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QUBE 2!

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I love puzzle games, but that hasn’t always been the case.  When I was much younger, the term “puzzle game” was more synonymous with falling block games, that is to say games that relied on the old Tetris formula in which the player’s goal is to arrange pieces of junk falling from the sky according to some idiosyncratic rule that causes the mess to disappear.  I really liked Tetris, but I also got it for free with my Game Boy. It simply never crossed my mind to use the limited opportunities that a youngster has to get new video games on the numerous clones of Tetris that proliferated after its breakout success. Those types of games simply didn’t offer enough content in comparison to the action-adventure games that I usually picked up.

Somewhere along the line all that changed.  The “puzzle game” term was commandeered by a different game and its numerous clones.  That game, of course, was Portal, and it completely reinvigorated what had become an utterly sleepy genre.  The term suddenly was used less to describe games about the strategy and reflexes of arranging falling blocks, and more to describe games in which the player sets about solving puzzles built into the environment of the levels they are meant to explore.  And after Portal, there was a boom in indie groups taking advantage of new digital storefronts to release new games in the genre. One game that often stands out in my mind as emblematic of this boom time was QUBE, a game that could easily be described as a Portal clone, although a good game nonetheless, worth the time of anyone interested in such games.  QUBE sort of came and went, and it seemed like it didn’t quite make the same lasting impression as some of the other big name puzzle games of the time, which is why I was happy when a sequel, QUBE 2, was released earlier this year.

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QUBE 2, like the game before it, is set inside a massive structure made of white cubes, ominously implied to be of alien origin.  During the beginnings steps of the story, the player discovers and equips a strange, technologically-advanced glove that allows them to manipulate the properties of the cubic building blocks of the surroundings.  This is the primary means through which the player interacts with the environment. The glove can confer functionality to specific cubes with each functionality having a specific color coding. Red cubes expand outward, laterally from the surface in which they are embedded, to create steps or possibly obstructions.  Blue cubes act like “ejectors”, forcefully expelling the player or any other objects that touch their surfaces in the opposite direction. Finally, green cubes become detached from the structure, creating a moveable object that can be used, for instance, to weigh down switches or act as stepping stones.

These are the only glove functions that are introduced to the player.  With such a limited number of ways to manipulate individual blocks, I was initially worried that QUBE 2 might be too simplistic mechanically for a large variety of complex puzzles.  Ultimately, however, I found that the game had a good ramp in terms of difficulty and complexity. While the player may only have three “powers”, the game continually introduces new elements and features to the environment that keep the basic formula of the puzzles from stagnating.  And while I felt the game started off maybe too easy, the puzzles progress through a fair difficulty curve, and I think the puzzle design offered a very satisfying challenge without ever becoming unreasonably obtuse.

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The first QUBE was completely devoid of story, and that’s not an exaggeration.  As far as I can recall, the main character never spoke, was spoken too, or encountered other characters.  He/she/it simply moved through the cube structures solving puzzles to progress. I think the game may have been criticized a bit unfairly for this, as the closest point of comparison most people have for this game is Portal, and many people play Portal for the story first, puzzles second.  Eventually, a “director’s cut” version of the game was released that included new story elements, but I’ve never gone back to play this version, so I can provide no comment on it.

I can say, however, that QUBE 2 puts a fair bit of effort into its story from the get go.  The player takes control of Amelia Cross, a woman who awakens on a desolated planet that has been overtaken by the eponymous alien cubes which have self-assembled into enormous structures that dot the world’s surface.  Taking refuge in one of these structures, Amelia begins to explore its inner workings and sets about uncovering the true nature of the cubes and their potential as friend or foe to humankind. The story is metered out in the “radio play” style with all interactions between Amelia and the other characters being carried out over radio transmissions as the player goes about their business.  I thought the actual plot that unfolds was merely decent. It’s not bad by any means, but for people who have read or watched a lot of science fiction, it will probably be easy to figure out where the story is heading. But as predictable as it may be, the story doesn’t really get in the way of the overall adventure, and I felt it gave some coloring to the experience that increased immersion, meaning I don’t feel that it was a purely perfunctory element of the game.  But it’s important to understand that for the kind of person who plays Portal for the story and jokes and doesn’t really care about the challenge of puzzle solving, this game probably won’t be particularly engaging.

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Speaking of immersion, I thought QUBE 2 was visually stunning in its own humble way.  I feel like that’s kind of a weird thing to say about a game where the player spends their time exploring environments entirely made out of white cubes.  But the image quality is really sharp, and lighting is used well to create texture and dynamism in the world. Later on in the game, bits of nature and greenery begin to encroach on the otherwise sterile environments, adding a small bit of satisfying diversity.  There’s not a huge amount of variety to the setting, but I never felt bored or tired of the aesthetic, which is not something I can say of the first QUBE.

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QUBE 2 is interesting because its predecessor is so quaint in comparison.  QUBE was a simple $15 puzzle game released in the wake of Portal’s popularity.  It was a cool game, but I never really thought the core concept could carry more than one title in a series.  The team behind this game apparently had a completely different idea, however, and really doubled down on what they had.  With QUBE 2, they took their humble indie game and blew it up into a significantly more expansive and polished product. QUBE 2 has more extensive content, slicker visuals, and a significantly more substantial story.  I find it to be the often too rare kind of sequel that stands completely on its own, and in no way requires experience with the prior game in the series to fully enjoy. Personally, I often tend to be compulsively driven to play games sequentially in a series (i.e., I can’t play sequels until I play their predecessors).  But with QUBE 2, I have no hesitance about recommending newcomers start here, and only tackle the original game if they are left wanting more.

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Stories Untold!

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Stories Untold is a series of four vignettes tinged with horror and modelled after classic sci-fi anthology series such as The Outer Limits and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.  Each vignette is superficially a standalone experience with the commonality that they each feature stories in which the player interacts with an array of (by today’s standards) vintage electronics such as classic microcomputers, microfiche archives, radios, televisions, etc.  The exception is the final episode which manages to tie together the seemingly unrelated events of the preceding chapters into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

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Of the four episodes, I felt the first was easily the strongest.  It’s also the only episode that I felt leant deeply into the horror genre.  In this chapter, the player is rooted at a home desk with a “Futuro” microcomputer, which is essentially a fictionalized analogue of machines like the Amiga and Commodore 64.  Loaded up onto the system is The House Abandon, a text adventure that is essentially a game within a game. The entire episode is spent at this desk playing this one text adventure game.  The House Abandon begins as a seemingly warm and fuzzy story about returning to a childhood home, but eventually reveals itself to have a more sinister side. All of a sudden, the game turns a dark corner and begins distorting the in-game reality surrounding the microcomputer.  While this might sound gimmicky and a little cheesy, I found it to be executed surprisingly well. The metafictional interplay between the reality of the humble desk and Futuro computer setup and the dark residential setting of The House Abandon is one of the most creative mechanisms of producing tension and foreboding that I’ve seen in a game, and the creepiness of the experience left a distinct impression on me.

The subsequent episodes, however, were not quite as effective in creating the atmosphere and mood befitting a horror game.  The second and third episodes are more sci-fi oriented. Instead of a cursed computer game, the second episode involves the player operating lab equipment in a government research facility, and the third episode takes place in a radio outpost for an expedition above the Arctic Circle.  Horror is subjective, of course, and while I could see how someone might consider these chapters to be eerie, I simply did not come away with that impression.

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The fourth episode diverges significantly from the rest and serves as a capstone for the disparate stories that came before it.  A more grounded tale, eschewing supernatural and sci-fi elements, the final chapter is, in a certain way, the most chilling episode and deals with tragedy and deeply personal torment.  Not scary in the traditional sense of the oft-surreal horror genre, Stories Untold concludes with an upsetting story of loss and regret, real world horror if you will.  Beyond that, the fourth episode manages to color the entire experience with an interesting perspective that attempts to elevate the game above the sum of its parts.  The blurring of boundaries between layers of metafictional reality is a theme that permeates throughout, and this peculiar aspect of the individual vignettes serves as an important hook for the conclusion.

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Surprisingly, the text adventure aspect manages to find its way into the story beyond the initial episodes.  Of the actual interactive parts of the game, I found these segments to be the most enjoyable and interesting.  Text adventures have a bad reputation of obtuseness due to how frustrating it can sometimes be to figure out the right wording of commands to enter into the text parser, but I didn’t find Stories Untold to be too much of a hassle in this regard.  The other various tasks the player is given, on the other hand, can sometimes feel like busy work to fill in time between story beats. One part of the game has the player manipulating the various buttons, knobs, and levers of a microfiche display, and this activity was especially tedious.

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Ultimately, I have no strong feelings toward Stories Untold.  I can easily see that it’s competently designed with a well crafted story, but I simply did not resonate sharply with this game.  I chose this as a Halloween game after seeing it on a number of horror game recommendation lists, but, honestly, I personally have a hard time characterizing it as such.  The first episode featuring the cursed computer game was a great experience, but the remainder of the game felt like a different direction tonally. To me, the hook of the game is more for those interested in ‘80s nostalgia than it is for enthusiasts of the horror genre.  (Which is ironic, because I felt that one of the main themes of the game was that nostalgia is a coping mechanism that deters us from facing reality.) As a ‘90s kid, I have little attachment to this subject matter, which is probably why the game didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me.

Little Nightmares!

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Each year for the Halloween season, I try to dedicate my playtime and writing to a selection of spooky games that I’ve always wanted to try.  This time I’ve been really excited for these Halloween posts all year, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten a bit ahead on my plans for once, so I’m optimistic that this might be the best Halloween on the blog yet.  Previous Halloween posts are all collected on this tab. This year, I’m starting off with Little Nightmares, a creepy adventure game that released fairly recently on basically every modern gaming platform.

A small child shrouded in a yellow raincoat awakens at sea on a mysterious ship filled with danger and foreboding.  As she begins to explore her surroundings, she finds other children in cages and begins getting glimpses of the grotesque giants that crew the dreary vessel.  The quest that follows pits the defenseless protagonist against the strange appetites of the pitiless but hapless denizens of this otherworldly domain.

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Little Nightmares immediately draws comparison to Limbo and its pseudo-sequel Inside.  It’s easy to feel like the former was inspired by the latter. All three are puzzle platformer games about a defenseless youth trying to survive in a strange and creepy world.  Little Nightmares does, however, manage to differentiate itself from the other two with a few key new ideas. Most importantly, while Limbo and Inside are essentially sidescrollers that confine movement to a 2D plane, Little Nightmares offers movement in fully 3D environments.

Furthermore, while the game starts off mostly about solving environmental puzzles to progress in a similar fashion to Inside and Limbo, later portions of the game become heavily focused on stealth and evasion.  The protagonist of Little Nightmares is a small creature in a world of giants. Everything in the world she is travelling through is oversized, both objects and people, very much like Jack and the Beanstalk. Thus as the game progresses, gameplay becomes less about Limbo-style puzzles and more about sneaking through this jumbo-sized world while evading, hiding, and sometimes needing to outrun the ponderous creatures that view the child as nothing more than a pest to be squashed.

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Little Nightmares is scary like a fairy tale, not necessarily suspenseful in a traditional sense, but creepy and unsettling in how it contrasts innocence with monstrosity.  The monsters the player faces are grotesque and unpleasant to look at, and their designs emphasize themes of decadence and depraved overindulgence. These giant beings don’t feel like highly threatening apex predators, as they’re rather hapless and clumsy at times.  But the moments where the girl is discovered and pursued by these beings are tense thrills as she scrambles to find a safe hiding spot. I don’t really feel any reservations in calling this a horror game, even if it is an offbeat amongst the genre.

And while the game is not particularly scary in the same sense as most horror games, the final monster encounter was a surprising exception.  While I tend to find that most horror games become less scary as the story progresses and I become more comfortable in the setting, Little Nightmares managed to end on a high note.  The final section has an amazing sense of atmosphere and dread, but it was also regrettably the shortest part of the game. After seeing how capable the designers of this game were at creating such an unnerving experience, I kind of wish they had imbued earlier parts of the game with this kind of atmosphere.

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However, my principle issue with Little Nightmares is the brevity of content.  The game is roughly three hours long. I don’t necessarily think a game is bad if it’s short, but I do consider it a negative when a game feels short, and Little Nightmares definitely felt short to me.  I thought the game really only scratched the surface of the concept and world it introduced.  The ending felt like it came on way too abruptly. The final area of the game should have been a bit longer, and the game could have really used one more major monster to encounter.  Frustrating the issue is that there is a $10 DLC pack that offers three additional chapters to the game’s original five and features a different character from the original story. (I do not own the DLC, so I can’t comment on its quality.)

I like Little Nightmares.  I thought it was a cool game.  But for the reasons above, I think it’s a little hard to give the game an unqualified recommendation.  I find it hard to provide justification for purchasing the game at full price, and I would also recommend playing Inside, a similar game, first, as I thought it was a considerably better game, although it doesn’t lean as much into the horror genre.  Little Nightmares is a good Steam (or PSN, eshop, etc.) sale game, interesting and fun and worth playing, but not necessarily worth paying full price, especially when the DLC is factored in.

Into the Breach!

From the makers of FTL: Faster than Light comes Into the Breach, a peculiar kind of strategy game that is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before.  In the far flung future, global flooding has left only four small islands as the last habitable land mass on Earth. Civilization continues on until a race of giant subterranean insects known as the Vek begin attacking the citizens of these new nations.  After a long war, the remnants of humanity are driven to extinction with the exception of the last squadron of mech pilots who open a breach in the timeline to travel to the beginning of the Vek incursion and relive the war as many times as it takes to secure the safety of mankind.

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Each mission takes place on small, randomly generated maps that fill up an 8×8 grid of tiles.  The player is in command of a squad of three mechs that drop down onto each map and must defend cities from the onslaught of Vek emerging from underground.  Each mission requires the player to hold out and survive for roughly 4 or 5 rounds before the Vek retreat. As such, Into the Breach is really a strategy game that is more about defense than offense.  Whereas strategy games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars are mostly about eliminating all enemies in a given mission or capturing an objective defended by said enemies, there is no requirement to annihilate the Vek in Into the Breach.  Missions are failed only when a certain number of cities are destroyed.

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The acute scope and defensive nature of the game result in something that is a hybrid of puzzle and turn-based strategy elements. The puzzle-like nature of the game is strongly reinforced by the idiosyncratic way in which turns play out.  In most strategy games, the player and opponent alternate moving and committing actions with their units.  Not so in Into the Breach. Each round begins with the Vek moving into position and then indicating which tiles they plan to attack.  After this phase, the player is allowed to move and take actions with their mechs.  Following the player’s go, the round concludes with the enemies attacking the tiles they are targeting.  

Since the player can see where the Vek are going to attack, they can effectively prioritize which enemy to focus damage on.  Essentially, the player has the opportunity to sabotage the Vek before they can do anything. The Vek that are targeting cities are generally top priority in most sound strategies.  The best thing about Into the Breach, however, is that the player is allowed to operate creatively in how they handle the situation. As an example, perhaps there is a Vek that is preparing to attack a city, and the player isn’t able to deliver enough damage to it to take it out this turn.  However, most mechs have weapons that have some sort of knockback effect, so you can use that to knock the Vek away from the target. That seems simple enough, but it gets even more elaborate. Perhaps there is already an enemy on the tile you’ve knocked the first Vek into. The collision will do damage to both Vek, possibly destroying both.  Or perhaps something even more interesting can happen, if there isn’t a second Vek already there. The first Vek is already committed to attacking the same tile relative to its new position. What this means is that if you knock the enemy 1 tile to the east, then the tile it’s targeting will shift 1 tile to the east. If there is an enemy on that tile, the Vek you moved will deal damage to this bystander.  

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The complex ways in which you can manipulate enemies makes Into the Breach feel like a puzzle game at times.  Beyond the knockback effect I mentioned above, there are a large number of unlockable mechs that have special abilities that lead to even more strategically interesting effects.  One of my personal favorites is a mech that can kick up dust storms on the tiles it attacks. These dust storms blind any enemy standing in them and render them unable to attack. This can be paired with another mech that confers electrical charge to all of the dust storms on the map, so anything standing in those storms takes damage each turn.

This is what really hooked me on Into the Breach.  Experimenting with the various mechs and their abilities and discovering the ways in which their abilities can augment each other keeps the game from ever feeling stale.  It is absolutely like a puzzle game.  There are times when I would be in a difficult situation, on the verge of hitting game over, and I would spend several minutes going through the various possible moves in my head until finally I would have an epiphany and realize a way I could save myself from the situation.  Of course, it’s immensely satisfying when this happens.

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Like its predecessor, FTL, Into the Breach can be considered a roguelike game.  That’s a bit of a nebulous term these days, but in this case it means that if the player gets a game over screen then all their progress is lost, and they must begin the game from the beginning.  In the game’s story, this plays out as the mechs opening another temporal breach and time travelling back to the start of the war. I had mixed feelings about this when I started Into the Breach. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed games like this, including Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, but lately I’ve started to feel that this formula just isn’t for me anymore.  The issue is really that I don’t have as much free time as I once did, and as roguelikes make you replay a lot of the early content in the game many times over, I worry that these games really aren’t the best use of my limited free time.

Fortunately, I feel like Into the Breach managed to narrowly sidestep this concern.  There are a few reasons to which I attribute this. First, you reach a point where you can start on any of the game’s four islands.  Initially, only the first island is available to play, but once you beat that island, the second island will be unlocked in all future instances that you start the game over.  The same goes for the third and fourth island. Ultimately, you can play the islands in any order you please, and the final mission becomes available once you clear two islands in a given run (although there is a reason not to go the the final mission until three or four islands are cleared).  Each island has sufficiently unique mechanics that choosing a different island to start on each time keeps the game from feeling stale.

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It also helps that there is a wide variety of unlockable mechs that promote experimentation each time the game is started from the beginning.  New squads of mechs are unlocked by completing special achievements in the game (similar to how starships were unlocked in FTL). Each squad comes with its own unique gimmick.  The squad that is initially available at the start of the game are the Rift Walkers and are fairly straightforward, focused almost purely on direct damage dealing and some knockback effects.  But then, for instance, there is another squad, the Flame Behemoths, that focuses on turning tiles into hazards by setting them on fire. My two favorite squads are the aforementioned Rusting Hulks, which are built around taking advantage of dust storms and electrical electrical damage, and the Zenith Guard, which make use of energy weapons that do chain damage to groups of adjacent enemies.  There is a good variety of strategy represented by the different squads, and I feel like everyone tends to find their own favorite. It’s also just fun to experiment.

Into the Breach has a unique approach toward difficulty and victory.  At the beginning of a run, a player chooses to start on any island they’ve completed so far.  Each time an island is cleared out, the difficulty is increased for the next island the player chooses.  After completing only two islands, the final mission appears on the map. The player can then proceed to this last mission or complete one or both of the remaining islands.  Thus the game can be won in a two, three, or four island victory. Since difficulty increases based on the number of islands cleared, the two island victory is the easiest to achieve, while the four island victory is hardest.

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I’ve honestly never managed to beat this game’s predecessor, FTL.  I’ve made it to the final mission twice in FTL, and after the second time I realized that I would probably never be able to beat the game, simply because the final battle was so incredibly difficult.  Into the Breach has a far more attainable ending, and the final mission is not nearly as insurmountable. In a way, this was a relief, because it meant I could obtain some closure on the game, but I can’t deny that it also felt a bit anticlimactic compared to the awe-inspiring final boss of FTL.

I actually managed to beat the final mission on my first try at it while going for a two island victory, but it was still a fair challenge.  At one point, I was only a few turns away from victory, when I suddenly hit a wall. As I sat there strategizing, it suddenly dawned on me that every move I could think of would result in my team of mechs getting wiped out.  Since I couldn’t see a way out, I was almost ready to resign myself to defeat, when I had a better idea. It was really late that night, and I settled on simply saving the game so I could come back with a fresh mind in the morning.  (You can save at any point in the game and pick back up where you left off.) I came back the next morning, stared at the game for about 10 minutes, and then like a bolt of lightning, I was suddenly struck by a set of moves that would let me survive.  With my persistence rewarded, I only had to survive a few more relatively easy turns before I attained victory.

Since then, I’ve also managed to achieve a three island victory.  Someday maybe I’ll come back to try at a four island victory, but for now, I’ve set Into the Breach aside to move on to other games on my stack.  In my post about Hollow Knight, I discussed how exciting and rare it is to find a game that isn’t merely just good, but is something that I truly love and hold in high regard as one of the reasons I enjoy gaming so much.  Amazingly, I’ve played two games back-to-back this year, Hollow Knight and Into the Breach, that met this lofty standard. Years from now when I reflect on why I love gaming, Into the Breach will be one of the reasons. I think it’s that good.

 

Eight Underrated Deals from the Steam Summer Sale: 2018 Edition

Each year when the Steam Summer Sale rolls around, I like to put together a quick list of recommendations for lesser known games that are going for really cheap prices.  One of the reasons for doing this is that I think sales like these are good opportunities for trying out underrated or rough around the edges games that you wouldn’t always take a chance on at higher prices.  A way to explore your tastes in games, if you will. I have two criteria to maintain the spirit of the list: 1) These are games that I (arbitrarily) feel are underrated or have been forgotten about, and 2) They have a price point no greater than $5 (USD).

This year, the list is coming in hot, since the summer sale started just as I was packing up to take off for a week long vacation (probably the longest vacation I’ve taken in forever).  The sale ends Thursday (7/5) at 1:00 PM EST, so I realize there’s not a lot of time left to consider these recommendations. I thought about not doing it this year, but I decided I wanted to keep up the tradition, since I’ve been doing these lists since 2014.  

I had a little more trouble writing the list this year because of the time constraint I found myself in, but also because the deals just don’t seem as good as they’ve been in past.  When searching for games to put on the list, several titles I thought would be going for under five bucks by now weren’t. In fact, I’m not entirely sure previous years’ lists are still valid, since I noticed that Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed from the 2015 list wasn’t even on sale at all this year!  Nonetheless, I still think you can grab most of the titles form the old lists fairly cheap, so I recommend looking over those too if you are interested.

2014 Recommendations

2015 Recommendations Part 1

2015 Recommendations Part 2

2016 Recommendations

2017 Recommendations

 

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Jazzpunk

$2.99

Jazzpunk was actually one of the first games I wrote about when I started this blog way back in 2014, and I think this is the first year that it’s finally hit a price point to qualify for this list.  Jazzpunk is more of an interactive comedy than a game. The game chronicles the missions of a secret agent codenamed Polyblank, who lives in a bizarre alternate Earth version of the Cold War. There’s not much challenge to it, rather you spend your time exploring the environment and discovering bizarre situations and odd mini-games to play.  The comedy relies heavily on non-sequitur and absurdism, so it can be hit or miss, and of course it will depend on your own sense of humor if you find it funny or not. I found it to be an amusing experience, at least.

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Pirate Pop Plus

$2.49

Pirate Pop Plus is a simple arcade-style game that is based on an old Japanese game called Pang.  I don’t imagine many people are familiar with Pang. I certainly wasn’t until I played Pirate Pop.  In Pirate Pop, you play as a little pirate guy who needs to clear the screen of these bubbles that bounce along the ground and deal damage to the player upon contact.  You do this by shooting upwards (and only upwards) at the bubbles. Each time you hit a bubble, it breaks up into smaller bubbles which are harder to hit, but also bounce lower to the ground which means they are also harder to dodge.  As the game progresses, the formula gets varied up with gimmicks like alternating directions of gravity. Pirate Pop is basically an arcade game, meaning you start at the first level each time you play and your goal is to beat your previous high score.  It definitely can be fun to play for short bursts when you don’t have a lot of time to play something more serious.

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Haunted: Halloween ’85

$1.19

Haunted was originally released as a homebrew NES cartridge and eventually a PC port was made available on Steam.  You play as a kid who wakes up from a nap to realize that he’s late for the Halloween dance at school. As he rushes to school, he discovers that his town has been taken over by monsters.  Part beat’em up, part platformer, Haunted plays like a real NES, while most games that claim to be modern NES games play more like idealized versions of games from that era. While it can definitely be fun, it is also crude and frustrating at times.  There are 6 levels, and no way to save. This means that each time you start the game, you start at level 1, just like most NES games. If you enjoy playing actual NES games, I definitely recommend it, but to others I would be a little more cautious. Two important tips:  The first is that there is a secret uppercut move that is activated by pressing Down+B and does much more damage than the standard attack. The other is to play the game in windowed mode, because I believe there is no way to exit out of the game in fullscreen other than Alt+F4.

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Quantum Conundrum

$0.98

Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle game that has a lot of similarities to Portal, but with the veneer of a Saturday morning cartoon.  You play as a kid exploring the mansion of his mad scientist uncle. The puzzles are based around the gimmick that you have a device that allows you to shift “dimensions”, which really means that you can alter the laws of physics in the surrounding environment.  Namely, you can make objects lighter or heavier, slow down time, or reverse gravity. You are guided through the game by the disembodied voice of your uncle in the same way the GladOS guides you through the test chambers of Portal. In general, neither the puzzles or comedy of the game are quite as good as Portal, but I think it’s still a fun game to play, nonetheless.

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Strider

$4.49

Strider is a modern take on the classic Capcom action series.  This new version of the franchise is a bit more like the old NES game than its arcade counterparts.  Rather than a linear action game, this is a fast-paced hack-and-slash set in a massive Metroid-style open world.  Those that like Metroid-style games will probably find a lot to like about Strider.

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Serious Sam HD

The First Encounter: $2.24

The Second Encounter: $2.99

Serious Sam is sort of a B-tier first-person shooter from around the turn of the millenium.  In a time when many action game were going for cinematic-like adventures, Serious Sam had significantly less fluff and focused instead on a more pure action experience that was closer to games like Doom and Rise of the Triad than contemporaries likes Half-Life 2 or Halo.  Serious Sam is about the war waged by time traveller and one-man army Sam Stone against an alien horde that is invading ancient Earth.  Serious Sam’s signature style of gameplay is to basically inundate the player with a massive number of enemies at once. This might sound like it could get stressful, but I find that the games are balanced enough that they are challenging without being frustrating more often than not.  Serious Sam was released as two chapters, the First and Second Encounters, and both are well worth playing, although I would try the first one first to see if you like this formula of gameplay before picking up the second.

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Orcs Must Die

$2.49

A handful or so years ago, there was a huge craze over tower defense games, and while I’m not much of a fan of tower defense, I really dug Orcs Must Die.  In Orcs Must Die, you play as a wizard tasked with defending a castle that holds the portal to the human realm from an onslaught of invading orcs. Your magic allows you to manifest a variety of traps in each level that are strategically placed to thin out the encroaching horde.  Unlike a lot of tower defense games, the wizard is an actual character that moves around the level, instead of being a disembodied entity that views the action from above. The wizard possesses his own weapons and spells that he can use to attack the orcs directly, which ultimately makes the game a fusion of tower defense and third-person shooter.  

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Tower of Guns

$4.49

Tower of Guns is a roguelike first-person shooter from a few years back.  The player is tasked with ascending a procedurally generated tower that is filled with relentlessly attacking robotic enemies.  The coolest wrinkle to the gameplay is that the projectiles the enemies fire move in relatively slow patterns, which makes weaving in and out of these oncoming attacks as important as dealing damage to the enemies.  This always on your toes gameplay is probably my favorite aspect of the game, and it’s one of the better games I’ve played that tries to marry first-person shooters with the roguelike formula.

 

Hollow Knight!

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There were a ton of cool games that came out in 2017.  I wasn’t anywhere close to playing everything that I wanted to play.  Around November of last year, I sat down and wrote a list of games from the year that I wanted to complete or at least try, and Hollow Knight ended up getting the priority because I thought I could knock it out quickly.  My expectation turned out to be totally wrong. Hollow Knight ended up being an epic experience that drove me deep into unraveling its secrets. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in a long time, so much so that it actually took me a few months before I decided I was satisfied enough to move on.

Hollow Knight is the story of the fallen, subterranean kingdom of Hallownest, whose citizenry was composed of a wide range of sentient arthropods, principally a beetle-like race that are simply called bugs, but also spiders, mantises, moths, and maggots.  In the distant past, Hallownest was a utopic nation that was beset by a strange infection that drove many of its inhabitants into violent insanity. Life has seemingly continued on at the fringe of the once great civilization, but the infection continues to slowly spread into this periphery.  Upon this desolation enters the quiet, wandering Knight, who is drawn to the surface city of Dirtmouth, which serves as the entrance to Hallownest. From there, the player journeys as the Knight down into the kingdom’s ruins to discover and thwart the source of the infection.

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Hollow Knight joins the huge pile of games that take their inspiration from Metroid’s large contiguous side-scrolling worlds.  In the past few years, there’s been so many games coming out that use the Metroid formula that you would think Hollow Knight would have a hard time standing out, but I think its been fairly popular.  Part of the reason for that is that its other big inspiration is Dark Souls. Mostly this is seen in how it takes place in a world built on the ruins of a once great civilization that fell to decay and madness and relates the ancient history of this culture through purposefully cryptic means.  Fortunately, while the games that influenced Hollow Knight are clear, I found that this game managed to create its own identity and introduced enough of its own ideas that it didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to recapture the nostalgia of its inspirations.

For the most part, Hollow Knight is a fairly straightforward hack and slash game.  Most of the game’s challenge comes from studying the enemies and bosses and then building a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, very similar to how you would approach a Dark Souls game.  It has an ethos that I describe as the best offense is a good defense.  You must learn and understand enemy attack patterns so that you can identify when you have an open window to attack safely.  If you attack carelessly, you will get utterly steamrolled.

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While the Knight’s moves are fairly standard (slash left, slash right, dodge, charge attack, etc.), there were two aspects of his abilities that I particularly liked.  The first was the way healing works. The Knight heals by casting a spell that must be charged first. He is immobile while charging the spell, and if he takes damage, the spell gets interrupted.  This adds an additional layer of strategic depth to the game, since its important to understand when and where its ok to heal. The player needs to understand the enemy attack patterns well enough to know when they have an opportunity to safely heal and where to position themselves so they’re unlikely to get hit.  The other thing that I really enjoyed is that the Knight can slash downwards while in the middle of a jump. This can be used to attack enemies beneath the jump, and the Knight gets a little bounce when he does this. Bouncing from enemy to enemy like this is a lot of fun, and the air time can be used to evade certain complicated attacks.  Sometimes, it also allows the Knight to reach some hard to get to places that hold secrets. I love games like Duck Tales and Shovel Knight that have bouncy pogo moves like this.

The world of Hallownest was fun and interesting to explore and is dense with secrets to uncover.  The exploration aspect of the game is probably what resonated with me most about Hollow Knight. Each area of the map feels visually distinctive and presents challenges and enemies that mostly feel very unique.  Around the same time I was playing Hollow Knight, I was also playing Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. While I kinda like that game, I have to say that everything in it just sort of blurs together. The levels and bosses I’ve played feel rather same-y and don’t leave much of a distinctive impression.  

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Meanwhile, I can easily recall most of Hallownest, because Hollow Knight does such a good job of creating a varied world with unique places to explore.  My favorite area is Deepnest, the dark and deeply terrifying caves on the border of the kingdom that are overrun with a race of hostile spiders. Second would probably be the mysterious Ancient Basin, where the secrets of Hallownest’s godlike ruler can be discovered.  I also have to mention that the White Palace has my favorite music track in the game, a somber melody that conveys the weight of the tragedy that struck the kingdom, and the area is also intensely and satisfyingly challenging.

Hollow Knight has a few different endings, but essentially there are just two.  It has a few “normal” endings that are quite similar, and then a secret “true” ending that requires a great deal more effort and secret hunting to unlock.  I went into Hollow Knight knowing this, but I expected that I would only bother to get the normal ending. As it turned out, I was so enamored by the game that I committed myself to unlocking the secret true ending.  This was a bit fortunate as there is a significant amount of content in the game that you would only see if you went out of your way to get this ending. I’m talking about huge areas that you would never find if you only followed the path that the main story directs you through.  But I have to be honest, I had to consult a guide to figure out the requirements to reveal the secret ending. There really is not a whole lot of explicit hints in the game that would give you strong suggestions as to how to unlock it. It took me roughly 30 hours to complete the game, but if I hadn’t used a guide, I could easily see it taking double that time to find the items needed to see the complete finale.

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That said, it was totally worth it.  Not only are the secret areas really great parts of the game, but I found the “normal” ending to be a bit anticlimactic.  I felt it didn’t really do justice to the epic quest that preceded it. The secret ending, on the other hand, has a new final boss fight that takes place after the original final boss.  I felt that the secret final boss was way more exciting and formidable and easily a major highlight of the game for me. In addition to revealing the true final boss, I just felt that the secret ending gave a bit better closure to the story.  The normal ending would have felt rather abrupt and confusing without the extra context of the lore found in the secret areas. I really wish that they would have made the normal ending a little more worthwhile, seeing as that’s the only ending most players are likely to see.

Hollow Knight was a game that I was excited to play due to the strong word of mouth I had heard.  There’s lots of popular games that I’m pumped to try, but sometimes I end up being let down by my high expectations for them.  Often when this happens, I question whether gaming is still something I’m passionate about. But sometimes a game totally surpasses any expectations I had and reinforces the affection I have for gaming as a hobby.  Hollow Knight is definitely that type of game. I had started out hoping to complete it quickly, but realized that I couldn’t do anything less than master it.

Best Underrated Deals (<$5) from the Steam Summer Sale: 2017 Edition!

Like the changing of the seasons, the Earth rolls once again around its orbit so that the sun and stars may align for the Steam Summer Sale.  I always find the Steam sale is a good time to take advantage of the low prices to try out games I wouldn’t normally.  For the past few years, I’ve written up posts highlighting games that I think are underrated gems and are also going for dirt cheap prices.  I try to keep the recommendations to lesser known games that are going for under $5, so that people may be encouraged to try some new things without spending a lot.  Of course, previous years’ recommendations also still stand, as well.  The Steam Summer Sale is set to end next Wednesday, July 5th.

2016 Recommendations

2015 Recommendations Part 1

2015 Recommendations Part 2

2014 Recommendations


(All prices listed in USD.)

Sonic Generations

Sale Price: $4.99

The struggles of Sonic the Hedgehog in the post-Genesis world are no secret.  There have been a lot of terrible Sonic games since the days of 16-bit glory, but there have been a precious handful of good ones.  I don’t think any of them have been great, certainly nothing that has competed with the lofty trajectory Mario has continued to take, but there have definitely been a few good ones.  Of these, I think Sonic Generations is easily the best.  As its name sort of implies, Sonic Generations features a combination of 2D and 3D gameplay set across a collection of remixed zones taken from previous games in the series’ history.  I personally had a ton of fun with both aspects of the game, 2D and 3D.  Whereas a lot of Sonic games struggle to get even the fundamentals right, Sonic Generations managed to create a game that cut out a lot of the noise that has held the series back all these years.

 

Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut

Sale Price: $1.74

Q.U.B.E. is a first-person puzzle game heavily inspired by Portal.  In Q.U.B.E., the player has the ability to telekinetically manipulate colored blocks to overcome obstacles in the environment.  The trick is that each type of colored block has different properties.  Unlike its obvious inspiration, Portal, the original release of Q.U.B.E. was pretty absent of any storytelling.  It was more focused on puzzle design.  The Director’s Cut release that is now up on Steam seems to have a bit more explicit story added to the game, however, I’ve only played the original release, so I can’t say for sure.

 

Virginia

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Sale Price: $2.49

Virginia is a first-person narrative game that left a huge impression on me last year.  Virginia tells the story of FBI Agent Anne Tarver who finds herself caught in a mystery that possesses shades of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks.  Two of the most interesting aspects of Virginia is that the story is told with entirely silent characters, and individual scenes mostly only last a few minutes at the most.  The pacing, absence of dialogue, and dreamlike story beats result in a game that packs a strong surrealist punch.

 

Volgarr the Viking

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Sale Price: $1.99

Volgarr the Viking is a hack-and-slash sidescroller for people into hardcore challenges.  I find it akin to retro games like the NES Castlevania or the Shinobi series.  This game is really really hard, but completely possible to master if you put in the time to hone your skills and learn the game’s levels.  You’ll have to die a lot if you want to finish Volgarr, but the point is to learn from each death and to adapt.  Hard as it may be, nothing in the game is unfair.  I only really recommend this game to people who are into games with brutal learning curves.

 

Odallus: The Dark Call

Sale Price: $2.99

Like Volgarr, Odallus is another retro-inspired sidescroller.  The difficulty, though, is quite a bit more generous than Volgarr, although I wouldn’t call it an easy game.  In addition to sidescrolling action and platforming, Odallus has a bit more of an open-ended nature to it which encourages the player to explore.  It’s not a “Metroidvania” per se, but there are many secret areas with hidden upgrades in the game that allow the player to access new areas.  Furthermore, many of the levels have multiple exits, which lead to alternative paths on the world map.  As a consequence, you do a lot of backtracking and exploring like in a Metroid game.

 

Lara Croft Go

Sale Price: $3.39

Lara Croft Go is a turn and grid-based reimagining of the Tomb Raider series that was first released on mobile phones a few years ago, but the game has also made its way to Steam and Vita.  Replacing the platforming and action that the series is known for with turn-based puzzles might not seem terribly exciting, but the creativity that the designers put into Lara Croft Go resulted in a really inventive experience.  Many of the series’ trademarks find new interpretations, such as dangerous creatures to outwit, traps to outmaneuver, and precarious pitfalls to escape.  I will say, I have seen this game go for lower than the $3.39 Steam sale price on the Android app store, so if you like playing games on your phone, it may be best to look out for it there.

 

Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition

Sale Price: $5.99

I try to keep this list to games below $5, but I made an exception for Sleeping Dogs.  One of the most underrated games to come out at the tail-end of the Xbox 360 and PS3’s life cycle, Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-style open world game that is set in the Hong Kong criminal underworld.  The game tells the story of Wei Shen, an undercover police officer, as he works his way up the ranks of the city’s organized crime. The game differentiates itself from GTA by placing a greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, ostensibly because firearms are harder to come by in Hong Kong than the USA.  In addition, Wei Shen’s tale was surprisingly well-developed, and the game had probably one of the best stories I’ve seen in a game like this.

 

BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

Sale Price: $4.94

Runner2 describes itself as a “rhythm-music platforming game”.  It’s actually one of those games where the character is constantly running, but unlike most games in the genre, the levels aren’t randomized and they have a finite end.  In the game, you control Commander Video (with additional unlockable playable characters) as he runs, jumps, slides, and kicks his way through… wherever he is.  I’m not actually sure what this game’s odd setting is supposed to be.  It’s called a rhythm game because if you’re making the correct moves at the correct times, the actions correlate to the rhythm of the soundtrack.  The game is a sequel to BIT.TRIP Runner, which is also a pretty good game on sale.

 

Hard Reset

Sale Price: $1.49

Hard Reset is a first-person shooter with a heavy focus on fast-paced action and large swarms of enemies.  It’s sort of like Serious Sam, in a way, where the game just likes to spam hordes of enemies at the player, although I don’t quite think it gets to the same scale as Serious Sam.  It’s definitely a game where the player has to stay on their toes.  The game takes place in a visually incredible cyberpunk setting where robots have overtaken all but one last human city.  I recommend the game mainly to people looking for an unfettered action experience.

 

Toki Tori

Sale Price: $0.49

Toki Tori 2+

Sale Price: $3.74

 

Toki Tori is a sidescrolling puzzle game based on a cult-classic Gameboy Color title of the same name.  In the game, players guide a big yellow, egg-shaped bird as he/she attempts to collect all the eggs in each level.  The catch is that the bird (whose name I assume is Toki Tori) can’t jump, meaning players must carefully figure out how to maneuver through each stage without getting stuck.  (Don’t worry, if you do get stuck, there’s a time rewind mechanic that allows mistakes to be undone without having to reset completely.)  Furthermore, the bird is given a specific set of limited use items in each level to help him/her get around.  These items include things like teleporters that allows it to go through walls and a freeze gun that neutralizes enemies.  

The sequel Toki Tori 2+ is also worth playing, perhaps more so since it ditches discrete levels for an elaborate open-world.  It’s a huge change from the first game.  This time, the bird sets off on an adventure to find five mystical frogs hidden in the massive overworld.  Instead of items, the bird must learn how to manipulate creatures and objects in the environment using two moves, whistling (attractive) and stomping (repulsive).  This game has generated a cult-following of its own due to the unique approach it takes to the puzzle-platforming genre.


 

That’s all the recommendations I have for this year.  If you have recommendations of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments section!

Virginia!

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We live in an age where so many games are beginning to appear under the derisive moniker of “walking simulator”, and I think I may have finally found one that really clicks with me in a big way.  I can’t say there’s much gameplay to Virginia.  And what I mean by that is that there’s not much challenge presented to the player that needs be overcome to progress.  Rather, the game takes place across a number of relatively rapid-fire scenes that largely advance with little input from the player.  Sometimes, all you’re given is a small area to explore with the scene ending when the player has found something to trigger the next major event in the story.  But often, the player isn’t even given full control of the main character, and instead just sees parts of the story acted out in front of her eyes.  The game doesn’t even do the Telltale thing of creating the illusion that player choice actually has an impact on the proceeding events.  It’s essentially just a first-person movie which frequently requires a little bit of interaction on the player’s part.

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I don’t hate this type of game, the kind that focuses so heavily on narrative that it doesn’t offer many traditional gameplay hooks.  But I do think with no real complex gameplay present, it falls entirely on the story of Virginia to make the game successful.  If that part isn’t more than just good, then, well, the game as a whole simply isn’t worthwhile.  I’m happy to say that Virginia left a big impression on me in this regard.  Despite being clearly derivative of two major inspirations, The X-Files and Twin Peaks, I felt the story it had to tell was both sincere and freshly intriguing.  

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Virginia tells the story of recently inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver, who has been assigned by her superiors under dubious motives to partner with and monitor fellow agent Maria Halperin.  As I mentioned above, Virginia has a clear influence from The X-Files, and fans of that show will immediately see the Mulder-Scully relationship as prototypical of that of Maria and Anne.  On their first joint assignment, the partners set out to the city of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a local teenager.  The mystery in Kingdom more prominently features the game’s Twin Peaks influence, as Anne begins experiencing otherworldly visions that strongly evoke the classic ‘90s TV series.  

But despite the investigation in Kingdom being the catalyst for the story, I felt there was far more emphasis placed on the developing relationship between Anne and Maria, or at least that was the side of the story that I found more interesting.  I don’t want to delve too far into it, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I felt that Anne’s internal struggle across the breadth of the proceedings gave way to a character arc that was far more poignant and sincere than is typical of video game protagonists.  Most games tend to tell grandiose tales of global salvation or extraordinary events, but Virginia’s more personal focus makes for something that has far more heart and feeling.

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The effectiveness of Virginia’s narrative resonance is heavily based in its rapid pacing of scenes and events.  Rarely does a particular scene last for more than a handful of minutes.  The speed at which the story moves means that there are no lulls or dips, and, instead, I feel like the player just gets a very concentrated experience that leaves a big emotional impression.  The swift movement of the narrative is accomplished with two bold storytelling techniques that I think most players will find peculiar of Virginia.  The first is that the experience is entirely non-verbal.  No words are ever spoken in the game.  Instead, the player must rely mostly on body language and context to understand the unfolding events.  The results are that the game doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy dialogue sequences, but it leaves many aspects of the story to the player’s inference.  I think the latter consequence, however, is also a favorable part of the experience, since it drives a sense of curiosity and wonder.

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The second major effect employed by the game are the jump cuts between scenes that were heavily discussed around the game’s release due to their technically impressive nature.  Transitions between scenes are immediate and seamless.  For instance, one moment you’ll be in your office at the FBI, the next moment you’ll be in a car driving through the countryside.  This is pretty unique in gaming, since transitions between environments usually require at least a short loading screen, while in Virginia the change is instantaneous.  This facilitates the fleet pacing that I think was essential to this game’s success.

Virginia only took me ~2 hours to beat (as counted by Steam), but I personally didn’t mind its brevity.  I think being able to finish the game without needing to take breaks was beneficial to the overall experience.  Virginia is ultimately one of those games that walks the fine line between being pretentious and profound, and I think for the most part it doesn’t falter on this point.  The non-verbal, expeditious story leaves a lot on the player to try to understand on their own, but I think it’s effective and creates a level of wonderment and sentimentality that I greatly enjoyed.

Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

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October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit.  For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games.  Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful.  For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page.  First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.

Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island.  During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry.  The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.

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The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree.  Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael.  Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.

Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold.  Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player.  Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.

The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile.  When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select.  The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent.  Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking.  And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.

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As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress.  At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur.  Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay.  These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge.  The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments.  It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.

Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing.  What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa.  I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this.  Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary.  There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension.  Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough.  It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story.   As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.  

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But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it.  A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end.  Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either.  The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game.  Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had.  By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment.  It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.  

I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree.  I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game.  I did enjoy many parts of it.  But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities.  Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it.  I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do.  You know, I can only ever really speak for myself.  Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case.  Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone.  However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series.  It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.

 

Inside!

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For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar.  The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger.  From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo.  And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist.  But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo.  The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.

Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them.  However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different.  Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister.  But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes.  The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him.  Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.

The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects.  Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game.  Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment.  Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages.  Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.  

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One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error.  That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died.  Some people disliked this, some were okay with it.  Personally, I didn’t mind.  The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo.  With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo.  Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common.  As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.

A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there.  I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax.  There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside.  And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming.  Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball.  If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.  

Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution.  I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act.  Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments.  Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.  

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Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much.  I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason.  I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo.  Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.

A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many.  For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game.  A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough.  I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.

But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game?  Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside?  My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks.  But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true.  The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions.  The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output.  I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.

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Inside is a cool game.  While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit.  It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel.  Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.  

 

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