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Halloween Gaming: Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

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Halloween Gaming at The Maximum Utmost rolls on.  This time with an insanely long post about one of my favorite games of all time, the cult thriller Alan Wake.

Some would probably consider Alan Wake to be one of the greatest tragedies of the Xbox  360.  A truly underappreciated gem that completely flopped in sales,  Alan Wake was the extensively long in development project (it took ~5 years to complete after being announced in 2005) of Remedy Games, who were best known for the excellent Max Payne 1 and 2, and was published by Microsoft Games Studios.  While I really enjoyed Alan Wake, one of the highlights of the Xbox 360, it’s not hard for me to see why it did so bad in terms of sales.  There were several controversies surrounding the game pre-release, one of which was that the PC version (which had been previewed for nearly 4 years) was cancelled before release.

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Long story short, a lot of (vocal) gamers were justifiably disgruntled at Alan Wake before its release on May 18, 2010.  But all of that controversy was merely a drop in the puddle compared to Alan Wake’s true problem.  You may remember this little game from a few years back called Red Dead Redemption.  You know…made by Rockstar Games…. kind of like Grand Theft Auto but with cowboys and horses…ring any bells?  Well, Red Dead also released on May 18, 2010 and was an utterly massive hit.  Alan Wake was completely steamrolled in sales, and after so many long years of development, the once proud developer of Max Payne had a commercial flop on its hands.

It’s unfortunate that all of these dark clouds hang over Alan Wake, as I actually really enjoy it as a game.  Of course, Remedy and Microsoft have no one but themselves to blame for the game’s commercial failure.  Controversies aside, at the very least they should have been smart enough not to release the game on the same day as the next major release from %&#&ing Rockstar Games!!!!!!  But one good thing about this was failure was that Remedy was able to convince Microsoft to allow them to self-publish the game on Steam to recoup their losses.  Time (and Steam sales) heal all wounds, and now there is at least a decent-sized contingent of PC gamers out there who have come to appreciate Alan Wake.

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In Alan Wake, Remedy sought to do with pop horror what they did with noir crime fiction in Max Payne.  The prime influence here is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but there’s also some Stephen King in here as well.  When I say Twin Peaks is the prime influence, I mean this game is really built around the template of the cult early ‘90s TV series.  Alan Wake arrives in the small, northwestern town of Bright Falls and soon becomes captured in the mysteries of the supernatural horrors that use the town as a portal into our world.  If you’ve ever seen Twin Peaks, you can clearly see the similarities in this setup with that of Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the town of Twin Peaks.  

But while Alan Wake uses the formula of Twin Peaks, I felt it managed to create its own distinct narrative.  And the story is the real draw of this game.  It’s full of many twists and turns to keep the player hooked into uncovering the secret of Bright Falls.  It features a stellar cast of characters, both friends and foes to Alan, that possess real depth that is rarely seen in video games.  And as Alan’s journey into the night progresses, he has actual character growth, something that also rarely happens in even the most lauded video game plots.

At the beginning of the game, we are introduced to Alan and Alice Wake, a married couple who are arriving by ferry for a vacation in the small, northwestern town of Bright Falls.  Alan is an enormously popular celebrity novelist but has lately been dogged by a severe case of writer’s block.  The couple has come to stay in a cabin on the shore of nearby Cauldron Lake, hoping that the peacefulness of the wilderness will help stimulate Alan’s writing.  While Alan and Alice appear to have a loving relationship, we see that it is strained by Alan’s arrogance and temperament combined with his hard-partying celebrity lifestyle that Alice deplores.  Alice blames Alan’s personal issues on Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent who she often comes into conflict with.

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Alan and Alice Wake

The couple arrive at the cabin and bizarre, increasingly unnatural events begin to transpire.  These events culminate with Alice being abducted by a shadowy entity and drug into the dark depths of Cauldron Lake, as Alan watches horrified.

Fast forward a week and Alan wakes up after having crashed his car in the woods surrounding Bright Falls.  He has no memory of the preceding week, the last thing he remembers is Alice being taken into Cauldron Lake.  He approaches a mysterious stranger for help, but the encounter soon turns hostile, and Alan finds himself being pursued through the night by possessed men that are shrouded in shadow.  This is where Alan’s long journey into the night begins.  During the following events, Alan searches for a way to save his wife while also coming to understand The Dark Presence, the supernatural denizen of Cauldron Lake that seeks to use Alan for its own nightmarish purposes.

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The story from here on out gets rather….complex, with Alan attempting to find his vanished wife and understand what happened to him during the missing week.  The story is the true star of Alan Wake, and in my opinion it more than makes up for its deficiencies in other areas (more on that in a moment).  I have to restrain myself here, because as you may can tell I really love this game and could go on and on about this aspect of it, but I don’t want to a) spoil too much for potential players, and b) hype up expectations for potential players to a point that the actual game can never meet.

I will though reiterate how much I liked the characters in this game.  Even the Dark Presence is far more interesting than your typical Lovecraftian abomination.  She is single-mindedly evil, but the mechanism by which she influences the world and seeks to control it were wholly original (to me at least).  But as far as great characters go, I’d also like to specifically mention Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent and best friend, who arrives in Bright Falls as Alan finds himself increasingly in over his head.  From Alice’s initial description of Barry, I assumed he was a bloodsucking agent that exploited his client for his own gains.  But while Alice and Barry have no love lost and Barry is certainly obsessed with maintaining Alan’s fame and fortune, you come to realize during the game that he is Alan’s most loyal and truest friend and unhesitatingly follows him into the nightmares that Alan must face.  These two make a duo that compete with the likes of Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan or Solid Snake and Otacon for all-time best bros in gaming.

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While I consider the story of Alan Wake to be top tier, the combat design, on the other hand, is a bit more flawed.  The at-times iffy combat system is actually one of the reasons that makes this game hit-or-miss for a lot of people.  I won’t say the combat design is bad, but there are definitely parts of it that need fine-tuning (and were fine-tuned in the sequel), and in certain areas of the game, the less polished aspects of it can become rather irritating.  And that’s not to say there aren’t some really epic battles in the game.  People who have played the game would probably agree that the farm and the hedge maze are some really spectacular levels.  It’s just that there are more than a few areas where the player will probably end up gritting their teeth a fair bit to push through.

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I would call Alan Wake an action-horror game, more similar to FEAR or Dead Space than a survival-horror game like Fatal Frame or Silent Hill.  Ammo and firearms are rather plentiful, and the player will need to kill pretty much everything that crawls out of the woods at them.  During his quest, Alan is pursued by the Taken, people who have gone missing from Bright Falls and have had their souls sucked out by the Dark Presence and are now under her control.  The Taken are more like Ganados from Resident Evil 4 than zombies.  They have some intelligence and work to flank and overwhelm Adam, and attack using crude melee weapons, mostly axes and hatchets.  They are also initially invulnerable, being clouded in a shadow substance that protects them from bullet fire.  To defeat them, Alan must focus his flashlight on them which melts away the darkness that protects them.  After they’ve been exposed by the light, they are weak to attack, and Alan can finish them off.  There are also some other light-based weapons that Alan can use strategically such as flares (that stun and send the Taken stumbling backwards) and flash grenades (which insta-kill any Taken nearby, essentially your get out of jail free card).

As I mentioned, the game really needed a bit better fine tuning when it came to the design of the combat system.  There are a lot of little annoyances that can on occasion become rather irritating.  For instance, when Alan is blasting his flashlight at an enemy, the camera zooms in closer to that enemy.    But this cuts off the player’s peripheral vision leaving them exposed to attacks from the side (as the Taken move silently), which is a problem since the it the Taken can take quite a bit of light before they’re actually exposed.  In encounters featuring large groups of Taken that are attacking from every direction, you’ll often find yourself just getting annoyed by how much you’re being hit while just trying to get a single enemy exposed by the light.  In addition, the game could use a bit more variety in the enemy design.  There are a few different types of human Taken, but sometimes you’ll also be attacked by flocks of “taken birds,” and those things are just super frustrating to fight, no fun at all.

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I will say that Alan Wake isn’t exactly a scary game.  The tension and unnerving dread that I’ve felt in the better horror games I’ve played just isn’t present here.  Rather, it’s more true to its inspiration, Twin Peaks, in that its intrigue comes from a bizarre supernatural mystery that is slowly unravelled by the main characters and which mystifies the audience.  And it’s a well-written mystery at that.  And while it’s doesn’t posses an exactly dreadful mood, the game has a very strong atmosphere to it.  It’s one of the few games I know that captures the feeling of the solitude and quiet of the wilderness at night.  And each chapter is absolutely sprawling in geographic size, which only reinforces Alan’s isolation.  This game started off as an open-world game before becoming more of a linear Resident Evil 4-style game, and you can easily see that from how large the wilderness is in the game.

While the game doesn’t end on what I would call a cliffhanger, the ending is clearly meant to set up future games in a series.  Unfortunately, the failure in sales meant that Microsoft was unwilling to provide further funding for a sequel.  In 2012, Remedy would release Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a much smaller successor to Alan Wake that released for $15 on XBLA and Steam.  Presumably this was done to maintain gamers’ interest in the series as Remedy searched for the funds needed to build a full-fledged sequel.   

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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

Although a much smaller game, American Nightmare makes significant improvements to the combat design of the original game.  It is a much more fine-tuned experience, more what you would expect from the designers of Max Payne.  So confident was Remedy in this aspect of the game that they included an “Arcade Action” mode in the release that is similar to Gears of War’s horde mode.

The story, on the other hand, is far less grandiose than its predecessor.  After the events that transpired in Bright Falls, Alan travels to the desert town of Night Springs in search of the depraved serial killer, Mr. Scratch, a doppleganger of Alan that was released during the climax of the previous game.  (This is another reference to Twin Peaks.)  Mr. Scratch originates from Cauldron Lake, and consequently also has powers to fill men with darkness and create Taken to once again hunt Alan through the night.  As a $15 downloadable-only game, American Nightmare is nowhere near as large as the previous game.  The game is essentially a time-loop (think Groundhog Day) of the same night in Night Springs, with Alan visiting the same three areas through each iteration of the night.  Reusing the same three levels over and over in this way is of course a consequence of the small budget this game was created on (again, it’s a smaller downloadable title), but events play out differently in these areas through each iteration of the time loop, so it manages to stay decently fresh as the game’s story progresses.  The story might not be as fulfilling as the original, but I regardlessly still easily recommend this game to anyone who was a fan of the first, but I would not recommend it to newcomers unfamiliar with Alan Wake, as they will be completely lost with the narrative.  Play the first game first in other words.

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In the end, although the credits of American Nightmare promises that Alan’s journey through the night will continue, the series has come to an unfortunate end.  As it stands, we have two games in the series, one with an amazing story and the other with amazing combat.  It appears that Remedy was unable to secure funding for a full-fledged Alan Wake 2, and unfulfilled plot threads created in the original game will never be resolved.  Instead, Remedy are now focusing their attention on Quantum Break, a third person shooter funded by Microsoft as an Xbox One exclusive. It goes without saying there will be no PC release of this game.  I don’t want to parrot the “definition” of insanity, but I have to wonder why Remedy has gone back to the same well that ultimately poisoned Alan Wake.  (I promise I’m not bitter about it!  Honest!)  In the ideal world, we would have gotten a conclusion to Alan’s story in a game that would have combined the scope and scale of the story of Alan Wake with the greatly refined combat of American Nightmare, but alas, that is never to be.

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Brothers – A Tale of a Very Untimely Review

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Brothers is, I suppose, one of the too rare games that actually tries to use its gameplay rather than its cutscenes to convey the creators’ deeper artistic meaning.  As the player, you control the titular brothers simultaneously, with each analog stick individually guiding one of the two.  The left stick controls the older brother, while the right stick moves the younger.  Similarly, the left and right triggers serve as the action buttons for each character.  All actions in the game are contextual to the object on which the action is being performed.  At its core, Brothers is a puzzle game where you must use the brothers cooperatively to overcome obstacle and allow them to progress on their quest.  Consequently, with the player guiding the brothers’ relationship, it is through this “single-player co-op” gameplay that the game’s deeper themes of the strength and bond of brotherhood are expressed.

The story of Brothers is fairly simple.  Actually, I found the whole game to be almost fairy tale-like.  A pair of brothers, one older, stronger and more mature and the other younger and more innocent, set off on a journey through a fantasy land to find a remedy to save their dying father.  The quest is, for the most part, a non-violent trek, and the brothers must work together to overcome the obstacles they face along the way.  Each brother has his own strengths to utilize. For instance, the younger, smaller brother can fit through tight spaces, while the older brother can lift the younger onto high ledges.

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The game has a very “scenic” quality to it that reminds me of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.  I was always very fond of the quiet awe those games were able to convey to the player.  In Brothers, the way in which the player is shown the world feels very natural, for lack of a better word.  You’re constantly being treated to these incredible scenic vistas, and the entire journey has a sort of lonely quality that makes you all the more humbled by your surroundings.  And while a lot of games would use big, sweeping cutscenes to show off the grandeur of in-game locales, Brothers is mostly content to just let the player incidentally view the many fantastical sights the game has to show while they go about their quest.

While Brothers uses its two-stick gameplay mechanic to arguably help the player empathize with the fraternal bond of the main characters, I felt that, in the end, it didn’t go far enough with it.  The game does a good job of conveying how much these characters rely on each other, which ultimately is important in the ending it sets up.  But my problem was that it doesn’t go quite as far as it could have in giving us a nuanced understand of the brothers’ relationship.  They help each other overcome the challenges that they face, occasionally share a funny or joyous moment, and they explode with distress when the other is threatened.  But shared experiences are about as far as it gets in terms of emotional complexity.  I should note at this point that the start of this game informs us that the brothers’ mother died before the game begins, and that the younger brother watched helplessly as she drowned.  There’s some slight hints in a dream sequence that there are feelings of guilt, resentment, and anger between the two over her death, but it doesn’t really get developed beyond that.  Maybe the developers wanted it to be left to player inference, but I felt better emphasis on this facet of their relationship could have really helped the narrative. 2015-07-26_00005

Ultimately, I felt I enjoyed the world of Brothers more than I enjoyed the story it had to tell.  There is a very beautiful and awe-filled world that is presented here.  As I mentioned, the story I felt to be a little shallow, and I thought it ended in a way that was just a bit too emotionally manipulative.  It really wants you to feel strongly about the game’s resolution in a way that made me very conscious of the author’s hand in the story.  Although, I will say that the final stretch of the game does use the two-stick/two-button mechanic in a way that really impressed me with how cleverly it was fit in the narrative.  All-in-all, I did like the story even for all its simplicity, and I recommend Brothers as a good Steam sale game, if nothing else.  It took me no longer than 3 hours to complete, and I think its brevity actually enhances its value, as it’s the kind of game that could have worn out its welcome very quickly if drawn out too long.

Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 2

This is the second part of my recommendations list of lesser known titles for the 2015 Steam Summer Sale.  You can find the first part and a more complete introduction to the list here.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Gemini Rue

Regular Sale Price: $2.99 (-70%)

Gemini Rue is a noir+cyberpunk indie point-and-click adventure game published by Wadjet Eye, whose prodigious Blackwell Series made last year’s list.  While most modern point-and-click adventure games have started to dispose of the heady puzzles that were the genre’s anathema in the ‘90s, Gemini Rue (as well as most Wadjet Eye) games still features a fair bit of cogitating over the erudite uses of your inventory dispersed within its multi-faceted story.  These puzzles are on the harder side of modern adventure games, I feel, but they’re still not nearly within the realm of perplexity that caused the original wave of adventure games to go extinct.  With enough patience and experimentation, I found myself able to progress without an inordinate amount of frustration.  That said, even if you do find yourself having to run to GameFAQs once in a while, the story that unfolds still makes playing the game worth it.

The story features Azrael Odin (….yes, I know what you’re thinking) an elite, interstellar assassin on a mission to the urban decaying, crime-ridden planet of Barracus searching for his missing brother.  As he navigates the underworld crime rings of Barracus, the story of his brother’s captivity in a mysterious government-controlled research facility plays out.  Beyond that, I don’t want to go into more detail.  Needless to say, I thought this was one of the more interesting story-driven games I’ve played in the last 5 years.  I recommend this to those who might be looking for something more elaborate than the soap opera-style Telltale games that have become fashionable since The Walking Dead arrived.  Not that I don’t like Telltale games, it’s just that sometimes their stories have a very “made for TV” quality to them (I wonder why?) that I think sometimes stunts what they’re capable of achieving.


Half-Life

Regular Sale Price: $2.49 (-75%)

Half-Life is a mostly forgotten FPS from the late ‘90s that was unfortunately overshadowed by contemporary releases like Unreal 1 and Sin.  It had one sequel which was accompanied by two downloadable “episodes,” but apparently the series didn’t sell all that well because there was never a Half-Life 3, and the story remains unfinished.  You may be surprised to find out that the developer behind Half-Life is none other than Valve, the proprietors of Steam.  That’s right, this was the first game developed by the company that made Dota 2!

The story features Gordon Freeman, a scientist who becomes involved in a teleportation experiment that goes awry and cracks open the barriers between dimensions.  Aliens start invading his super secret lab, and I know what you’re thinking, the story is a total ripoff of Doom!  And you’re right.  But it’s still a good game.  Also, the Opposing Force expansion pack is pretty good too (or at least I thought so 15 years ago).  Blue Shift, on the other hand, is not so good.  I wouldn’t waste my time with that one.  Anyway, if you’re looking to take a break from something like Counter-Strike: GO, then Half-Life is definitely a good palette cleanser until you’re ready to get back into online socially-connected multiplayer games.


Full Bore

Regular Sale Price: $5.09 (-66%)

Full Bore

Oh look, an indie puzzle platformer with big pixel graphics.  You don’t see many of those!  I’m being sarcastic, but I actually do really like this game.  You play a boar (as in the wild pig) who lives in a world of sentient boars and a few other animals.  One day while frollicking through the forest, the ground falls out from underneath our protagonist and he finds himself trapped inside a large, empty vault.  When he emerge, he’s accused of being the one who emptied the vault and is sentenced to hard labor, digging in the mines to pay back what has been stolen.  As you can probably begin to tell, the story here is very off-beat, but in a sincere way, not in a cloying “look, how crazy we can be!” kind of way.  And while it seems very simple at the onset, the events that begin to transpire afterwards are actually really quite amazing.  Honestly, I really didn’t expect the story to take off like it did.

Proving that indie developers can (and will) take any popular concept and mesh it into any imaginable genre (see roguelikes), Full Bore is actually what might be best described as Metroidvania block pushing puzzle game.  You travel across this open 2D world in a fairly non-linear fashion and must basically figure out ways to reach treasures within the mines that are not easily accessible.  The environments are composed of big pixel art with a ton of creativity and detail put into them.  There’s a wonderful amount of variety here.  And the music is also quite good as well.

The indie puzzle platformer genre is incredibly saturated, no doubt.  But I think Full Bore actually does stand out amongst the crowd.  And aside from the well-designed block puzzles, the bizarrely unexpected story, the splendorous images and music, there’s actually a whole lot of content in the game.  I don’t think you’ll be left wanting more, and I mean that in a good way.


The Longest Journey

Regular Sale Price: $4.99 (-50%)

This is an oldie, but a goodie.  The Longest Journey is a point-and-click adventure game that arrived well after the first wave of the point-and-click adventure genre had come and gone.  This game was the first game that I ever saw that had a 1 GB install (and to my knowledge it was the first game to actually have one).  That was a big deal in the year 2000.  When you combine that fact with a title like The Longest Journey, I was expecting this game to be huge.

…It is a reasonable length.  I mean, it’s not a short game.  Howlongtobeat.com says it averages between 17-20 hours in length.  But that also means it’s quite a bit shorter than some of the RPGs that were coming out around that time which could often require >50 hours to beat.  Back in the day, on completion, I remember being a tad bit disappointed by the game’s “brevity.”

But really there’s nothing to be disappointed about here.  It tells an amazing story that manages to successfully combine both elements of scifi and fantasy.  April Ryan is a young artist living in a technologically-advanced world that is culturally not too different from our own, known as Stark.  Events lead her to discover that she is a rare being that is capable of travelling to the fantastical realm of Arcadia, a parallel world that is governed by magic rather than technology.  These two universes exist in a delicate balance and once formed a single plane of existence.  But after arriving in Arcadia, April and those around her soon come to believe that she is destined to play a pivotal role in protecting the fate and stability of the two diametrically-opposed dimensions.

The story here gets huge props.  April is one of those characters that just doesn’t conform to the standard lone warrior trope that overshadows vast portions of gaming.  And instead of violence, she’s forced to use her wits, determination, and luck to advance toward her goals.  I always liked her for being such a relatably human character.  And the characters around her, whether human or fantastical, come together in a way that compliments the heartfelt story in a very naturally.

As for the gameplay, it’s standard point-and-click fair.  You have to find the right combination of items or figure out the right thing to say to the right NPC to progress.  I think most people have a long lingering fear of the genre’s potential for impenetrability, but really for these types of games, I’ve resigned myself that if I have to go to GameFAQs, I will.  The story is really the main draw here.  And like Gemini Rue, while the puzzles in this game can get hard in the context of modern adventure games, neither are really as baffling as what the genre offered in its darkest days.


Pid

Regular Sale Price: $4.99 (-50%)

Indie platformers by and large tend to be puzzle-focused, but there are a few that are more technique-based challenges like Super Meat Boy and BattleBlock Theater.  Pid falls into the latter category, although at first you might think it falls into the former.  The game follows Kurt, a school-aged youngster who falls asleep while taking the space bus home from school.  Waking up at the last stop, he then finds himself trapped on a planet caught in a bizarre centuries-long holding pattern where the residents go about their tasks as if they have no end.  This includes waiting for the bus off the planet, which means Kurt is effectively trapped.  While exploring for an escape, he stumbles upon a treasure which gives him the power to create repulsor beams on the ground that allows him to cross difficult to traverse areas, and he sets off to find a solution to the world-engulfing malaise that bars him from going home.

What precipitates is a charmingly off-beat story where the oblivious Kurt seeks escape but is actually threatening the shadowy power that has inflicted the purgatory on the planet.  As I mentioned, it’s a technique-driven platformer, where progression is more based on how skillfully you can maneuver with the repulsor beams rather than trying to test out your spatial reasoning skills.  I think the game was received poorly on it’s XBLA launch, mostly for what was considered it’s exceptionally high difficulty.  While I think this game can be challenging, I don’t think it’s unreasonably difficult like some claim.  It’s not in the same league as something like Volgarr the Viking or 1001 Spikes.  I think the problem most reviewers had lied with the 360 controller not being appropriate for it.  Analog sticks are simply too sluggish for the quick reflexes required by this game, and the 360 d-pad is just too poor  to be an option.  I hated playing this game with the 360 pad, but found it to be a lot of fun when using the keyboard or a dual shock controller.  I recommend those as the way to go for this game.

Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 1

The Steam Summer Sale is here at last!  This time it appears to be running until the 1:00 EST on the 22nd.  (That will be when all the deals will be taken down.)  I always find this a great time to take advantage of the low prices to try games that I might not usually be inclined toward.  It’s a great way to expand and develop your tastes!  Last year, I wrote up 10 games that I thought were underappreciated gems and were also steals during the sale, and here I am again with another list of recommendations.  Of course, the 2014 list is still just as valid during this year’s sale.  This is going to be a long post, so I’m splitting it in half.  The second half will be available very soon.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Rise of the Triad (2013 Reboot)

Regular Sale Price: $3.74 (-75%)

Rise of the Triad is a rebooting of Rise of the Triad: Dark War which was a somewhat forgotten FPS in the era immediately post-Doom.  You really don’t need to have played that game to enjoy this one, but you do need to have an appreciation of the early styling of PC FPS.  The story is that you are an agent of HUNT, an elite, multinational anti-terrorist organization that is launching an assault against the fortified hidden headquarters of a Nazi secret society.  And that’s basically all there is to that.  It is a game that is intensely action-driven.  And this game is fast.  Like really fast.  While the game has controller support, I think most prefer the precision of KB+M for a game this quick-natured.  I almost always play action games with a controller nowadays, but KB+M just felt way more natural for this game.

There are a lot of games that claim to capture the feel of old-school FPS, but this is probably the one that actually lives up to that ideal the most.  I think anyone who might have fond memories of adrenaline-charged, run-and-gun action games should not pass this one up.


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

Regular Sale Price: $9.99 (-50%) (will go lower on daily or flash)

I’ll say this upfront, I’m pretty sure this game will go down to $5 during a flash or daily deal at some point.  It’s been that low before, so I would wait for that price.  This is actually the second Sega-themed racer put out by Sumo Digital.  The first game, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was actually a fairly decent kart racer, but Racing Transformed really just completely stomps all over it in quality, design, content, and ambition.  While its predecessor was a kart racer, Racing Transformed is really more an arcade racer with a fantastical and whimsical bent.  The track are far more creative and grandiose than what had been seen in the first game.  Racing Transformed borrows the Mario Kart 7 idea of having transforming vehicles (as the name implies), so you’ll be racing on wheels, water, and through the air.  In addition, it’s not just the vehicles that transform, but most of the tracks will transform in some way between laps.

Really this game leans heavily on Sega nostalgia with characters and tracks built around themes from not just popular Sega series like Sonic and Jet Set Radio, but also deep cuts like Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, and Space Channel 5.  I think one of the strengths of the sequel is that it avoids relying so heavily on Sonic themes and more evenly uses Sega’s massive catalog of brands and characters.

I think any Sega fan will probably get a kick out of it for just for how well it makes use of the many Sega worlds it dives into.  And even if you’re not a long time Sega-fan, it’s still a fundamentally good racer that focuses more on “arcadey-ness,” which makes it pretty unique considering how serious racers have become over recent years.


Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Do you like to hack?  Do you like to slash (preferably while hacking)?  If either of these things sound appealing to you, then Ys: The Oath in Felghana might be up your alley.  For those who don’t know, Ys is a long running action RPG series from Japanese developer Nihon Falcom, and Oath in Felghana is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest chapters.  Ys follows the travels of Adol Christin and his bro Dogi as they perpetually stumble into conflict with long-dormant ancient evil entities  It’s not so much an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, which focuses on loot, grinding levels, and randomized dungeons, rather its more like if Zelda became entirely combat-focused and got rid of all its puzzles to have something that’s focused just on tearing through hordes of enemies.  Like I said, it’s for those seeking a fast-paced, hack+slash experience.

I will admit that I haven’t played through the Steam version, but I’ve beaten the game on PSP, and the Steam user reviews are “Overwhelmingly Positive,” so I’m confident it’s a good PC port.  I will say, though, that if you’re looking for a  traditional JRPG, Ys might not be it (which might be a relief to many of you).  It’s not a very story heavy game, but concision works to its advantage.  Falcom works with an anime artstyle, but it’s a rather tame anime artstyle that avoids becoming the over-embellished mess that most anime artists lose control to.  In addition, the story and characters are rather heartfelt and mature.  The writers of the game expertly avoided the anime tropes that most people find obnoxious.  But then again, there story is not really all that elaborate.

*Often Ys has a series sales as part of a daily/flash deal, so I would keep a look out for that.


Gateways

Regular Sale Price: $1.49 (-70%)

Gateways is a small, but fun little 2D puzzle platformer that I think went entirely unnoticed when it was released.  It’s basically Portal in 2D.  Here, you play as a mad scientist who has lost control of his lab and must use his inventions to regain power.  That’s really all there is to it.  Your primary ability to tackle the obstacles you face is your portal gun, but it goes a step beyond what Portal does with its mechanic and allows the portal gun to be upgraded with a number of offbeat functionalities that cause the puzzles to reach far more mind-bending states than what you see in Valve’s series.  In addition to just point to point teleportation, there are portals that shrink or gigantify the protagonist, portals that shift gravity, and, by far the most impressive, portals that allow for time travel.

The time travel in this game is by far its most mind-blowing aspect.  Many video games, like P.B. Winterbottom, make use of “time travel” by allowing you to “record” a time clone of yourself that will repeat your actions, but Gateways actually has portals that connect two points in recorded time.  That is, the portals connect both a recorded “past” and the (constantly moving forward) “present” state.  I have a hard time fully articulating how it works in words, but it is a mechanic that is utterly unique in a world of puzzle platformers who often derive their mechanics from a handful of commonly recurring archetypes.


Binary Domain

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Binary Domain is a bit of a peculiar title from the 360 generation.  From an era during which action shooter games pave-rolled over the Japanese domination over consoles, Binary Domain is a fairly earnest attempt by Sega’s Yakuza team to not only try to crack into the genre but also inject some new ideas into the saturated field.  I think it’s a fairly good action game.  It doesn’t reach the same peak as Vanquish, but it doesn’t fall into an abyss like other Japanese shooters of the time like Quantum Theory and MindJack.

The game features an international team of peacekeepers who have been sent into Japan to arrest the leader of the Amada Corporation who has been creating illegal human-like robots.  Of course, the mission doesn’t go that easy, and you end up fighting his vast army of robots through the streets of cyberpunk Japan.  The game’s main gimmick beyond the gunplay is that the team members have a dynamic interaction system, and you can respond in various ways to their conversations using the d-pad (I strongly recommend a controller for this game).  Depending on your responses, each team member will either grow to like or hate you, which will influence their actions in the heat of battle.

The story gets a bit…ummm… anime weird, for lack of a better word.  It’s an okay story I think, but I have a hard time following the characters’ motivations sometimes.  When the villain finally revealed his ultimate evil plan to the protagonist, I really didn’t understand why it was such a bad thing.  It seemed really innocuous, maybe actually good for the world.  Still, I enjoyed my time with the game.  The gunplay is merely competent, but still fun.  And even though the story turns into a poor imitation of a Philip K. Dick novel, I really enjoyed fighting alongside the cool characters that made up my team.  After all, one of your partners is a  French karate robot who might as well be voiced by Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.

*Since this game comes from a major publisher, I fully expect it to go lower on a featured deal at some point.


Well that’s all for Part 1, make sure to keep an eye out for Part 2 coming soon!

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

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There was a time when I didn’t really think much of Bethesda as a publisher.  Their Bethesda Softworks developed games in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series were great (especially the Obsidian-outsourced Fallout: New Vegas), but their publishing arm was falling flat on its face with failures like Rogue Warrior, Brink, Hunted and Rage.  The latter was most disappointing as it was a long awaited project from the well-established id Software.  But over the last few years, my opinion of them has really changed.  Seems like things started to turn around with Dishonored, and since then they’ve released the The Evil Within and Wolfenstein: The New Order, both of which have been far better received than their earlier output. With such output, I guess it only makes sense that they plan to have their own big announcement show at E3 this year.  I hope we’ll see some hints that they plan to continue the Wolfenstein series after the spectacular entry last year, but if not, at least they’ve released some new add-on content for the previous game.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is the new standalone expansion content for The New Order, a game that was amongst my bright spots of last year.  Seemingly, Machine Games originally intended to release two DLC add-ons for The New Order but instead have ultimately combined the two add-on packs into a standalone game available on digital storefronts for $20.  Honestly, it’s a move that makes sense.  In a game like New Vegas, it makes sense that the add-on content isn’t standalone, because it requires you to have a preexisting character from the main game.  For The Old Blood, nothing carries over from New Order’s campaign, and, consequently, there’s really no reason to exclude anyone who hasn’t played the original campaign.  Of course, I recommend playing The New Order first if you haven’t already.  Even though it’s a more expensive game, the additional price is worth it if you like non-open world, heavily story-driven action games.

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The Old Blood is a prequel to The New Order detailing B.J.’s mission to Castle Wolfenstein (here called Wolfenstein Keep) to collect intel that will precipitate the assault on Deathshead’s fortress that kicks off at the start of The New Order.  The Old Blood’s campaign is somewhat curious as it actually seems to finally break the tortuous Wolfenstein timeline.  The New Order ostensibly takes place in the same timeline as Wolf3D, with Robo-Hitler dead after B.J.’s assault on the original Castle Wolfenstein, and the mad scientist Deathshead left in control of the fascist forces of Germany.  However, The Old Blood seems to imply that this is B.J.’s first incursion into the titular fortress, and considering that the end of The Old Blood sets up the beginning of The New Order, the original game thus seems to have been taken out of the currently existing timeline (as well as all other pre-Bethesda Wolfenstein games).  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  Considering that Castle Wolfenstein is the series namesake, I would expect B.J.’s mission there to be a little more epic than what is appears in this installment.

The New Order was a heavily story-driven experience, a product of Machine Games whose members can boast such titles as The Darkness and Assault on Butcher Bay as part of their CVs.  If you’ve heard anything about The Old Blood, then it’s probably that narrative takes a big backseat in this new content.  The story is a throwback to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, focusing more on the Nazi’s experimentations with the occult than the retro-futuristic sci-fi bent of The New Order.  It’s incredibly noticeable that The Old Blood was originally intended as two DLC packs, as you can easily tell where the game was split down the middle.  The first four chapters feature B.J. escaping from Wolfenstein Keep and facing off against the iron-willed Rudi Jager, while the second set of chapters noticeably translocates the action to a Nazi archaeological dig led by the obsessed Helga Von Schabbs.  I think the villains are definitely memorable in their depravity, and there are a few interesting characters you get to meet along the way, but in general, the story of The Old Blood is a very straightforward mission of elude the bad guys and steal the intel you seek.  The heartfelt characters, the desperation of their struggle, and the glory of their victories and brutalities of their defeats gave The New Order a beautifully compelling story, especially so when you considered that it was found within such a bombastic action game.  Those story elements are lightly touched on again here, but if you found the primary draw of The New Order to be its (relatively) complex and sympathetic narrative, then The Old Blood is probably not going to be for you.

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It’s a good thing that the action gameplay is still good!  Like it’s predecessor, The Old Blood is just a very good, fluid shooter.  As I mentioned in my review of the previous game, while aim-down-sights is an option, it’s hardly necessary in this game.  It has the sensibility of a traditional PC game with fast but functional shooting while still maintaining a focus on mobility.  Cover is a big part of the game, but instead of docking to a surface as in most modern shooters, it gives you the ability to lean in any direction (even up), so you can shoot from behind obstacles.  Leaning feels very natural and doesn’t work to slow down the action as the sticky cover systems of most shooters do.

The enemy variety is okay, nothing particularly great.  The two main enemies you fight are your standard Nazi with a machine gun and a variant of heavily armored shotgunner.  The shotgunners are not easy to kill head on, but if you take time to aim for their explosive backpacks, you can take them and a few surrounding enemies out in one hit.  This interestingly lead me to using the sniper rifle a lot (and in relatively close quarters).  In addition to these two main enemy types, there’s also some super soldiers, snipers, drones and a few novel one-off enemies sprinkled in.  Some might consider this a spoiler, but considering the occult subject matter it’s not hard to predict that there are Nazi zombies thrown in the late game as well.  This makes for a few interesting three-way battles, but I don’t think it’s an idea that’s used as well as it could have been.

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Finally, just like in it’s predecessor, stealth is a major component of the game, but it’s entirely optional.  When B.J. enters an area, the enemies are often unaware of his presence, giving him the opportunity to pick them off from the shadows, either by getting a takedown from directly behind or by using the silenced pistol to deliver headshots.  Other than one section early in the game, stealth isn’t necessary.  If you want to go in guns blazing, then it’s still entirely possible to progress via that route.  As before, most areas are patrolled by “officer” enemies whose positions are revealed on the HUD.  If these officer enemies are aware of B.J.’s presence, they’ll radio in continuous reinforcements until they’re eliminated.  This provides the primary incentive for the stealth approach, as killing the officers stealthily avoids having to deal with respawning waves of enemies, but the respawning enemies aren’t so numerous that it’s not possible to make a direct assault at the officers to cut them off.

For me personally, I just like to play it via stealth.  I’ve always enjoyed games that allow me to play as a predator hiding in the shadows, the aggressive type of stealth seen in The Last of Us and Splinter Cell: Conviction as opposed to the ghost-like stealth of, say, traditional Splinter Cell which rewards being completely unseen and unheard.  I snuck through most sections at least until I took down the officers.  One thing though, once B.J. is spotted, he’s spotted, and every enemy in the area becomes aware of his exact position at all times.  There’s no way to hide because they just know where you are, kind of like the stealth in the latest Tomb Raider.  I’m not sure if this is because the developers didn’t want to have to create additional AI behavior for the enemies, or if they just didn’t want the hide-and-seek seen in most stealth games to slow down the flow of the game.

As a side note, I’ve heard and read a lot of people get discouraged with one of the earliest sections of the game.  Very early on in the game, there is a 30 minute or so stretch where B.J. only has access to a broken pipe for a weapon.  The ensuing section is stealth-heavy, and B.J. must sneak past a series of super soldiers tethered to power-rails because he’s not capable of taking them on directly with just the pipe.  The super soldiers can be shut down temporarily using timed switches that kill electricity to the rails that the super soldiers get power from.  A lot of people seem to be having trouble with this section, but I found it to be very light.  A few tips I can think to give people is that once the super soldiers are shut down, they can be permanently destroyed by coming up behind them and using the pipe to tear off the power tether.  Also, their guns can be picked up and used on other super soldiers (although movement is greatly encumbered when carrying this weapon).  If you aim just above the super soldiers’ heads, you can destroy the tether permanently deactivating them that way.  When they are destroyed, they drop lots of armor to collect.  And if everything else fails, you can also run away from the super soldiers since they’re confined to their rails.  They’ll eventually forget about you since they have short memories (the only enemy in the game that does).    2015-05-19_00003

In short, I really enjoyed my time with The Old Blood.  It doesn’t reach the same highs as its predecessor, especially in story, and I wouldn’t recommend this game to someone mostly into Wolfenstein for Machine Games’ storytelling prowess.  But the action design is still there, even if it isn’t particularly advanced over the predecessor.  If you think of The Old Blood as a DLC add-on pack, it’s easier to appreciate the game, I think.  After all, it seems to me like it’s so rare for DLC packs to really offer up anything substantial to a game.  I finished the game after 6-7 hours (or so Steam tells me), and I definitely think I was satisfied with what was there.  I recommend the game, but not highly so.  If you’re on the fence, maybe just wait for a Steam sale.  It’s worth playing, but not worth wasting money on if you’re unsure.

Shadowgate: Difficulty, Defeat, and Resignation

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There’s nothing quite like the difficulty of old school adventure games. Of course old games in general tend to be quite hard, from finicky NES platformers like TMNT to overbearing arcade beat’em ups like, well, TMNT arcade. There are a couple of reasons why this was the case. Arcade games were made excessively challenging to string gamers into dropping more quarters into the slot. NES games were often made with shoe-string budgets by small teams on time (and technology) constraints who didn’t put much effort into fine-tuning the fairness of their game. Sometimes, they were just created by crazy people like David Crane who thought that if a game wasn’t a grueling Sisyphean exercise then the gamer wouldn’t be getting their money worth. But nothing out of the pool of retro games really compares to the inscrutability of old school adventure games with their insanely cryptic puzzles, pixel-hunting, and often opaque and impenetrable logic. Sometimes solving these puzzles felt like you had to expand your mind to higher dimensional planes.  Of course, you could take the easy way out and gather the solutions from someone else, but in the age before the proliferation of internet access that was not necessarily easy.

My mind had slowly and mercifully forgotten about how puckishly bewildering these games could be until the recent release of Shadowgate on Steam. This new Shadowgate is a sort of expanded remake of the original Mac/NES game and another product of the Kickstarter nostalgia funding craze. If you wanted a faithful but modernized recreation of the old Shadowgate, then you’re probably going to be pretty pleased with this latest release. The new version possesses three difficulty levels with slightly modified puzzles for each, but from what I’ve played, all difficulties maintain Castle Shadowgate as an utterly baffling enigma. In other words, this game is old-school hard. To my knowledge, I’ve never played the original Shadowgate, but this new release basically falls in line with some of the adventure games I remember from that era. The game requires the player to pixel hunt (there is no convenient feature for highlighting interactive objects as is common in modern adventure games), puzzle over the uses for a particular item as it is often unclear (if it has any use at all, and sometimes you find yourself testing every item in your inventory on a feature of the environment in the mad hope that the solution will simply emerge), and finally, to top it all off, the game has a time limit by way of your dwindling torch. The torch goes out after you do a certain number of actions and if you don’t have a replacement torch, its game over. I find that progress in the game has entirely no momentum. After being stuck in the game for the better part of an hour, I was delighted to find a secret passageway behind which I thought I would find all the items I needed to solve the puzzles I was stuck on. That glimmer of hope was pretty short-lived, however, since all I found were more puzzles and no apparent solutions back there.

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Recently, I’ve undergone a major transition in my life. I completed my doctoral dissertation and left school in February, but I didn’t start my new job (which has required a cross-country move) until recently. (I started this blog back in April as a means to maintain sanity during the months of unemployment.) The move to a new city and a new job has gotten me in a mood where I’ve begun to question a lot of things in my life, my interests and past-times included. Video games have been a pretty big part of my life ever since I started gaming on the NES at the age of 4. I know there have been a lot of negative things going on in some circles of the gaming community lately, and some people have expressed that freely admitting to having a deep interest and appreciation of the craft of video games is appalling and embarrassing, but I can’t concur. Some people may find it a shameful waste of time that could have been devoted to more worthwhile interests, but is it any different than being deep into a favored sports team or being hooked on the latest fashions or dying to see the latest superstar in concert? These are, after all, interests that millions of Americans and millions upon millions more in countries beyond possess. During my introspection, I’ve come to realize that I’ve seen a lot happen and a lot change in the sphere of gaming during my life, starting from fuzzy, pixelated, bleep-bloopey NES games to polygonalized PSX games with redbook audio and from arcade dominance of multiplayer gaming to the arrival of the internet-connected arenas and fantasy worlds of the late ‘90s. And that’s just scraping the surface of the evolution that I’ve seen take place. From such a perspective, it’s hard to think of the craft of video games as something that isn’t worthy of appreciation. But gamers can differ pretty wildly in what types of games and what aspects of games they appreciate. I personally try to keep an open-mind toward everything, but there are definitely elements of what I play that I value more than others.

One thing that I do value highly is a well-designed challenge. I think a lot of gamers, particularly older ones with children, prefer games that they can quickly beat because they are only playing for the “experience” and aren’t interested so much in mechanical depth, which is fine for those people I guess. I also know that some believe video games are merely supposed to be “empowerment fantasies” which make the player feel like a larger than life hero, and a challenging difficulty level is not conducive toward that effect. I’m a little more dismissive of this latter viewpoint. I don’t really see how playing a game where you fight an army of pushovers is supposed to be empowering. Any victory achieved in such a game feels empty to me. Rather, I feel empowered by successfully honing my skills toward mastering adversity and challenge that is presented to me. I’ve always found Megaman games to be a perfect example of why I find challenge important. With each new level you enter, you struggle as you hone your skills, but eventually with patience and attentiveness, you’ll be able to reach the robot master and deliver unto him the beat down he deserves. And after besting such formidable bosses and levels, there’s always that wonderful feeling of catharsis in knowing how expertly you overcame it all. I also feel that challenge is important to making a game memorable. Easy games tend not to be particularly memorable to me, because it just sort of feels like I’m going through the motions to reach the end credits roll. Appropriate difficulty, on the other hand, necessitates a closer relationship between the player and the game as a greater effort must be effected toward understanding and paying attention to the game.

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While I personally deeply appreciate challenge, I have limits, and Shadowgate tests those limits with the severity of its puzzles. When I give up on a game, it tends to be because I find it boring, but Shadowgate is the first game since the Megaman Zero Collection on DS that I’ve thought about giving up on because it was just too hard for me. Contradictorily, I keep playing the game simply because it vexes me to the point that I refuse to let it defeat me, and, consequently, I’m hooked on the game even though I’m not sure if I’m actually having fun, and this makes me question whether spending time with it is worthwhile.

Clearly Shadowgate is stimulating to me, since I keep returning to the whole grueling ordeal, but is it a meaningful kind of stimulation? I’m very quickly starting to feel that it isn’t, as I’m just not achieving much satisfaction from play. I don’t feel the same catharsis that I feel after taking down a robot master. Any progress I make in Shadowgate doesn’t come with the joy of accomplishment; rather it is tempered with full realization of my cluelessness regarding all the other tests that are left unsolved in the castle. As I said, there’s little momentum in this game. It truly is old-school hard, as advertised.

Since I find the game too hard, I’m confronted with a few options. I could just simply give up. That seems too easy, and, as I’ve said, I want to appreciate games and that would rob me of that goal. I mean, someone out there must appreciate this game, or it wouldn’t have been Kickstarted back from the grave, meaning there must be something worthwhile here. I could abuse the overly helpful, hint-dispensing sidekick character and coast through the rest of the game, but that would rob me of any feeling of personal achievement and, as I’ve discussed above, closeness to the game experience. Instead, I think I’m going to do something that I’ve always ridiculed others for. I’m starting over in easy mode. That way, I still get to gain some appreciation without having to have my hand embarrassingly held through the whole experience. And I have a feeling that easy mode in this game is still pretty hard.

So there you go, a rare admission that I suck at something and I’m totally knocking it down to baby mode. Shadowgate has truly humbled me. Next thing you know, I will no longer consider those who shirk away from Dark Souls to be a bunch of casual hardly-cores. Truly, a new day is dawning in my life.

Shovel Knight: Progressive Regression

Honestly, I’m kind of ambivalent toward of retro-obsessed gaming. And when I say “retro-obsessed gaming,” I’m not necessarily talking about games with pixel art aesthetics, as there are games that make use of pixel art but rely on fairly original gameplay design as opposed to being an evocation of a popular back-in-the-day title(s) (some examples that immediately come to mind of these fully modern pixellated games include Lone Survivor, Fez, FTL and Gunpoint). I’m really talking about games that are focused on being a throwback to the past, such as Volgarr the Viking, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or the recent remake of DuckTales. Some years ago when this phenomenon started, I was super excited for games like Mega Man 9 and Scott Pilgrim. Nowadays, when I find myself seeing games which promote themselves on retro-cred, I tend to just roll my eyes.

Maybe my distaste is just a matter of the novelty wearing off, but more likely I think it’s because this genre has become saturated with games which are more focused on obsessing over the old games the creator loved than actually creating a fun underlying game. Perhaps the worst example of this behavior I can think of is Retro City Rampage, the gaming equivalent of those awful reference humor movies that were hugely popular like 8 years ago. It is a game which makes hundreds of references to older games, such as Frogger and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as ‘80s pop culture, but in the preoccupation with making so many references, the developer failed to create a game that was actually fun to play. And the references aren’t even particularly well-done, since it was never realized that references aren’t funny in and of themselves. There’s no subtlety or cleverness to the whole act, and it is neither funny nor amusing, but simply the game going “HEY, REMEMBER THIS? REMEMBER IT??? YOU’RE COOL ENOUGH TO KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT AREN’T YOU?” The bad habit of lamely throwing out references just for the sake of throwing out references or trying to prove the developer’s gaming repute crops up in a lot of small developer titles, but that entire trend basically became crystallized in Retro City Rampage. On the other hand, one of my favorite games I’ve played this year was Volgarr the Viking, a throwback game which tries to capture the spirit of old sidescrolling action games like Rastan and Legendary Axe. (I’ve written more about this game here.) The team behind Volgarr successfully captured the essence of those games to make something enjoyable to play, while managing to avoid becoming fixated on nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. My time with Volgarr has led me to believe that these throwback games aren’t just a novelty, but rather a legitimate approach to game design when handled competently.

This brings us to Shovel Knight. I initially wrote this game off because every time it was previewed before release, it seemed the developers were really tripping over themselves to name drop as many classic NES games as they could. But after its recent release, I heard some positive buzz from other players, so I decided to give it a go and hope for a Volgarr and not an RCR. Fortunately, I ended up having a blast with the game and in my mind it’s sort of the template of how throwback gaming should be handled.

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Some background first, Shovel Knight was Kickstarted last year by freshman developer group Yacht Club Games and follows the sidescrolling action-platforming adventure of the eponymous Shovel Knight, whose quest takes him up against the eight rogue knights of the Order of No Quarter and their leader, the Enchantress. The game is sort of built in the template of Mega Man. The Order of No Quarter is composed of knights whose names all follow a convention of being titled “_____” Knight, where the blank is filled in with some sort of theme for that character which is reflected in the level they are fought. (Also notice that there are eight of them.) The levels also have a definite Mega Man feel to them, since each level has its own special gimmicks and features derived from the particular theme. Consequently, the level design has a sort of Mega Man “toughness,” since each level tests the player with its own unique challenges that must be mastered to progress. The other major game I see in Shovel Knight’s genetics is Zelda II. The game has an overworld map for selecting levels that reminds me a lot of Zelda II, complete with towns and side areas to visit in addition to the main Order of No Quarter stages. Shovel Knight can also bounce off of enemies using a downward strike similar to a move Link utilizes in Zelda II.

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Yet despite the fact that you can clearly see the influences of Mega Man and Zelda in Shovel Knight, it manages to feel like an original game, not just a hollow mimic of some old beloved NES title. This is because, although it stitches together a handful of borrowed ideas from the classics, it differentiates itself in every other way. I’ll illustrate a few examples here: The levels are designed like Mega Man, but Shovel Knight is a melee-oriented character which alters the flow of gameplay. Like Mega Man, Shovel Knight can acquire new powers, called relics, but these are collected not from defeated bosses, but rather a hidden merchant in each level from which the knight can buy the relic. This makes rooting around for hidden rooms all the more important in Shovel Knight as well as collecting treasure for upgrades. (There are a ton of secrets in this game, which I like a lot, and it really goes toward capturing the NES spirit.) Also, the robot masters in Mega Man are all essentially just Mega Man with a different gun, while the members of the Order of No Quarter come in various sizes and with moves that are radically different from what Shovel Knight can pull off. (It’s kind of like the difference between Mega Man X bosses and original series robot masters.) These are just some examples of the ways in which Shovel Knight forges its own identity.

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This is why Shovel Knight succeeds where so many are falling flat right now. Shovel Knight has influences, not references. It’s clear that the Order of No Quarter are creative descendants of the robot masters, the developer just lets that fact lie without needing to beat the player over the head with mentions and jokes about it. I never found a single bit of reference humor in the game, which means it’s either not there or it’s incredibly subtle. Shovel Knight honors its NES roots by utilizing ideas that were loved from those games, but it creates its own identity by uniting those borrowed ideas with its own original designs. It’s offering the spirit of its roots, not wearing the dead skin of them. Most importantly though, when synthesizing these ideas together, the developers of Shovel Knight actually paid attention to whether their game was fun or not, rather than simply relying on nostalgia to hook players. If you’ve never played any Mega Man or Zelda II, I really doubt you’d be held back from enjoying Shovel Knight on its own merits.

I think some developers feel that nostalgia is worthwhile on its own, but it’s really not. RCR, which offers nothing but nostalgia, was received terribly; while Shovel Knight has achieved fairly high acclaim. The problem is that I think a lot of gamers feelthey want nostalgia, and therefore it is a fairly good aspect to base a promotional campaign around. Before RCR’s release, a ton of gamers, myself included, were excited by videos showing pixelated graphics and missions calling back to TMNT, Metal Gear, and so on. But when the game was finally released, the realization hit that it was all style and no substance. The failure of RCR and other games marketed heavily on such nostalgia (DuckTales quickly comes to mind) has unfortunately resulted in a lot of cynicism toward this approach to game design. But as games like Shovel Knight and Volgarr the Viking prove, such an approach can actually result in games that are both a lot of fun and also really unique when handled by those who put creating a great game first, rather than trying to create shallow imitations of past glories.

Ten Underrated Steals from the Steam Summer Sale

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

Super House of Dead Ninjas

Dead Ninjas

Regular Sale Price: $1.74

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

The Oddbox

Oddbox

Regular Sale Price: $4.99

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

Super Puzzle Platformer

Puzzle Platformer

Regular Sale Price: $1.99

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

Ms. Splosion Man

Ms. Splosion Man

Regular Sale Price: $2.49

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

Half-Minute Hero

Half-minute Hero

Regular Sale Price: $2.49

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

Gunpoint

Gunpoint

Regular Sale Price: $4.99

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

Super Splatters

Splatters

Regular Sale Price: $3.99

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

The Blackwell Bundle

Blackwell

Regular Sale Price: $4.99

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

Legend of Grimrock

Grimrock

Regular Sale Price: $5.09

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

System Shock 2

Shock2

Regular Sale Price: $3.99

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

Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Points:

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

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

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

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

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

Neutral Points:

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

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

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

Negative Points:

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

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

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

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

Full Bore and SteamWorld Dig: Games about Digging

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

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

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

SteamWorld 1

SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig

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

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

Full Bore 1

Full Bore

Full Bore

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

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

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

 

 

 

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