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QUBE 2!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories Untold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evil Within!

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The Evil Within did not make a good first impression on me.  I started the game on PS4 near the time of its release, played maybe three or four hours, decided I wasn’t having fun with the gruelling experience, and I sold it off.  Years later, The Evil Within II came out to generally favorable impressions, and I thought I might give the series another try. But, I often get OCD around playing a series in order, and the first game was really cheap on Steam.  What ultimately pushed me over into giving The Evil Within another shot was some encouraging words here on the WordPress community and elsewhere that gave favorable, if not reasonably measured, praise to the game. And I’m glad I gave the game another chance, as I found I enjoyed TEW after getting past the hump that I got stuck on earlier, and I feel good having seen it  to the end. The game is a giant mess, of course, but it’s a mess that leaves a strange and surprising impression.

The Evil Within begins with Krimson City detectives Sebastian Castellanos (the protagonist), Joseph Oda, and Juli Kidman responding to an emergency at Beacon Mental Hospital.  The lobby of the hospital has been the site of a massacre, and Sebastian is subdued by a strange assailant in a white robe. He wakes up chained deep in the bowels of the facility, the captive of a large blood-soaked man who has other corpses strung from the ceiling and looks to be cannibalizing his victims.  Defenseless, Sebastian manages to evade and escape from his captor, but not before the hospital reveals itself to be filled with gruesome mechanisms designed to slaughter those attempting to flee. In the courtyard, he meets up with Oda and Kidman, and the group finds an ambulance to make their exit. As they race through the city, an immense earthquake strikes.  Massive fissures open up in the ground, and buildings begin to tumble down. They narrowly avoid being consumed by the cataclysm that destroys the city, only to fly off the edge of a cliff when their driver loses control of the vehicle. After the crash, Sebastian wakes up alone in the dark countryside. With his colleagues having abandoned him and the overturned ambulance, he begins his long journey to survive the complete breakdown of reality itself.

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That long and ridiculous last paragraph perfectly encapsulates the experience of The Evil Within.  I feel exhausted just having written it. The game simply never settles down. I don’t think there is ever a moment when I thought to myself “I understand where this is going.”  Settings are constantly being shifted, enemies are constantly changing, the story picks up in one direction only to abruptly change course. There’s never any moment of comfort to be found.  There is never any expectation that will not be subverted.

There are many types of horror games that are distinguished both by theme and mechanics, and what makes The Evil Within incredible is that it basically tries to do everything a horror game can do.  It manages to find a way to merge psychological horror (e.g., Silent Hill), supernatural elements (e.g., Fatal Frame), and science fiction elements (e.g., Resident Evil). Superficially, it is a game that focuses on action and shooting (like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space), but it also attempts to prominently include stealth (like The Last of Us), run-and-hide sequences (like Amnesia), and survival and resource management mechanics (like the original Resident Evil).  By trying to fuse together all of these different approaches to making a horror game, The Evil Within is at its best highly admirably for ambition, but also many times manages to go over the edge and collapse into a clumsy or confusing mess.

In his quest to figure out just what the hell is really going on, Sebastian Castellanos treks across a post-apocalyptic cityscape, an evil mansion, a depraved hospital, an infested sewer, dreamcapes carved out of nightmare, and essentially almost every other popular staple of the horror genre.  Each of the different environments absolutely nails the aesthetics of its chosen subject and feature expertly designed atmosphere, mood, tension, and foreboding. The Evil Within never lets the player forget they are in a horror story. And despite each setting being radically different, they all feel as if they are a part of the same gruesome world.  There is a distinctive aesthetic style to The Evil Within that it manages to maintain across the entirety of its expansive journey.

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Principally, The Evil Within is the successor to Resident Evil 4, the prime connection between the two being legendary director Shinji Mikami.  As such, the action focused parts of the game tend to dominate over everything else, which is to say that the player spends a lot of time shooting at pseudo-zombies and other warped creatures.  Another important feature of the game are the stealth kills, whereby the player can sneak up directly behind an enemy and execute a sneak attack that results in an instant kill. I found this to be a fairly important element of the game considering that ammo is relatively scarce, and I also just personally enjoy games that let me sneak up on enemies like this.

But aside from these key components, the game introduces a ton of other mechanics.  Some of them work really well. For instance, levels are wired with inconspicuous booby traps that can do a lot of damage to Sebastian if triggered.  However, if the player is cautious enough and manages to dismantle these traps, they turn into spare parts which can be used to craft bolts for Sebastian’s crossbow.  There are a handful of different types of bolts that deal different types of damage (for instance, proximity explosives, freeze bolts, etc.), so the player is offered the choice of determining the best way to spend the spare parts.  My favorite aspect of the game, which I’ve never seen any other horror game do, are the matchbooks that Sebastian uses to set enemies on the ground on fire. So, for instance, if Sebastian knocks an enemy to the ground, he can light them on fire with one of the matches for an instant kill.  If there are other enemies standing in close proximity to the burning hostile, they will also catch on fire and suffer the insta-kill. This also applies to corpses on the ground, which creates a fun strategy where Sebastian can lure enemies over to a defeated corpse which can then be set ablaze to chain together several standing enemies with the ensuing flames.

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However for every good idea The Evil Within puts together, there seems to be at least one bad one.  I thought one of the dumbest mechanics of the game were the hiding spots which presumably were meant to conceal Sebastian from enemies.  Sebastian can hide under beds, under cars, in closets, etc., but enemies always seem to be able to find him in these spots. There is this one unkillable enemy that chases Sebastian through a mansion, and when I encountered him, I put some distance between him and I, rounded a few corners, and then went into a room and hid in a closet.  About fifteen seconds later, the thing chasing me walked in, went directly to the closet, opened it, and insta-killed Sebastian. I looked up the best way to escape from this enemy, and most of the recommendations I saw told me to just circle strafe around him until he disappears. What even is the point of the hiding spots then? And this wasn’t an isolated incident.  Each time I tried to make use of the hiding spots, the results were more or less the same: they do nothing to keep Sebastian out of sight.

One of the real highlights of The Evil Within were the boss monsters that the game is really good at building up.  The bosses are all really well designed and creatively distinct from an aesthetic standpoint. The boss fights themselves tend to be more creative than simply requiring Sebastian to unload ammo into the creatures.  Usually, they require the player to make use of aspects of the environment, almost like a puzzle. This tends to lead to a trial-and-error cycle, which can be frustrating at first, but I also felt was very rewarding once I was finally able to nail it.  While there are a few boss encounters that just felt clumsy and confusing, on the whole, I thought these enemies were one of the high points of the game.

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Sebastian’s journey took me approximately 16 hours to complete which seems to be typical going by howlongtobeat.com.  That’s a huge amount of time for a linear action game like The Evil Within, and the entire quest definitely felt epic as a result.  This is in spite of the story being largely meandering and insubstantial for the first three quarters or so of the game. Sebastian’s warped reality is constantly shifting, and at any given moment he can be teleported to a completely different setting with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it.  This results in plot threads being constantly interrupted with no resolution until the very end. In one moment, Sebastian will be trying to help a doctor and his patient survive a haunted village, and then abruptly the world will change around him, and he’ll be trying to survive an onslaught of monsters in the basement of a hospital, all with no thought given to the doctor and patient that were just left in danger in the countryside.

In this way, The Evil Within feels like a nightmare.  A real nightmare.  When I wake from dark dreams, for the fleeting moments I can remember them, I usually realize that they don’t have any form of sense.  Nightmares and dreams are largely illogical, unstable, internally inconsistent experiences. The only reason they can feel the way they do is because the mind exists within them in a semi-conscious, semi-functioning state.  When thought and reason are applied, they fall apart. Of course, I don’t necessarily think a desire to replicate the qualities of dreams was the intent behind the sloppy story of The Evil Within. I think they just had a lot of ideas they wanted to include in their game and gave no real thought toward creating more substantial connective tissue between them all.

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Nonetheless, The Evil Within is best appreciated when simply opening oneself up to raw, uncritical, moment-to-moment experience is prioritized over the need for overarching narrative to create a coherent world.  The Evil Within, as a story, is utterly unsatisfying otherwise. The last stretch of the game does begin to try to satiate the player’s need to understand the events of the game, and for the most part, I understood the broad strokes of the plot.  But there’s still so many things I don’t understand, and I don’t know if they’re just the result of plot holes, or if there are things that just went over my head. The game has three DLC chapters that perhaps shed more light (I have yet to play them), but I find it unfortunate that the main game really left me with more questions than answers.

I have basically done a complete turn around on The Evil Within, and I’m glad that I gave it a second chance.  It oozes style. It’s boss monsters are well designed terrors. It has a satisfying loop of stealth and action.  It’s almost an encyclopedia of horror. However, everyone I’ve known who likes this game will immediately admit that it has numerous flaws and sharp corners.  It’s incredibly ambitious, a creation that wasn’t designed to be restrained. This is precisely what makes the game special, as it wouldn’t have nearly the gravity if it wasn’t as expansive as it is.  But at the same time, the game struggles under the weight of it all. It has a ton of weaknesses, and patience and perseverance is required to enjoy the totality of the experience. I’m glad I was able to finally get past all of these faults, but I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone who can’t.

 

Little Nightmares!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Breach!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hollow Knight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSA: Unreal turns 20. Goes Free on GOG and Steam.

The year 1998 was a great time with a huge number of seminal games seeing release, such as Half-Life, Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, and Metal Gear Solid.  Of course, this means that a lot of classic hits will see their 20th Anniversary in 2018, a realization that dawned on me when Epic announced that Unreal Gold was going free on both GOG and Steam to commemorate its May 22, 1998 launch date.  I had a blast with Unreal back in the day. I still have my original CD, but I was super excited to snag the download version for free. For those who are old time fans of the game or if you’re just curious about this highly influential PC classic, LGR did an excellent Unreal retrospective on Youtube that I think is well worth a view.  

Before Unreal’s release, Quake II was basically the king of PC gaming, and Epic Games fully intended Unreal to be a “Quake Killer”.  And they weren’t just making empty smack talk, either. Unreal ended up being an amazing game for its time. The graphics were well beyond anything that had come before, as enshrined by this now infamous magazine cover:

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That might look laughable today, but in the late 90s, the visual splendor of Unreal completely warranted this kind of hype.  And it used those graphics to create an alien world that had a level of atmosphere and immersion that was clearly raising the bar for video game settings.

Unfortunately, I feel like Unreal’s challenge to the computer gaming throne was really very short lived.  Just a few months later, Half-Life came onto the scene, and while it’s graphics engine didn’t quite have the bells and whistles of Unreal, it quickly became the biggest game to play for a variety of other reasons.  Honestly, I feel Unreal, as a game, has always been an overlooked masterpiece. It spawned the Unreal Tournament spin-off series, which was massively popular around the turn of the century, and the Unreal Engine, which has powered a ton of games over the years.  But people hardly ever talk about the game that started both of these things, even though its stands well on its own.

Unreal is currently free on GOG and Steam for, I think, the next day.  I will warn anyone who is interested that you can run into problems playing on modern PCs.  Personally, I can’t boot it up using the software renderer, I have to use Direct3D instead. This was a bit odd to me considering that other old Unreal Engine games always crash in Direct3D mode on my machine, necessitating the use of the software renderer.  When I run into issues with old PC games, I always seek help from the PCGamingWiki. Their Unreal page has a good list of mods and fixes that go a long way to getting this game running up to snuff.

White Day: A Labyrinth Named School!

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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.

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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).  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Soma!

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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