily find the game to be among the scariest I’ve ever played, I do think I really enjoyed it in the end.  It does have a good atmosphere and mood and creates a cast of characters that are compelling to watch and play.  The third act goes in a direction that I felt was less interesting than what was set up earlier in the game, but I still found myself suitably invested in the game’s climax and seeing the protagonists through to the end of the story.  I actually would really like to talk about the story and characters more in-depth, so I hope to get a spoiler-tagged post on this game out in November, after I’ve finished my final Halloween gaming post.

Thanks for reading!

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