Blog Archives

White Day: A Labyrinth Named School!

White Day Header.png

White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is a recently remastered horror game for Steam and PS4 that was originally released on PC in 2001 in Korea.  No official English version had existed until the remastered edition that was released this year, but there was an unofficial English fan translation that managed to garner a strong cult following.  This was my first time playing White Day, but for years now, I’ve heard tales of it being the scariest game ever made, so it’s been something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.  

Hee-Min Lee is the new kid at Yeondu High School (frequently referred to as Y High School).  One day during school, he finds the lost diary of So-Young Han, the girl all the boys crush on, and decides to sneak into school that night to return the diary to her desk along with a gift of candies.  Alone in the school, he suddenly finds himself locked in the building, and while creeping around looking for his way through, witnesses a student being captured and brutally beaten by the janitor.  Hee-Min soon realizes that the patrolling janitor is not the only danger lurking within the dark corridors of the school, rather the entire place is haunted by a menagerie of ghosts born from its shadowy and tragedy-stricken past.

20171002211425_1.jpg

Like the previous two horror games I reviewed, White Day is another run-and-hide game.  The main threat of the game, the janitors which patrol each school building, spend their time searching for the player, while the player attempts to evade their detection.  When caught, there’s no other option than to simply try to outrun the adversary and find a hiding spot.  What makes White Day a little unique is its age.  These run-and-hide horror games have really only become popular since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the original version of White Day was released in 2001, meaning it significantly predates the current trend.  

Despite the fact that the place is haunted and guarded by a psychotic crew of custodial staff, the students of YHS seem to really like to sneak onto school property after hours.  Hee-Min frequently crosses paths with three other female students who are on their own missions in the school.  In addition to So-Young, there is the brash and suspicious Sung-A Kim and the timid and bookish Ji-Hyeon Seol.  Interactions with these girls are a big part of the game, because the dialogue choices the player makes will have an impact on the ending (as I found out maybe a bit too late).  

20171002211958_1.jpg

The ghost encounters at Y High School often play out like a puzzle, and usually require the player to already be in possession of certain items or documents to survive.  Thoroughly exploring the school is critically important in White Day, as scattered about are tons of documents, from faculty and staff notes to rumors to ghost stories, most of which contain snippets of information that are needed to solve these puzzles.  In addition, many ghost encounters require the player to be in possession of specific key items to even be able to initiate or complete the encounter.  Via the ghost stories and objects the player receives, the game does a fair job of giving color and lore to each ghost.

This, however, leads into one of the biggest flaws I found the game to have: there are a few out-of-nowhere deaths.  For instance, I specifically had trouble with one enemy toward the end which requires a specific power switch in the school to be flipped beforehand, or else there’s no way the enemy can be defeated (and at a certain point, they will perform an instant kill on the player).  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to know that this switch needs to be flipped until you fight the enemy and see the instant death sequence.  There’s a few instances of this, where the player needs to die to certain enemies at least once before they have an idea of what they need to do.  Fortunately, the game is pretty good about checkpointing right before you initiate these no-win encounters, so it’s not a huge setback, but it can still be confusing when it happens.

20171021104004_1.jpg

Going back to what I said earlier, White Day was introduced to me long ago as “the scariest game ever made”.  As it turns out, this was…………a significant exaggeration.  When the original version of this game was released in 2001, I could perhaps see this maybe being the case, but even then, it has easily been surpassed in the many years since.  I think perhaps a lot of this may be due to the fact that it was a game where the player is mostly defenseless released in a time when survival-horror games were still mostly focused on characters that carry guns.  Still, even though it might not be the scariest game ever made, it definitely has a very thick and moody atmosphere, and most of the monsters and spooks the player encounters in the game are definitely creepy enough to leave an impression.

In particular, White Day really excels in sound design, and the sound effects and music go a long way to elevate the nightmarish atmosphere that pervades the school.  There’s a handful of music tracks that seem to play randomly through the course of the game, and I felt they all really nailed the sinister feeling the game was going for.  This one in particular  really struck a chord with me.

20171021121218_1.jpg

That being said, the main foe of the game, the prowling janitors, can be a mixed bag.  They definitely are the prime driver of tension throughout White Day.  Their presence is always telegraphed by the silence-shattering jangle of their keys or the creepy tune they whistle.  It’s definitely an alarming experience when they enter close proximity.  But the janitors can also just become a nuisance sometimes.  There were a few situations where I had to stay in my hiding spot for just too long a time while I waited for them to leave the area.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to make a break for it and try to outrun them and get to another part of the building, but other times you can’t leave the area where you’re at because there’s an important puzzle that needs to be solved there.

20171022141441_1.jpg

White Day has multiple endings and I think I might have gotten the worst one of them all.  Reading over online guides, it seems that the ending changes based on a few key dialogue choices the player makes when talking to the girls.  I guess if you only intend to play through this game once, these multiple endings can be a bit annoying, since it seems to me like you would need a guide to get one of the better ones.  But it certainly adds replay value to the game, especially if you want to tackle the harder difficulty levels.  I’ve read the game has additional content on the higher difficulty levels, which I think further helps to create incentive to replay.

White Day might not be the scariest game ever made, but I think it’s still highly worthwhile for horror game fans.  The game has easily been surpassed since 2001, but I think the remastered version available on Steam and PS4 presents a package that has aged reasonably well.  I’m certainly grateful that we’ve finally received an official English version.

Advertisements

Soma!

Soma Header.png

Last year, I did three posts for October, but I had actually meant to do four.  I had been meaning to finish off my Halloween series of reviews with some words on Soma, but, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to finish the game before Halloween ended, so I decided to hold off until I started doing spooky games again in 2017.  Fast forward a year, and I boot up Soma again to realize that I was only like 20 minutes away from the end of the game, which was much closer than I had thought.  Had I known that, I would have just powered through and completed it last year………. hindsight is 20/20.

Soma is the story of Simon, a terminally ill man from the modern day who agrees to have his brain scanned as part of a medical experiment.  Upon waking from the scan, he finds himself not in the present day, but flung a century into the future to the abandoned and decaying deep sea station, PATHOS-II.  He soon discovers that the WAU, the biological computer which maintains the facility, has gone awry, and in its misguided attempt to preserve the life of the crew has created a number of deranged cybernetic monsters which now roam the facility.  As Simon contends with the threat of the WAU and its creations, he sets out to discover the ultimate truth of the new world he has awoken to and the ultimate fate of humanity.

Soma is a run-and-hide style of horror game, similar to the studio’s other infamous horror title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Simon has no real way to fight back against threats, and instead must make use of stealth and evasion to steer clear of dangerous encounters.  Unlike Amnesia, however, Soma puts considerably less focus on handling the enemies, and a far greater focus on story and exploration.  It’s one of those games where there isn’t a lot of interpersonal interaction, but instead most information is relayed in the past tense via computer terminals, written messages, and something akin to audio logs.  

20161102173502_1.jpg

To be honest, most of the horror in Soma isn’t really derived from the threat of the wandering enemies.  Rather, it’s the bleakness and existential nausea of Soma’s plot combined with the oppressive and alien atmosphere of the deep sea that makes the game unsettling.  It’s less of a horror story that focuses on mysterious physical threats (like zombies or monsters), and more a kind of cerebral horror that is focused on questions that rattle the comfortability we have with our own human existence  It’s more Eraserhead than Friday the 13th.

As a consequence, I’ve read more than a few opinions that state that Soma is best played with the enemies turned off.  There exists a popular mod on Steam that basically makes all the monsters disappear, allowing the player to fully engage with the atmosphere and story without any distraction.  Personally, I played through the entirety of the game with the monsters fully functional, and I found the encounters with them to be a mixed bag.  There were a few that were really exciting, but there were just as many that I thought were rather menial.  None of them were particularly hard to handle, save for one that I found unusually annoying.  I recommend new players start the game with the enemies on, but if they become too much of a nuisance, just download the mod and turn them off.  Don’t let them stop you from enjoying the things that the game truly excels at.

20161101220421_1.jpg

And the things that Soma excels at, it really excels at.  There are tons of games that are set in sci-fi settings, but few games that really create stories that contend with the best sci-fi literature and film out there.  It’s often said that sci-fi is best used as a tool to frame questions about the nature of human existence, but few games actually tread into this territory.  Games like Halo and Half-life really just boil down to power fantasies of humans taking on overwhelming alien invaders.  They don’t make the player actually question the world in ways they’ve never done before.  They’re basically popcorn flicks like Independence Day.  But Soma really digs deep into the ideas that it wants to explore.  It’s the video game version of Blade Runner or  2001: A Space Odyssey.

PATHOS-II is also just incredible to explore.  At a technical level, the graphics in the game are far from the most sophisticated, but the team behind the game made up for it with an incredible use of lighting and their own aesthetic design.  The picturesque quality of so many areas had me constantly hitting the screenshot button.  These environments do a great job of evoking disquiet and wonder.  My favorite moment in the game is one in which the player character is trekking on foot across the bottom of a dark abyss filled with strange deep sea creatures, and I was just left in awe by the sheer alienness of the experience.

20161101194148_1.jpg

Finally, I have to talk about the ending, but I’ll keep it spoiler free and merely offer my reaction to it.  At first, I found the final sequence of the game to be incredibly anti-climactic, and I wondered if I had gotten a bad ending.  But after the credits were over, there was a significant playable section that made me reflect on how the game had ended before.  Lots of horror games have multiple endings, often times some are considered “good” and others considered “bad”.  As far as I know, Soma has one ending, but it could be considered both the good and bad ending.  It’s definitely a troubling ending that drives home the ideas and themes the game focuses on.  It goes back to how I can’t stress enough that this is a story-driven game first and a survival horror game second.

20161030174544_1.jpg

Soma has received an enormous amount of acclaim since its release, and I can definitely understand where all that’s coming from.  It’s an exceptional storytelling experience that synthesizes an intricate and thought-provoking sci-fi narrative with a dense and immersive atmosphere.  But the monsters in the game definitely feel vestigial to the whole experience.  It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t make something more out of this aspect of the game, but, on the other hand, the fact that the monsters are so disposable means that players who choose to turn them off aren’t going to have a compromised experience.  Definitely, Soma has become one of those games I feel I can recommend easily to anyone.

 

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

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

2016 Recommendations

2015 Recommendations Part 1

2015 Recommendations Part 2

2014 Recommendations


(All prices listed in USD.)

Sonic Generations

Sale Price: $4.99

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

 

Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut

Sale Price: $1.74

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

 

Virginia

Virginia 2.jpg

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

Volgarr 6

Sale Price: $1.99

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

 

Odallus: The Dark Call

Sale Price: $2.99

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

 

Lara Croft Go

Sale Price: $3.39

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

 

Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition

Sale Price: $5.99

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

 

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

Sale Price: $4.94

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

 

Hard Reset

Sale Price: $1.49

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

 

Toki Tori

Sale Price: $0.49

Toki Tori 2+

Sale Price: $3.74

 

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

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


 

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

Virginia!

Virginia Header 2.png

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.

Virginia 2.jpg

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 1.jpg

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.

Virginia 3.jpg

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.

Virginia 4.jpg

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

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

Halloween Gaming: Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion

Spooky's Jump Scare Mansion.png

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.

SJSM 7.png

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.

SJSM 6.png

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.

SJSM 1.png

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.

SJSM3.png

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.  

Inside!

TMU Inside Header

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.  

20160721201621_1.jpg

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.  

20160710145522_1.jpg

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.

20160722172825_1.jpg

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.  

 

Best Underrated $5 or Less Deals from the Steam Summer Sale: 2016 Edition!

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 Edition2015 Edition Part 12015 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

2015-07-26_00014

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

2014-10-21_00004

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

ss_fe2278241777765a73f5cc1567c17307d92ec6bb.600x338.jpg

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

ss_d3aa954a66823719f9e9f32b098a6d15bcd00605.1920x1080.jpg

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

2015-09-30_00001.jpg

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

ss_ab573e2dd9345c5d8a447087b1319e82898df0c5.1920x1080.jpg

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

ss_41c14001c814991f26383c9ab1725350daca985c.1920x1080.jpg

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

ss_542f95a953500b9256356db2c58f84bef2ba401f.1920x1080.jpg

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

ss_0b73685a9995bf634be502054853bf218180783c.1920x1080.jpg

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

ss_2510f22cedb51b9078d605fa139d4820617dc1ec.1920x1080.jpg

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.

System Shock Remake Has a New Demo and a Kickstarter

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.

ffd2b7e034b87880bf55a87fab0eace9_original.png

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.

79dab338c0c22e2baaff672f07086bfa_original.jpg

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.

 

The Witness: Mystified

 

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

2016-01-26_00008.jpg

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.

20160331202851_1.jpg

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

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

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

20160331202943_1.jpg

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.

2016-01-26_00011.jpg

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.

2016-01-26_00014.jpg
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.

 

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Insert Uncharted Pun Here

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

2016-01-30_00001.jpg

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.

2016-01-30_00004.jpg

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.

2016-02-06_00004.jpg

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.

2016-02-06_00034.jpg

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.  

2016-02-10_00004.jpg

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.

%d bloggers like this: