Like the changing of the seasons, the Earth rolls once again around its orbit so that the sun and stars may align for the Steam Summer Sale. I always find the Steam sale is a good time to take advantage of the low prices to try out games I wouldn’t normally. For the past few years, I’ve written up posts highlighting games that I think are underrated gems and are also going for dirt cheap prices. I try to keep the recommendations to lesser known games that are going for under $5, so that people may be encouraged to try some new things without spending a lot. Of course, previous years’ recommendations also still stand, as well. The Steam Summer Sale is set to end next Wednesday, July 5th.
(All prices listed in USD.)
Sale Price: $4.99
The struggles of Sonic the Hedgehog in the post-Genesis world are no secret. There have been a lot of terrible Sonic games since the days of 16-bit glory, but there have been a precious handful of good ones. I don’t think any of them have been great, certainly nothing that has competed with the lofty trajectory Mario has continued to take, but there have definitely been a few good ones. Of these, I think Sonic Generations is easily the best. As its name sort of implies, Sonic Generations features a combination of 2D and 3D gameplay set across a collection of remixed zones taken from previous games in the series’ history. I personally had a ton of fun with both aspects of the game, 2D and 3D. Whereas a lot of Sonic games struggle to get even the fundamentals right, Sonic Generations managed to create a game that cut out a lot of the noise that has held the series back all these years.
Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut
Sale Price: $1.74
Q.U.B.E. is a first-person puzzle game heavily inspired by Portal. In Q.U.B.E., the player has the ability to telekinetically manipulate colored blocks to overcome obstacles in the environment. The trick is that each type of colored block has different properties. Unlike its obvious inspiration, Portal, the original release of Q.U.B.E. was pretty absent of any storytelling. It was more focused on puzzle design. The Director’s Cut release that is now up on Steam seems to have a bit more explicit story added to the game, however, I’ve only played the original release, so I can’t say for sure.
Sale Price: $2.49
Virginia is a first-person narrative game that left a huge impression on me last year. Virginia tells the story of FBI Agent Anne Tarver who finds herself caught in a mystery that possesses shades of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks. Two of the most interesting aspects of Virginia is that the story is told with entirely silent characters, and individual scenes mostly only last a few minutes at the most. The pacing, absence of dialogue, and dreamlike story beats result in a game that packs a strong surrealist punch.
Volgarr the Viking
Sale Price: $1.99
Volgarr the Viking is a hack-and-slash sidescroller for people into hardcore challenges. I find it akin to retro games like the NES Castlevania or the Shinobi series. This game is really really hard, but completely possible to master if you put in the time to hone your skills and learn the game’s levels. You’ll have to die a lot if you want to finish Volgarr, but the point is to learn from each death and to adapt. Hard as it may be, nothing in the game is unfair. I only really recommend this game to people who are into games with brutal learning curves.
Odallus: The Dark Call
Sale Price: $2.99
Like Volgarr, Odallus is another retro-inspired sidescroller. The difficulty, though, is quite a bit more generous than Volgarr, although I wouldn’t call it an easy game. In addition to sidescrolling action and platforming, Odallus has a bit more of an open-ended nature to it which encourages the player to explore. It’s not a “Metroidvania” per se, but there are many secret areas with hidden upgrades in the game that allow the player to access new areas. Furthermore, many of the levels have multiple exits, which lead to alternative paths on the world map. As a consequence, you do a lot of backtracking and exploring like in a Metroid game.
Lara Croft Go
Sale Price: $3.39
Lara Croft Go is a turn and grid-based reimagining of the Tomb Raider series that was first released on mobile phones a few years ago, but the game has also made its way to Steam and Vita. Replacing the platforming and action that the series is known for with turn-based puzzles might not seem terribly exciting, but the creativity that the designers put into Lara Croft Go resulted in a really inventive experience. Many of the series’ trademarks find new interpretations, such as dangerous creatures to outwit, traps to outmaneuver, and precarious pitfalls to escape. I will say, I have seen this game go for lower than the $3.39 Steam sale price on the Android app store, so if you like playing games on your phone, it may be best to look out for it there.
Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition
Sale Price: $5.99
I try to keep this list to games below $5, but I made an exception for Sleeping Dogs. One of the most underrated games to come out at the tail-end of the Xbox 360 and PS3’s life cycle, Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-style open world game that is set in the Hong Kong criminal underworld. The game tells the story of Wei Shen, an undercover police officer, as he works his way up the ranks of the city’s organized crime. The game differentiates itself from GTA by placing a greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, ostensibly because firearms are harder to come by in Hong Kong than the USA. In addition, Wei Shen’s tale was surprisingly well-developed, and the game had probably one of the best stories I’ve seen in a game like this.
BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
Sale Price: $4.94
Runner2 describes itself as a “rhythm-music platforming game”. It’s actually one of those games where the character is constantly running, but unlike most games in the genre, the levels aren’t randomized and they have a finite end. In the game, you control Commander Video (with additional unlockable playable characters) as he runs, jumps, slides, and kicks his way through… wherever he is. I’m not actually sure what this game’s odd setting is supposed to be. It’s called a rhythm game because if you’re making the correct moves at the correct times, the actions correlate to the rhythm of the soundtrack. The game is a sequel to BIT.TRIP Runner, which is also a pretty good game on sale.
Sale Price: $1.49
Hard Reset is a first-person shooter with a heavy focus on fast-paced action and large swarms of enemies. It’s sort of like Serious Sam, in a way, where the game just likes to spam hordes of enemies at the player, although I don’t quite think it gets to the same scale as Serious Sam. It’s definitely a game where the player has to stay on their toes. The game takes place in a visually incredible cyberpunk setting where robots have overtaken all but one last human city. I recommend the game mainly to people looking for an unfettered action experience.
Sale Price: $0.49
Toki Tori 2+
Sale Price: $3.74
Toki Tori is a sidescrolling puzzle game based on a cult-classic Gameboy Color title of the same name. In the game, players guide a big yellow, egg-shaped bird as he/she attempts to collect all the eggs in each level. The catch is that the bird (whose name I assume is Toki Tori) can’t jump, meaning players must carefully figure out how to maneuver through each stage without getting stuck. (Don’t worry, if you do get stuck, there’s a time rewind mechanic that allows mistakes to be undone without having to reset completely.) Furthermore, the bird is given a specific set of limited use items in each level to help him/her get around. These items include things like teleporters that allows it to go through walls and a freeze gun that neutralizes enemies.
The sequel Toki Tori 2+ is also worth playing, perhaps more so since it ditches discrete levels for an elaborate open-world. It’s a huge change from the first game. This time, the bird sets off on an adventure to find five mystical frogs hidden in the massive overworld. Instead of items, the bird must learn how to manipulate creatures and objects in the environment using two moves, whistling (attractive) and stomping (repulsive). This game has generated a cult-following of its own due to the unique approach it takes to the puzzle-platforming genre.
That’s all the recommendations I have for this year. If you have recommendations of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments section!
We live in an age where so many games are beginning to appear under the derisive moniker of “walking simulator”, and I think I may have finally found one that really clicks with me in a big way. I can’t say there’s much gameplay to Virginia. And what I mean by that is that there’s not much challenge presented to the player that needs be overcome to progress. Rather, the game takes place across a number of relatively rapid-fire scenes that largely advance with little input from the player. Sometimes, all you’re given is a small area to explore with the scene ending when the player has found something to trigger the next major event in the story. But often, the player isn’t even given full control of the main character, and instead just sees parts of the story acted out in front of her eyes. The game doesn’t even do the Telltale thing of creating the illusion that player choice actually has an impact on the proceeding events. It’s essentially just a first-person movie which frequently requires a little bit of interaction on the player’s part.
I don’t hate this type of game, the kind that focuses so heavily on narrative that it doesn’t offer many traditional gameplay hooks. But I do think with no real complex gameplay present, it falls entirely on the story of Virginia to make the game successful. If that part isn’t more than just good, then, well, the game as a whole simply isn’t worthwhile. I’m happy to say that Virginia left a big impression on me in this regard. Despite being clearly derivative of two major inspirations, The X-Files and Twin Peaks, I felt the story it had to tell was both sincere and freshly intriguing.
Virginia tells the story of recently inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver, who has been assigned by her superiors under dubious motives to partner with and monitor fellow agent Maria Halperin. As I mentioned above, Virginia has a clear influence from The X-Files, and fans of that show will immediately see the Mulder-Scully relationship as prototypical of that of Maria and Anne. On their first joint assignment, the partners set out to the city of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a local teenager. The mystery in Kingdom more prominently features the game’s Twin Peaks influence, as Anne begins experiencing otherworldly visions that strongly evoke the classic ‘90s TV series.
But despite the investigation in Kingdom being the catalyst for the story, I felt there was far more emphasis placed on the developing relationship between Anne and Maria, or at least that was the side of the story that I found more interesting. I don’t want to delve too far into it, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I felt that Anne’s internal struggle across the breadth of the proceedings gave way to a character arc that was far more poignant and sincere than is typical of video game protagonists. Most games tend to tell grandiose tales of global salvation or extraordinary events, but Virginia’s more personal focus makes for something that has far more heart and feeling.
The effectiveness of Virginia’s narrative resonance is heavily based in its rapid pacing of scenes and events. Rarely does a particular scene last for more than a handful of minutes. The speed at which the story moves means that there are no lulls or dips, and, instead, I feel like the player just gets a very concentrated experience that leaves a big emotional impression. The swift movement of the narrative is accomplished with two bold storytelling techniques that I think most players will find peculiar of Virginia. The first is that the experience is entirely non-verbal. No words are ever spoken in the game. Instead, the player must rely mostly on body language and context to understand the unfolding events. The results are that the game doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy dialogue sequences, but it leaves many aspects of the story to the player’s inference. I think the latter consequence, however, is also a favorable part of the experience, since it drives a sense of curiosity and wonder.
The second major effect employed by the game are the jump cuts between scenes that were heavily discussed around the game’s release due to their technically impressive nature. Transitions between scenes are immediate and seamless. For instance, one moment you’ll be in your office at the FBI, the next moment you’ll be in a car driving through the countryside. This is pretty unique in gaming, since transitions between environments usually require at least a short loading screen, while in Virginia the change is instantaneous. This facilitates the fleet pacing that I think was essential to this game’s success.
Virginia only took me ~2 hours to beat (as counted by Steam), but I personally didn’t mind its brevity. I think being able to finish the game without needing to take breaks was beneficial to the overall experience. Virginia is ultimately one of those games that walks the fine line between being pretentious and profound, and I think for the most part it doesn’t falter on this point. The non-verbal, expeditious story leaves a lot on the player to try to understand on their own, but I think it’s effective and creates a level of wonderment and sentimentality that I greatly enjoyed.
Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion by Lag Studios is the next game on my Halloween playlist. As an avid enthusiast of history, you, the player, decide to embark on a mission to explore a local abandoned mansion whose past is shrouded in mystery. Upon entering the abode, you are greeted by the gal ghost Spooky, who challenges you to survive all 1000 rooms of her haunted lair.
The layout of the massive titular mansion is procedurally generated. The player is tasked with overcoming 1000 rooms in the house, and a little counter exists at the top of the screen which keeps track of progress. The house is mostly composed of a limited set of pre-designed rooms which are put together in a random sequence that changes each time the player starts up the game. Because there’s a much smaller number of these pre-made rooms than the 1000 total, you’ll see a lot of them repeated over and over again across the course of the game. There are certain specific rooms, however, that always appear at the same spot in the overall sequence. These rooms are usually considerably more elaborate than the others and serve to give some story to the game and usually set up the appearance of a new monstrous resident of the mansion.
The monsters of the game, called specimens, are the source of the adventure’s challenge, along with the player’s nerve to move forward. When specimens appear, they give chase to the main character through the randomized rooms of the mansion. It’s not the most complex game, and often it is pretty easy to outrun the various specters. They doggedly pursue you from room to room, but will stop after predetermined points. Things get a little more complicated later in the game, as there are certain tricks the player needs to figure out to escape the more advanced specimens. Eventually, the player also gets a weapon of dubious effectiveness.
The story in SJSM is rather minimal and exists purely to provide flavor to the haunted adventure. The Jump Scare Mansion and its mistress possess a mish-mash of chilling horrors and flippant comedy. Despite being home to some truly evil supernatural entities, the mansion sometimes feels like an elaborate practical joke. Spooky comes off like a juvenile prankster who has assembled the horrific deathtrap not out of prime malevolence, but more for her own dark yet frivolous amusement. In addition to the more elaborate story-centric rooms I described above, little snippets of story tend to emerge here and there. The player can find bits of text, like notes left behind by other foolish trespassers, and occasionally, Spooky, herself, will come out to interact with the player for a short bit. But otherwise, there’s not much of grandiose plot behind the game. All of these little story bits exist merely to enhance the mood and atmosphere.
Despite the fact that the game is built from a fairly small set of simple rooms strung together by procedural generation, I felt like it still managed to be highly effective at creating atmosphere and tension. Much of this was due to how the game continually subverted my expectations. For the first several rooms, you are faced only with goofy pop-out haunted house scares, until you meet the first specimen, a fairly uninspired creature which only slowly gives chase. But from then on out, the specimens become increasingly disturbing, and eventually the game began to challenge the “rules” by which I thought it worked. There were times I felt like I was safe, only to be desperately alarmed to find out otherwise. Eventually, even during the down periods in which there were no monsters present, I felt constantly uneasy, because I realized anything could happen at anytime. By keeping the player on their toes in this way, the designers were able to create a level of tension and suspense that I felt was highly effective.
It’s often said that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. It might be a trite saying, but I find that it is especially true with games. I’ve noticed in SJSM that the scariest parts of the game are when there are no active threats against the player. It was those times when there was nothing chasing me that I began to psyche myself out while waiting for the next monster to dreadfully appear. When the monsters finally did present themselves, I found my stress rapidly dropped off, since I could more rationally assess the threat.
I often find people say that video games can’t be scary, because the player can just reset to the last save point if they die, and thus there is no real danger to be fearful. That point isn’t really wrong, but I think it misses a huge element of video game horror. The true horror of video games, like the true horror of any fiction, comes from withinside the player, themselves. It’s the dreadful anticipation of what might be lying around the next corner, the internal struggle of the player against their own imagination of the frights to come, that makes us terrified when we otherwise have no rational reason to be. In reality, I think the monsters are the least scary part of any horror game. Rather, it’s the atmosphere which creates true tension and dread in these games.
Despite its simplistic gameplay and primitive Doom-like graphics, I found Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion to be a great horror game. It’s not the most elaborate game, but the setting and atmosphere really make up for it. I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet, which is that the game is free on Steam. And with such unsophisticated graphics, it’ll run on even the most basic PCs, so I encourage everyone whose interest I might have piqued to give the game a try.
For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar. The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger. From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo. And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist. But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo. The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.
Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them. However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different. Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister. But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes. The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him. Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.
The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects. Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game. Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment. Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages. Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.
One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error. That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died. Some people disliked this, some were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t mind. The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo. With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo. Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common. As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.
A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there. I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax. There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside. And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming. Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball. If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.
Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution. I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act. Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments. Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.
Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much. I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason. I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo. Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.
A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many. For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game. A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough. I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.
But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game? Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside? My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks. But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true. The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions. The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output. I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.
Inside is a cool game. While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit. It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel. Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.
Once again, the Steam summer sale is upon us. One of the big reasons I look forward to the summer sale is that it gives me the opportunity to check out games I’m curious about but not confident in paying full price for. Over the past few years of this blog, I’ve made a tradition of doing a write-up during each summer sale about ten deals that I think are underrated “steals”. These are games that are discounted below $5(USD), and are games that I think probably haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The past years’ posts can be found at these links: 2014 Edition, 2015 Edition Part 1, 2015 Edition Part 2
The Summer Sale this year is much different than the years before. Since the institution of Valve‘s new refund policy, which occurred before the last Winter Sale, the prices on games are constant throughout the length of the sale. Previously, games would get a base discount for the entire sale period, but certain games would go on even deeper discounts as limited time daily and flash deals. This created a reason to check back on the store each day to see the new daily deals, but now that’s all gone.
Valve has never explained why these changes to the summer and winter sales have happened, but most believe the culprit to be Steam’s new refund policy. Since this new policy allows for no-questions-asked refunds within a 2 week period of purchase, those limited time sales would be rendered pointless, since if a game you bought went on a daily deal, you could just refund it and buy it again for the cheaper daily deal price. Honestly, I feel like the lack of the daily and flash deals has removed a lot of the eventfulness and fun of these big Steam sales. It was always exciting to check back each day for the new deals. Now, despite the fact that the sale runs for 12 days, you only really need to visit the store once during the whole sale since nothing changes from day to day. On the other hand, I find the new refund policy to be an important pro-customer move on Valve’s part, so I’m stuck having to accept that these changes to the summer sale are a necessary sacrifice.
The current Steam Summer Sale started on June 23rd and will run through July 4th. Now here are the games I recommend this year. All prices are listed in USD:
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – $1.49
A touching and immersive puzzle adventure game with a rich story to tell. I played Brothers last summer and wrote a very positive post about it. Brothers tells the story of two brothers who set out on an epic journey through a fairy tale world to save their dying father. A controller is basically required for this game, as the player controls both Brother’s simultaneously, one with the left stick and the other with the right stick. This game is for those who are looking for something with a lot of heart.
The Last Door Season 1 – $1.99
Another game I’ve wrote about before. The Last Door is a moody and atmospheric point-and-click adventure game with pixelated graphics and an amazing orchestral score. Set in the Edwardian-era, fans of Lovecraftian horror should not miss this game. Puzzles are similar to the point-and-click adventure games of the 90’s with a focus on creative uses of items and inter-character dialogue, but I found the difficulty to be very fair, not too hard but not too easy. The game has been released in two seasons of five episodes each, and both are on sale for less than $5.
Antichamber – $4.99
Antichamber is an oddball first person puzzle game with some similarities to Portal. The story behind the game is intentionally vague, but the players find themselves in a position where they must escape a large facility that is governed by non-Euclidean geometry. Non-Euclidean geometry is kind of one of those Matrix-style Neo moments of “you have to see it to understand it.” This game is a great puzzler that is full of mind-bending spectacles.
The Swapper – $2.99
The Swapper is another puzzle game, but this one is played from a side-scrolling perspective. The main mechanic is that the player can materialize clones of themself across the environment that move synchronously with each other. Set aboard a derelict space vessel, the game’s story has a highly philosophical bend to it. This is a great game for gamers seeking out something a little more cerebral and thought-provoking than the average title.
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die – $4.94
D4 is a modern narrative-focused adventure game, similar in vein to Life is Strange or Telltale’s work. D4 tells the story of David Young, a former detective of the Boston police who has gained the ability to travel through time to the scene of murders after witnessing the bizarre death of his wife. From the creator of Deadly Premonition, D4 is heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch and his own iconic brand of weirdness. This is a great game for those that enjoy bizarre tales of mystery, but I will warn you that the game ends on a cliffhanger, as it was meant to be the first “season” of an ongoing series. Unfortunately, the director has recently taken a break from game development due to medical issues, and I fear that the story of D4 may never be finished. Nonetheless, the game is a wild and bizarre ride while it lasts.
Organ Trail – $2.99
A lot of you probably fondly remember Oregon Trail, an old educational game that was widely available in elementary schools all across America in the 90’s. (I’m not sure how popular it was outside of the US.) Oregon Trail was about the planning and management of an expedition of American colonial settlers that sought to settle in the Oregon frontier. Proper decision making with regards to the expedition’s limited resources was key to the survival of the group to the end of their arduous journey. Fast forward to the modern day and here we have Organ Trail, a mixing of Oregon Trail nostalgia and zombies. Very similar in design to its inspiration, Organ Trail instead features a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse setting out across America in search of a safe haven on the west coast. Yeah, I know it sound a bit contrived, but I thought it was an amusing game for only a few bucks.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet – $2.99
Games based off of the “Metroid-vania” structure are getting to be a dime-a-dozen these days, but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet came out before the craze took over, and I think it was a bit overlooked at its release. Featuring art similiar in style to the works of Genndy Tartakovsky, ITSP is a dual-stick shooter with a heavy focus on exploring a vast interconnected map, ala Metroid. Players take on the role of a tiny UFO who must venture inside the titular Shadow Planet to save his homeworld. A good title for those looking for a light-hearted, visually-striking action adventure game.
VVVVVV – $1.24
VVVVVV features an aesthetic and design that is reminiscent of old Commodore 64 games. It’s one of those retro-inspired platformers that is hard as nails. You guide the captain of a starship that has crash landed in an alternate dimension and must explore a large interconnected map to find his missing crew members. The game has no jumping, but instead the player hits a button to reverse the flow of gravity from either up to down or down to up. VVVVVV is not a particularly long game, but I think most players looking for something with a tough but fair challenge will be satisfied with it. The soundtrack is also an incredible collection of catchy chiptunes and electronic beats. Veni, vidi, vici.
Nova-111 – $3.74
Nova-111 is a highly unique and experimental action adventure game that came out late last year. The game centers around a tiny spaceship exploring alien worlds filled with hostile creatures and dangerous obstacles. What makes Nova-111 unique is that it has a turn-based and grid-based structure akin to old roguelike RPGs. That is to say that the ship and enemies move around on a grid, and each time the player moves the ship (which counts as one turn), the enemies take a turn to move. It’s not really an RPG like the old roguelikes, more of an action adventure game, but I think it blended the elements of these two genres very well. The game was a great surprise to me earlier this year when I played it on the Vita.
Outland – $0.99
Outland was a game that recently released on PC, but was released on Xbox Live Arcade ages ago. It’s a melee-focused sidescrolling action-platforming game that takes place in a beautifully silhouetted world. The main gimmick behind the action is probably familiar to the Ikaruga fans out there. Enemies and projectiles are colored either blue or red. The player has a barrier that can be shifted between blue or red, and the color of the barrier dictates the enemies and projectiles that the player is immune to. At its core, Outland is just a well-designed action-adventure game that I think fans of these sorts of things will love. I cannot emphasize enough that at 99 cents, this game is easily the best deal on this list.
The previously announced remake of the original System Shock has just resurfaced with a new demo and a Kickstarter campaign. I’m a huge fan of System Shock 2, but I’ve never been able to get far into the first game because it’s design has aged fairly poorly. The demo is available via Steam, GOG, and Humble Store, and the links can be found on its Kickstarter page. You don’t even have to donate to access the demo! It’s great that this game is getting new found attention. While it was a pivotal part in the early development of 3D gaming, I feel like most people know nothing about it, and if they do, they only know it through its more popular sequel.
Image courtesy of the System Shock Kickstarter.
Aboard Citadel Station in orbit of Saturn, an experiment with artificial intelligence has gone awry, and the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, better known as SHODAN, that maintains the station now believes herself to be a goddess destined to re-engineer life and the universe. She has turned against the inhabitants of the orbital colony, warping them into cyborg and mutant slaves, and has ambitions of annihilating humanity to begin her own ascension. In System Shock, you play as the hacker responsible for SHODAN’s insanity and must overcome the horrors of Citadel Station as he (she?) desperately searches for a way to stop the rogue AI from launching an attack on Earth and the rest of humankind. Released in 1994, the game was an early mix of FPS and RPG and had a heavy focus on player immersion. If you’ve ever played a first-person game that focuses on storytelling through environmental exploration, you have System Shock to thank for that. The game is also an example of a pre-Resident Evil atmospheric horror game, although it rarely gets credit for that.
System Shock was the team at Looking Glass Studios’ follow-up to the Ultima Underworld series that they had created years earlier. Ultima Underworld was a first-person action RPG set in the Ultima universe and featured many of the key elements of System Shock, namely a focus on immersion, exploration, and allowing the player to discover multiple solutions to a given obstacle. Ultima Underworld, itself, is also incredibly important to the history of gaming, as it was the evolutionary link between grid-based/turn-based first-person RPG dungeon crawlers like Wizardry and real-time first-person action games like Wolf3D and Doom.
System Shock had a number of high profile projects that were in some ways its direct descendants. Warren Spector’s Deus Ex was heavily based on the ideas of immersion and exploration that were pioneered by his work on System Shock and Ultima Underworld. System Shock 2 was released in 1999 by Irrational Games and is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest PC games of all time. In 2007, Irrational would later use System Shock as the template for its biggest hit, BioShock. And I’ve heard rumors that Dead Space was originally meant to be System Shock 3 (which is easily believable if you’ve ever played the two series).
With all the HD remakes and re-releases that come out these days, I have difficulty thinking of a game more in need (or more deserving) of the treatment than System Shock. While it’s both important and influential, its UI and control scheme are incredibly antiquated. The game predates such things as WASD and mouse look. Today, these issues are notorious of early 3D games, but they are exacerbated in System Shock due to the game’s level of complexity. The remake’s Kickstarter promises big improvements on this front. To me, this would be a really valuable achievement. While System Shock 2 has achieved a legendary status in PC gaming, I think the original System Shock has been held back from being as fondly regarded due to how obtuse it is to play for modern gamers.
Images courtesy of the System Shock Kickstarter.
The remake is being overseen by Night Dive Studios, a company whose main mission has been to procure the rights to classic PC games so that they can be re-released on digital storefronts like Steam and GOG. A while back they managed to rescue both System Shock 1 and 2 from legal limbo and re-released the original versions of those games for sale. I’ve heard that back in the day Looking Glass sold the rights to the series to an insurance company to keep EA from getting control of it, and Night Dive was able to successfully negotiate the re-releases of the game with that insurance group. Other classics that Night Dive have gotten re-released include I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The 7th Guest, Turok, Shadow Man, and the old Humongous adventure games among many others.
Night Dive is promising that the remake is being built from the ground up and will feature numerous improvements and tweaks. They’ve even gotten the original voice actress to reprise her role as SHODAN. The demo is currently available from Steam, GOG, and Humble Store and is a good exhibition of their vision. I’m excited for this project, because, while I’m a huge System Shock 2 fan, I’ve always been a bit deterred from playing the original due to the issues I’ve discussed above. Hopefully, this project will meet its crowdfunding goal, not just for the sake of this remake, but also because there’s been talk of an actual System Shock 3 in the works, as well.
I have been trying to write this post for a while, but The Witness is not an easy game to write about, I’m afraid. If you have any interest in the game, you probably already know that it reviewed incredibly well upon release in January. It’s been a difficult game to discuss, partly because I have trouble articulating some of the thoughts I have about the game, but also because it’s one of those games that really shouldn’t be spoiled for the uninitiated. The Witness is clearly inspired by the ‘90s hit CD-ROM game, Myst. It’s an open-ended puzzle adventure game set on a mysterious abandoned island. But it’s so much more than what Myst was, and it completely outclasses most other games of this type released in the past few years.
I would introduce the story of The Witness, but I’m afraid to say that there really isn’t much I can say about it. That’s not necessarily because I want to avoid spoilers, but because there is very little explicitly revealed about the player character or the situation they face. You are a character that is exploring an island filled with puzzles. Outside of that the player probably has to fill in the rest with your own intuition and imagination. The island certainly has a history, for lack of a better term, but, again, nothing is ever directly spelled out. There may be some secret high-level unlockable content that explains everything that is going on (and I know for a fact that there are a fair few secrets that I haven’t uncovered even after beating it, as I’ve seen them even if I haven’t figured them out), but after my playthrough, I’m afraid that I cannot say with any level of certainty what is actually going on in The Witness.
But does it matter that the story is only an apparition? Does that mean there is no discovery or compelling reason to explore the island? No, and in fact, The Witness is a game that is entirely about discovery. After all, it’s fun to unravel secrets in games, and The Witness is all about mysteries. Nothing is bluntly given to the player in this game, rather the means to succeed in the game are the result of careful exploration, experimentation, observation, and reasoning. Consequently, I found there was an immense amount of satisfaction with each bit of progress I achieved in the game.
The world of The Witness is littered with hundreds of maze puzzle panels, and these serve as the meat of the game. The maze panels are display screens that exist strewn about the environment, and they are almost the only thing on the island that the player can actually interact with. To progress in the game, the player walks up to one of these display screens and solves a maze puzzle by drawing a line to connect the start point of the maze to an end point. In the first introductory area of the game, the puzzles are more like a traditional maze, with only one possible way to connect the start and end points. After that, the puzzles get more elaborate, and there are multiple ways to connect the start and end, but of all the possible lines that can be drawn to do this, usually only one of them is “correct”. The solutions to the puzzles then arrived at in one of three ways:
- Symbols on the puzzle indicate the correct way to draw the line.
- Clues in the surrounding environment are needed to solve the puzzle.
- The line drawn on the puzzle affects the surrounding environment in some way. These tend to be the most unique parts of the game.
As discovery and finding your own way is a huge part of the magic of this game, I don’t want to elaborate too much more on how the puzzles work. But when the player solves a puzzle, often they’ll notice a wire leading away from the panel becomes lit, indicating that something on the other end of the wire has become activated. Usually what is activated is another puzzle panel, but sometimes a gateway or door will be unlocked, and occasionally there are other things that will happen.
Just as the story of The Witness is not explicit, nothing is ever really made explicit about these puzzles. Not once is the player directly told what specific symbols on the puzzles mean, or given hints as to what to look for in the environment. Instead, you learn to solve the puzzles purely through experimentation. When a new puzzle mechanic is introduced, the player is presented with a series of simple puzzles of this new type that are of increasing complexity. These sequences of puzzles are structured in a way that allows the player to experiment and on their own come to an understanding that will allow them to solve the much more elaborate puzzles that make use of each of these new mechanics. It felt like a very unique and natural way of challenging the player to master the world of The Witness.
The island is divided into 11 different sub-regions, and the player needs to complete at least 7 to unlock the final area. Each sub-region has its own distinct visual theme (for instance, there’s a swamp and a castle and a desert), but more importantly, each sub-region has a particular “twist” it puts on the puzzles. That is to say, each area has its own distinct mechanics it adds to the mazes. For those that have played the game, I think my favorite of these areas was the castle. In addition, I have to say, each subregion and the island as a whole are really stunning. No matter where I was in the game, I was always impressed by the visual splendor of the surroundings. The Witness seems like a game that was made for taking screenshots and showing them off.
At first blush, I found myself a bit disappointed with the size of the island. After leaving the tutorial area, the player is pretty much free to go almost anywhere they want, save for a few locked areas. What I personally found was that running from one end of the island to the other could be quite fast, which initially made me question how big the game actually was. But as I familiarized myself with the setting, I found that the island is actually a very dense place. There’s very little wasted space, and little details and pockets of puzzles and other curiosities are packed in pretty much everywhere. I was still discovering new points of interest on the island for several hours into the game, and I know for a fact that I haven’t seen everything there is to see.
It’s impressive the tricks the game pulls out of its sleeve for the final stretch.. The puzzles really explode in terms of their creativity and complexity. But while I was impressed by the final slew of challenges, I also found it to be a bit grueling. Most areas of the games require the player to solve the puzzles in a sequential order, but if you get stuck, you can always wander off to another area and work on the puzzles there. But for the final puzzles, they must be completed one right after the other to go forward. So if you get stuck, you’re just stuck. In these types of games, when I get stuck for too long on a puzzle that I blocks my progress, I usually just quit the game and wait to come back later with a fresh mind. What this meant is that it probably took me the same number of real world weeks to finish the final stretch of The Witness as it did to get to that endgame point.
As you can probably tell, The Witness really resonated with me. Unraveling the mysteries of the island really spoke to me as more than just a game, but also as a scientist. The need for experimentation, personal intuition, and analytic and holistic reasoning are what make this a very “scientific” experience in my mind. Many of you probably know that The Witness was spearheaded by the same designer behind Braid. I liked Braid well enough, but The Witness really felt like one of those games that is just operating on “the next level” beyond most everything else. It has both incredibly well-designed fundamentals and is a startlingly highly polished experience.
I have to admit that I don’t have a significant history with the Tomb Raider series, and mostly that is due to personal oversight. For as big of a fan as I was for the original Playstation, I just never picked up that series. I was in middle school at the time of those original games, and my peers who were into those games were into them more for the allure of the Lara Croft character than anything else. The awkward sex appeal that was attached to those early games was kind of a turnoff to me, and thus I never really thought highly enough of the series to give it a go. When the rebooted Tomb Raider was released in 2013, I was completely surprised by the number of Tomb Raider fans that were suddenly vouching for the quality of the older games. It made me a little bit ashamed that I had waited so long to get into the series, especially for a game that many long-time fans considered to be a departure from what made the earlier entries special. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 Tomb Raider and was excited when its sequel, the boorishly titled Rise of the Tomb Raider, finally made it to PC last month.
The story of Rise of the Tomb Raider I feel is by far its weakest part, both in plot and in characters. The plot synopsis of Rise is simple: Lara must get to the magical artifact of the week before the bad guys do. In this case, the object of obsession is the Divine Source, a device used by an ancient Byzantine prophet to grant himself and his armies eternal life. Long since faded into myth, the Source was the obsession of Lara’s father, Lord Croft, and his dogged pursual of the artifact eventually earned him the enmity of the shadowy organization known as Trinity. Trinity pulled strings within the UK media to discredit and publicly humiliate Croft which led to his apparent suicide when Lara was young. Flash forward to the present day and Lara has discovered new evidence which points to the Divine Source having found a resting place deep within Siberia. Before she can depart, however, the information is stolen by Trinity, which triggers a race to reach the long lost antique.
I guess the story of Rise isn’t particularly bad. It serves its purpose in that it gives proper motives for Lara to complete the various objectives she’s tasked with across the game. I guess my main problem with it is that it’s not very unique. The “reach the artifact before the bad guys” plot is of course the story of most of the Indiana Jones movies (all save Temple of Doom) which in turn has been used in almost all of the old Tomb Raider games and every single one of the Uncharted games. That might seem like an odd thing to take issue with, but I enjoyed that the 2013 reboot story differed from this archetype and instead focused on a group of survivors trying to endure and escape a cursed island. It was a welcome change of pace.
The lack of originality is also weighed down by the fact that the characters just aren’t very interesting this time around. Lara is accompanied by a returning character from the 2013 game, but here he’s really just sort of “there” from time to time. He doesn’t do much interesting and nothing about his character or his relationship with Lara are developed further. As Trinity gets closer to the Divine Source, Lara makes an alliance with a native group that are trying to protect the secrets of the artifact, but I can’t say anything was particularly engaging about them, either. They merely fill the “native tribe resisting a powerful invading force” slot that these types of stories have. I also didn’t really care all that much for the villains. While the secrets of the shadowy Trinity group could have been interesting to unravel, we don’t actually learn anything about them. Instead, the villains are a mercenary group that serve as the enforcement arm of the organization. There is some interpersonal drama between the two leaders of this rival group, a brother and sister, but, again, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about how their relationship plays out. The entire story is pretty predictable, and as a consequence, I was neither invested nor intrigued in seeing the resolution, as I had already worked everything out in my head.
Fortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider really shines in its technical feats. The environments are huge, but nonetheless filled with a gorgeous amount of detail. The outdoor landscapes teem with lush foliage and striking terrain, and the enclosed areas are no less impressive. Particle effects were particularly eye catching and put to good use to fill the screen with snowflakes, ash, ember, and the like during the appropriate scenes. Fire effects are also really impressive, both visually and for the way fire spreads through surrounding structures during certain sequences. And being a Lara Croft adventure, often entire levels will begin to collapse in spectacular fashion as Lara makes a mad dash to safety. I think the visual appeal on display was what ultimately made the game stand out to me, which might seem like a shallow thing to say, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little bit of high-tech eye candy.
The original series of Tomb Raider games could probably be described as a mixture of acrobatic platforming, with Lara jumping, tumbling, and swinging her way through ancient ruins, and puzzle solving to overcome environmental obstructions (either manmade or the result of natural obstacles) rounded out with some action sequences. A major criticism of the 2013 Tomb Raider from long time fans of the series was that it significantly rebalanced this mix of gameplay toward being more about action and shooting, with the puzzle solving almost completely relegated into optional side missions. More or less, the same is true of Rise. I think the game is about a 50/50 split of acrobatic platforming (similar to the old games) and action shooting segments. There is almost no puzzle solving to be found in the main quest of the game. Like the last game, there are secret “tombs” whose entrances are hidden throughout the game’s sprawling outdoor areas, and these tombs serve as a kind of side mission which contain puzzles that Lara must solve to earn a reward at the end of the ordeal. While many long time fans may lament the lack of puzzles in the main mission sequence of the game, I will say that, to Rise’s credit, the optional tombs seemed far more intricate and lengthy to me than in the previous game, and the items that were earned by completing them always seemed highly worthwhile.
It’s no secret that the newly rebooted Tomb Raider series has taken cues from Uncharted when it comes to the design of its action sequences, and naturally one can’t help but compare this game to Naughty Dog’s series. Action sequences during the main missions of the game are often linear in nature, with the player constantly being funneled along a straightforward path composed of sequential areas where enemy encounters are staged. I will say that I probably prefer the action in these new Tomb Raider games to that of Uncharted. While it’s clearly a follower not a leader in this aspect, I find the enemy encounters in both the 2013 game and Rise to be far more satisfying than Uncharted’s design philosophy of spamming the player with waves of bullet sponge enemies, as they inspire me to be far more thoughtful in my offensive approach.
However, unlike the Uncharted games, Rise isn’t purely a linear “rollercoaster ride” type game. While the main missions are highly linear in nature, in between these missions Lara has freedom to roam around and explore a series of large interconnected areas that make up the game’s overworld. In these areas, Lara can search for hidden tombs, take on side missions, root around for collectibles, and she can collect crafting items by hunting animals and gathering plants. Pleasantly, I felt that these big open areas gave the game a bigger sense of adventure than the Uncharted series.
New to Rise of the Tomb Raider is a crafting system that wasn’t present in the 2013 game. There are a wide variety of crafting items that can be collected in a number of ways (see above), and these items can be used to unlock new abilities for Lara, as well as craft ammo, grenades, and health packs on-the-fly. On-the-fly crafting works simply by holding down the button associated with a specific object. So, for instance, if you have the bow equipped, you can craft arrows simply by holding down the button that you press to fire the bow (the right trigger of the controller). If you have the requisite crafting items in your inventory, a meter will appear on screen that will fill up to complete the crafting action. You’ll often need to do this in the heat of battle to generate more ammo, especially for the bow, since arrows usually aren’t dropped by the enemy. I think the game wants you to spend time exploring the large open areas of the game to hunt animals and gather plants for these crafting items, but I generally never found myself having to go out of my way to stock up on these. If this whole system sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s very similar to the crafting system used in The Last of Us. Considering these games already draw enough comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I was more than slightly amused that they just went ahead and wholesale copied the crafting system that Naughty Dog introduced in The Last of Us.
While I’m sympathetic to the bristling of long-time Tomb Raider fans at the action-oriented approach of the rebooted series, I think I’ve grown to enjoy these games a lot, and, in fact, I find that I prefer them over the Uncharted series that inspired them. For many of the reasons I’ve outlined above, Tomb Raider just feels like a more substantial adventure than Uncharted. It may not have the best characters or story, but Tomb Raider really does present a world that feels dangerous and alive. Meanwhile, the Uncharted games feel more like a theme park attraction to me, where the focus is more on cinematic heroism that is all smoke and mirrors. And I hate to sound so down on Uncharted, as I really liked Uncharted 2, but I think Uncharted 3 left me with some disdain for the series, and I’m looking forward to see if Uncharted 4 can bring me back around.
Putting Uncharted aside, however, I do wonder about the future of the Tomb Raider series. I really enjoyed this game, but I don’t think you can say that it is anything but an incremental improvement over its predecessor. If this series wants to sustain a future, I think it’s going to need to evolve a lot more in the next iteration. This series has already seen one short-lived revival with the Legends-Anniversary-Underworld games, and I fear that this latest round of the series is on the same trajectory toward stagnation, which I think would be a real shame.
Gunpoint was a small indie game released on Steam back in the summer of 2013, around the same time as Rogue Legacy. At the time, I did hear it mentioned on a few of the big name gaming podcasts that I listen to, but I’ve always felt that it flew a bit under the radar and didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved. And there was never any subsequent console release to give it a second wind as is often the case with Steam games, so I worry that it’s a forgotten treasure at this point. Regardless of it being overlooked or not, Gunpoint was a surprising burst of joy to me, as it came out during a time that I was under a lot of stress. Although it is a very well-designed stealth game, the writing and atmosphere of the game just carry a flippant, goofball energy to them that I found really appealing, and for that reason the game stands out to me.
Gunpoint is a 2D stealth game played from a cross-sectional viewpoint. The levels are usually large office buildings that provide a gauntlet of guards, cameras, laser tripwires, locked doors, and other security measures for the player to sneak through. The camera is zoomed out so that large portions of the level are visible at any given time which conveniently provides the player with plenty of information to plan their movements through the mission. The objective is in most circumstances to find a computer somewhere in the building that contains sensitive information that your character is on a contract to collect or erase. Credits are awarded at the end of each mission based on performance and can be used to upgrade the arsenal of spy gadgets available to the player.
In Gunpoint, the player takes on the role of Richard Conway, a freelance corporate saboteur who can probably be best described as a demented Inspector Gadget. Conway has at his disposal a number of eccentric gadgets to enhance his sneaking abilities. The most important of these are his “hypertrousers” which enable him to jump great distances at high speeds. He can also cling to walls and ceilings, and since jumping is faster than running, most of the game is spent darting from surface to surface to avoid the guards’ line of sight. Stealth games tend to be slow, methodical affairs which require the player to precisely time the moments at which they can weave between cover spots undetected, but Gunpoint tends to be a more acrobatic ordeal where the best way to hide is to zip to a place to hang just out of the guards’ purview.
If the guards catch Conway, they will immediately open fire which usually results in failure for the player since it only takes one bullet to kill Conway. But if your reflexes are fast enough, you can occasionally get away unharmed. The player can go on the offense by pouncing on guards from the shadows and beating them senseless, and there is a gun that is available as a high-level unlockable gadget, but it can only be fired once per mission (as it only carries one bullet). Occasionally, these offensive maneuvers are necessary, but as is usual for a good stealth game, the non-violent solution is often the best way through.
One of the hallmarks of a good stealth game is the ability to utilize a game’s systems to goof with unsuspecting guards. An important gadget available in Gunpoint is the “crosslink” device which allows Conway to rewire the circuits in a given building via remote control. Most importantly this device adds a slight puzzle element to the game, as it allow him to overcome electronic locks and avoid triggering security alarms. It also offers the player some creativity in neutralizing (read: screwing with) the guards. The crosslink gadget makes it possible to do things like rigging the building to lock the guards in certains rooms, playing with the lights so that Conway can stay concealed in the dark, or remotely opening doors as guards pass by to knock them out.
While Gunpoint is a lot of fun to play, what really elevates the game is the spastic storyline that spoofs convoluted spy fiction. Richard Conway is a man whose only loyalty lies with his bank account, and over the course of the game he gets entangled in the midst of an increasingly complicated revenge conspiracy. This is not a game about saving the world or anything like that. The main conflict is simply a lovers’ quarrel between some Very Serious People, and Conway, through no fault of his own, gets in a position where he’s playing both sides (and others) against each other. It’s a plot that’s filled with double-crosses and triple-crosses and double triple-crosses and “I know she knows he knows” and “I know he knows she knows I know” kind of stuff. The comedy is driven by how increasingly absurd and convoluted the various schemes that involve Conway become and the contrast between the seriousness of the Very Serious People who are hiring him and Conway’s own flippant and bemused attitude.
One specific thing that I think is interesting to mention about the game is that an important part of how the story is told is through dialogue choices the player can make for Conway. Unlike in most games which utilize a significant amount of dialogue choices, Gunpoint makes no pretense that these will affect the outcome of the story. Rather, the dialogue choices are used as a comedic device by contrasting the disparity between the various responses Conway can give. Conway can range from a strictly down-to-business professional, an empathic do gooder, a flippant idiot savant, or a babbling psychopath. These wild potential swings in Conway’s personality give the character a level of frivolity that makes the game funny despite the seriousness of the conspiracies that Conway becomes entangled with.
In a previous post, I recommended Gunpoint as a good Steam sale game for those that are curious, and that recommendation, of course, still stands. It’s not a particularly long game. I think Steam reported that it took me under 3 hours to beat, but for as short as it is, I found the game to be a worthwhile burst of fun. It’s both a very good 2D stealth game, as well as just generally being a fun, goofy experience. The game has also been updated with a level editor and Steam Workshop support, so if you’re still left wanting more, the game can be extended with a decent-sized catalog of user generated content.
I recently finished Life is Strange during my New Year’s break from work. I’ve been itching to write about it for a while but just had trouble expressing my thoughts without going into story-specific details. Therefore, this is going to be a SPOILER-FILLED POST OF ALL FIVE EPISODES. I usually abstain from writing posts with spoilers in them, but I found it necessary this time to express my thoughts. ***If you have any interest in playing Life is Strange, I would completely refrain from going any further, as I’m not going to hold anything back.***
The protagonist of Life is Strange, Max “Don’t Call Her Maxine” Caulfield, is a surprisingly mundane character for someone with the ability to rewrite the space-time continuum. Amongst the students at Blackwell Academy, I don’t think she particularly stands out above anyone. She’s an introvert, but is friendly enough to not be antisocial, and she struggles with confidence sometimes, particularly as it relates to sharing her great passion in life, photography. I don’t call her mundane to deride the character, rather I find her refreshingly relatable. She’s not some naturally perfect and charismatic individual that is treated like the center of the universe by everyone around her. Instead, to be noticed and liked, she actually has to put effort into her social interactions. And while her peers often dismiss her as a hipster, I find her to actually be a very genuine character. Her personal quirks, particularly her attachment to instant film cameras, are not the result her of trying to be cool or trying to stand out and be different, but rather she comes across as just very sincerely liking what she likes. And I find such authenticity to be the trait that most made me like her as a character.
I found myself really enjoying the tale told by Life is Strange. I initially had some reservations about how easily I could relate to the story. Loathe as I am to think about it, I’ve been out of high school long enough that I have no real familiarity with the reality of teenagers today. Of course, I don’t think the people who actually wrote Life is Strange are really more in tune with the subject than I am. The close relationship between Max “Don’t Call Her Holden” Caulfield and her old friend Chloe, is another facet I thought I might be alienated by. As I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend in my life that I’ve had a really close relationship with, certainly not like Max and Chloe have.
Initially, I found these elements to be rather awkward. But while the teen drama can sometimes feel insipid, I eventually discovered there to be some very sincere and serious character stories explored over the course of the game’s five episodes. I think the most memorable character arc has to be Kate Marsh’s as she struggles with bullying in the age of social networking and which culminates in her suicide attempt at the end of the second episode. While I know some people find Chloe to be an insufferable character, I thought Chloe’s hardships in dealing with her family in the wake of her father’s death to be heartbreaking at times. I also found Warren’s awkward attempts at getting closer to Max to be amusingly relatable. And ultimately, the central plot focus of Max and Chloe’s relationship is developed in a way that endeared me to the characters and made me want to see how their story would resolve.
While Telltale’s post-Walking Dead adventure games have largely eschewed the puzzle solving that pervaded the genre’s roots, Life is Strange does make an attempt to re-integrate that aspect. It is still a game that heavily focused on dialogue and storytelling, but there are a few puzzles that pop up each episode. Most of these seem to revolve around using Max’s time rewind abilities in creative ways. I didn’t really find them to be particularly hard, but I’m not sure that I want especially hard puzzles in adventure games anymore, and I appreciated their presence. They serve to create a reality to Max’s rewind ability and make her power into something more than just a means to redo conversations if you don’t like the outcome of your dialogue choices.
As an aside, one of the best compliments I can give here is that Life is Strange has an excellent soundtrack of licensed music. It’s not necessarily the kind of music you often find in games, as it’s all very twee and folksy, but it compliments the game’s atmosphere and mood very well. And I thought each song was perfectly matched to its moment in both the cutscenes and important playable sections.
Life is Strange is another adventure game that purports to have actual story consequences for the choices that the player makes in-game. In the end, I found like most other games of this type, choices don’t really end up having the impact that the game wants you to believe they do. The overall arc of events that the game follows is, of course, unchanged no matter what you do. Regardless, the characters in the game tend to remind you constantly of the choices you made earlier.
I found that the dialogue tends to suffer somewhat because of these player choices, which is to say that the writers didn’t plan well enough for all the potential circumstances that they created. There were many times when characters were saying things to me that didn’t really make much sense in the context of the decisions that I had previously made. Nonetheless, even if they aren’t as important to the plot as they pretend to be, I did feel like all these player-choice moments made me more engaged with the plot and Max as a character. I also just enjoyed reviewing the data that is shown at the end of each episode and comparing what I had done in the episode to other players.
There are two story moments where the player’s input does seem to have a fairly big impact. The first is of course Kate Marsh’s suicide attempt at the end of the second episode. I was actually a bit shocked that the game went this far in its treatment of high-school bullying. I was, unfortunately, not able to save Kate. I’m not sure exactly what it was specifically that I said wrong. At first, I thought it must have been meant to be a very difficult thing to achieve, but based on the end of episode stats, ~2/3rds of the players were able to save her, so I guess I’m just an idiot. Sorry, Kate.
The other major story-altering decision leads me into the most controversial part of Life is Strange, the ending. Ultimately, I decided to let Chloe go. It was a purely pragmatic decision. If the universe is so hellbent on destroying Chloe that it would wipe out an entire town (amongst other things), then I really don’t think it would have stopped there. And with Max’s rewind abilities having reached their limits, I doubt she would have been able to protect her in the future. On the one hand, I find the entire ending to be disappointingly fatalistic, implying that we as humans have no real power over fate. Max couldn’t save Chloe, despite all her best efforts. I don’t even think she stopped Jefferson in the final restored timeline where Nathan shoots Chloe. My assumption is that Nathan flipped on Jefferson when he was taken into police custody, and that’s how he was caught. But maybe that’s why Chloe had to die? Her death wasn’t in vain as it directly led to Jefferson finally being brought to justice, and saved Kate, Victoria, and future victims in the process (one of whom could have been Max, herself). And while Max couldn’t save her friend, her powers did grant them one last week together.
I know others have found it disappointing that Max’s powers are never explained. We’re never told why she was given them and where they came from, and we never even really understand the deeper cosmic implications that result from her time manipulation. Is Max really creating new universes each time she alters the past (which is what she seems to think), or is there merely a single universe with one timeline that is being overwritten with each rewind? How does Chloe surviving her encounter with Nathan result in so many strange phenomenon? These questions are never given real answers, but I think I’m okay with that. I like that outside of Max’s ability to rewind and the meteorological anomalies that occur, there are no supernatural or sci-fi elements to the story. The tragedies that befall Max and those that surround her are ultimately the result of human sins, not some sort of cosmic or supernatural malignancy. Too often the stories of fantasy and science fiction games rely on these ancient/cosmic/alien evils that are external to humankind, even one of the big influences of this game, Twin Peaks, does that. But as the conflict present in Life is Strange is entirely the result of morally corrupt human individuals, I think it provides a story that is refreshingly down to Earth, while at the same time being about something that is very beyond the mundane in nature (time travel).
I’ve heard that Dontnod may be planning a second season of Life is Strange, although for the time being they are focused on their next game, Vampyr. It’s good to have an alternative to Telltale’s episodic adventure games out there, especially since Telltale is entirely focused on using licensed properties. I assume (and prefer) that season 2 follow a completely new character, as I feel like if Max keeps her powers she’ll just end up becoming some sort of superhero-like character, and I just don’t want to see that happen. Like I said at the start, I like Max because of how normal she is as a human being. But definitely, Life is Strange is a series that I could find myself continuing to be very enthusiastic for in the future.