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

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

2016 Recommendations

2015 Recommendations Part 1

2015 Recommendations Part 2

2014 Recommendations


(All prices listed in USD.)

Sonic Generations

Sale Price: $4.99

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

 

Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut

Sale Price: $1.74

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

 

Virginia

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Sale Price: $2.49

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

 

Volgarr the Viking

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Sale Price: $1.99

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

 

Odallus: The Dark Call

Sale Price: $2.99

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

 

Lara Croft Go

Sale Price: $3.39

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

 

Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition

Sale Price: $5.99

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

 

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

Sale Price: $4.94

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

 

Hard Reset

Sale Price: $1.49

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

 

Toki Tori

Sale Price: $0.49

Toki Tori 2+

Sale Price: $3.74

 

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

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


 

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

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Virginia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween Gaming: Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Inside!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Halloween Gaming Finale: Stasis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alan and Alice Wake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

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

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

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

Halloween Gaming: Into the Gloom

It’s October again which of course means Halloween gaming!  Last year I did a short series of posts called “Utmost Spookiest Games” on a few of the horror games I played last October and….. they were incredibly unpopular…..some of the worst viewed and liked posts I’ve ever written!  (Un)Fortunately, I have no capacity to learn from prior failures, so I’m back here again to kick off another month of spooky game posts starting with Steam indie horror title Into the Gloom.

Since the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s, there’s been a boom of low-budget horror games on Steam looking to make it big on the YouTube reaction videos circuit.  At merely $2.99, most would probably categorize Into the Gloom with the rest of the cheap jump-scare gold rushers, but actually the game predates the popularity of FNAF.  Even if you didn’t know that though, you probably would reconsider it as a “me too” game, simply because it’s a decently well-constructed experience which makes the most of its low-fi potential.  While you’ll have no illusions that this wasn’t created on a very narrow budget of resources and time, it makes the most of what it has and stands up as an respectable underrated horror game for what it is.

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Into the Gloom can best be described as an exploration puzzle game.  You wake up in the operating room of an abandoned hospital and set out to find your way to safety.  Along the way, you’ll find several dead bodies and blood scrawled messages on the walls that hint toward a terrible danger that pervades the world.  I’ll go ahead and say this, but there are some rather disturbing images in this game.  Nothing too extreme if you’re accustomed to survival horror games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame or Outlast, but if you’ve only ever played the Capcom survival horror games like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, you might be a bit taken aback by what you’ll find in this game.  

The first thing you’ll notice about Into the Gloom is its stark, low-fi graphics.  The simplistic, stylized aesthetic is used quite well in creating a creepy atmosphere that is just deeply tense.  Grey-scale dominates this game’s appearance with most of the environment being rather morosely shaded with black, white, and grey.  Otherwise, the only color used is red which adds a an unsettling flair throughout the scene.  Red is used to depict bloodstains, artificial lights, and, most ominously, the bloody sky itself which drapes the disquieting world of the Gloom.  The other major thing you’ll notice that adds to the oppressive atmosphere is that the game runs with a very limited draw distance.  There’s a general fogginess that pervades your surroundings which results in a mood that feels all the more insecure.  If this game nails one thing, it’s atmosphere and mood.  I was quite impressed with the feeling of dread I had while playing this game late at night, something I didn’t expect from the screenshots I had seen beforehand.

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Moment-to-moment gameplay is mainly centered around exploring new areas, finding items, and solving puzzles that block further progress.  Puzzles come in two forms.  The first requires you to find certain items to progress, say a set of bolt cutters to get a lock off a door.  Sometimes you’ll need to combine items in your inventory to open the way forward, but in general these puzzles are pretty simple and you’ll never really be stumped by them.  The hardest part is just finding the items, but even that is far from a pixel hunt or anything.  The second type of puzzle is more problematic.  These generally involve some sort of brain teaser set to a panel on the wall.  For instance, the first puzzle in the game requires you to solve a sliding tile puzzle to open a safe.  These puzzles can get a bit annoying, and I generally just had to solve them by semi-randomly clicking around until I happened upon the solution.  

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An example of one of the more annoying puzzles.

Aside from the puzzles, the other component of the game comes from the monster that occasionally shows up to give chase.  Basically, when the monster shows up, the player will need to book it until they reach safety.  These encounters typically aren’t so hard, but the monster does move fast so there’s little room to dawdle when making an escape.

I will say this about the monster: there is a long build-up to the monster’s introduction, and I found the build-up to be a lot scarier than the actual encounters with the monster.  This I think happens in a lot of horror games, and I made note of it last year when I played Fatal Frame.  In a lot of horror games, there’s a tension and dread that comes with the player psyching themselves out as they wait for the monsters to make their ambush.  But when the monsters finally reveal themselves, I personally find it to be a bit of a relief.  

Another phenomenon that I felt occurs in Into the Gloom and that occurs throughout the horror game spectrum was that the later parts of the game become significantly less scary, as I figured out how the game “works.”  What I mean by that is that I was pretty confident in knowing when I was safe and when the monster was about to attack.  This is something that I’ve felt in many other horror games, particularly those which require you to run rather than fight the enemy such as Amnesia and Outlast.  To Into the Gloom’s credit, though, there was a great moment at the end where my feeling of complacency was completely subverted.  In addition, in the “safe” parts of the game, there are still some (non-damaging) jump scares that occur, although I found these to be cheap at times.  Regardless, the generally disturbing and creepy atmosphere was something that I felt pervaded the entire game.

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The game took me almost exactly 2 hours to beat.  However, I found out through YouTube that there is almost another hour of the game that I didn’t unlock.  There is an optional puzzle that can be found midway through the game that if completed opens up additional levels that occur after the “normal” ending of the game.  This additional content actually goes into much greater detail as to the nature of the “Gloom” world,  gives some explanation as to the nature of the monster, and introduces new characters.  Seeing as how the 2 hours I played was rather scant in story, I’m a bit disappointed in missing out on this extra content.

Ultimately, some annoying puzzles and a monster that isn’t super-threatening didn’t undermine the intense atmosphere and mood that this game managed to exude.  At an investment of 3 buck and a few hours of play, Into the Gloom is probably a worthwhile experience for most horror game fans.

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