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Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

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This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series.  I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony.  When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued.  You want to know something weird?  The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did.  I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.

Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn.  Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series.  While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.

I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood.  Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience.  The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members.  It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.

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The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come.  As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush.  From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize.  Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.  

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Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook.  The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers.  The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used).  The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes.  There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me.  I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill.  The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them.  True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.

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Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology.  Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre.  Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion.  I think it’s the head tracking that really does it.  There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before.  When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.  

Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares.  Cheap jump scares at that.  And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways.  Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on.  In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game.  The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me.  I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen.  I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.

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Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly.  Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty.  To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming.  Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension.  Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.

Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time.  I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares.  In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic.  But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points.  Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience.  And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.

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My Top 5 Game Picks from 2015

As the old year begins to fade into distant memory, we all take a pause to reflect on the passage of time and what we managed to experience and accomplish on the Earth’s latest spin around the sun.  In gaming, that usually means games of the year lists!  I have to say, there were a lot of great games released in 2015, and I’ve come to the regrettable realization that I just don’t have the time to play every game that I would like to pick up.  There were several big games that I didn’t manage to find the time for in 2015.  Namely, I’m thinking about Bloodborne, The Witcher 3, Soma, and Undertale.  I would like to think I’ll eventually get around to playing those games, but as I look forward, I see that 2016 also looks to have a lot of great games on the horizon, especially in the opening months of the year!  So I fear I might not ever really find the time to get back to those I’ve missed.

The existential regrets of a gamer aside, I’ve compiled a brief list of five 2015 releases that I really thought were highlights of the year.  They are listed in no particular order.

Super Mario Maker

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For a guy who grew up on classic Mario, Super Mario Maker was like the game I’ve been waiting all my life for, but I somehow didn’t realize how much I wanted it until it was here.  Having a vast and ever growing library of new levels in the mold of classic games like Super Mario Bros. 3 was a huge blast of nostalgia.  But what I found most impressive about the game was not the access to a huge collection of user-generated content, but how engrossed I became with the level editor, itself.  I had initially been somewhat worried that I wouldn’t have much inspiration to create levels, but everytime I sat down to create something, I found my imagination was immediately ignited.  It’s kind of amazing how quickly I found myself coming up with new ideas and twists for levels, and the sheer fun I found in creation ended up being the real draw to the game for me.  And the creative spark is incredibly well-facilitated as the level editor is amazingly easy and accessible to use, while still complex enough to grant the designer a fair degree of freedom to invent and experiment with entirely new ideas.

I also want to add that I’m really happy with the diligent continuing support Nintendo has given to the game.  A lot of my initial complaints have been solved in the many updates they’ve released which have made improvements like adding checkpoints and creating a better system to browse and discover new levels.

Until Dawn

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Here was another unexpectedly great horror game that released this year.  Until Dawn is not an action game like Resident Evil, but rather a story-focused adventure game, similar to Life is Strange or The Walking Dead.  Featuring a group of teenagers vacationing alone in a cabin in the woods, Until Dawn adapts the classic slasher film setup to an interactive story experience.  The story features a heavy emphasis on character relationships, and as the group’s situation becomes increasingly dire, we see the friendship of these characters put to a real test.

As the player guides the teens through a single fated night, the consequences of the player’s choices determines who lives and who dies.  It’s possible to do a “perfect” run where all the teens live, or they can all end up dying if the wrong decisions are made.  Ultimately, the number of survivors that make it through the night is less important than the player’s curiosity with how the story unfolds.  And for a video game storyline, I found it surprisingly refreshing.  Amongst all the terror, these characters have their moments of triumph, failure, redemption, tragedy, and affection, which I found made for a rich and standout experience amongst horror games.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

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Before Metal Gear Solid V, I was a lapsed MGS fan.  I know it’s beloved by a lot of gamers out there, but MGS4 really rubbed me the wrong way and turned me off from the series.  MGS4 was a big step away from the series’ roots, moving from the top-down perspective of the previous games to a behind the shoulder viewpoint, and I don’t think they quite figured out how to make the stealth gameplay work under the new camera conditions.  And on the action side of things, the gunplay was really awkward and lacked grace and fluidity.  But where MGS4 failed in its attempts to evolve the stealth action that Snake’s adventures are known for, I think The Phantom Pain really succeeded.

With its sprawling open world, The Phantom Pain is a huge deviation from its predecessors.  What I admire most about MGSV is the freedom it allows the player in pursuing mission objectives.  I played this game after finishing the PC version of GTAV, and what struck me about GTAV was how restrictive it was toward the player.  At every point in GTA’s missions, the game has very exact instructions that it expects the player to follow.  MGSV, on the other hand, merely drops the player in a huge playground with a mission objective and gives them the freedom and toolbox to devise their own solutions to achieving that goal.  

In some ways, The Phantom Pain doesn’t feel like an MGS game, which is why I’m very hesitant to call it the best of the series.  The gameplay is amazing and probably the best amongst its kin, but the story and characters are not as elaborate and interesting.  Many people feel that the story was probably unfinished due to the troubled circumstances of development.  Regardless, this game was just amazing to me and is a perfect illustration of the obsessive attention to detail that Hideo Kojima and his team are known for.

Resident Evil Revelations 2

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The original Resident Evil Revelaitons was a 3DS game that I thought was alright considering it was a handheld action game.  I don’t think it was a bad game, just not a particularly special one.  With that in mind, Revelations 2 was an incredible surprise to me.  While it still leans toward action, I felt it was much darker as a horror game than the previous two mainline Resident Evil games, which focus more on bombast than tension and dread.  

Revelations 2 stars series veterans Claire Redfield and Barry Burton operating in parallel campaigns.  The player trades off control between the two characters at predetermined points in each of the game’s episodes.  Once again, the Resident Evil series partners the main characters with AI companions.  This time newcomers to the series Moira Burton, Barry’s daughter, and Natalia, a mysterious psychic orphan, travel with Claire and Barry respectively.  Unlike in previous games, the player can switch control between the main character and the partner at will.  While the inclusion of companions in Resident Evil has been highly derided by fans, I think Revelations 2 is the first game in the series to use them well from a mechanics standpoint.  This is because neither Moira nor Natalia use guns, but rather have special abilities that are helpful to Claire and Barry in combat.  For instance, the psychic Natalia can “see” things that Barry can’t, like invisible enemies and hidden weak points.

And finally, the secret ending is just badass.  They really did a good job making all the characters in this game compelling and enjoyable, and the ending is really a “hell yeah” culmination for all their struggles.

Splatoon

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There’s no question that Nintendo is great at making multiplayer games.  I don’t know that there are any games that I’ve enjoyed as much with friends and family as Mario Kart and Smash Bros.  But nonetheless, I don’t think many foresaw just how successful their first foray into the world of online action games would be.  When Splatoon was first revealed, it piqued my interest (and made my highlights of E3 2014), but I really felt I was being cautiously optimistic.  Afterall, Nintendo had been great at making multiplayer games to play with real live human beings, but online competition had not yet been a serious focus of theirs.

But the success of Splatoon is not merely in Nintendo finally proving that it could compete in the arena of online gaming (when it wants to), but in the fact that it injects actual imagination and creativity into the rather stale world of online shooters. For better or for worse, Nintendo tends to go its own way and rarely walks in the footsteps of others, and Splatoon is a game brimming with ideas that are mostly entirely its own.  It was a huge breath of fresh air, and I really know of no other online experience which could be considered similar.   

My only complaint with the game is the single player campaign.  I’m not saying I think it’s bad, as I did enjoy it enough to see it to completion.  (The final boss is a really fun fight!)  Rather, I just expected something a little more memorable coming from Nintendo, but I guess the real focus of the team had been on crafting such a superb multiplayer experience.

 

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn

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The explosion of the indie gaming scene over the last couple of years has led to the popularization of a handful of new genres like survival games, run-and-hide horror games, “walking simulators”, etc.  And every once in awhile these new types of games manage to pierce into the highly homogenized world of $60 boxed releases.  As a game, Until Dawn easily falls in line with the “interactive movie” style adventure game that was popularized by The Walking Dead.  There’s less a focus on puzzle-solving and more a focus on rich storytelling that gives the player some choices to make in the game which ostensibly controls the trajectory of the plot.

Until Dawn can best be described as a game made in the mold of a teen slasher movie.  The template of the slasher movie is an interesting thing for gaming to broach.  The vast majority of gaming is focused on powerful lone heroes overcoming massive quantities of enemies.  Even most horror games are made in this mold with protagonists like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Isaac Clarke, Harry Mason, etc. forcing their way through armies of horrible abominations that are meant to be scarier than the average video game enemy, but nonetheless go down in great numbers to the protagonist.  The slasher film, on the other hand, is an inversion of this.  You have a group of protagonists that are facing a single overwhelming and resilient enemy who will inevitably succeed in thinning out the heroes to some extent.  So as someone who has been playing games all his life and is interested in seeing creative new directions take form in this realm, Until Dawn had my interests piqued.

Until Dawn focuses on a group of eight teenagers who have come together for a night of partying on the secluded Blackwood Mountain.  The mountain is owned by the parents of one of the teens, Josh Washington, who we’re told (and shown) are exorbitantly wealthy.  This is no cabin retreat, rather it is a massive lodge that once served as a high-end hotel before the mountain was abandoned by its previous owner.  This same previous owner also ran a sanitorium and mining operation on the mountaintop until the mine collapsed.  The sanitorium and mine are now abandoned.  And one year prior to this particular party, Josh’s sisters went missing on the mountaintop, and he’s throwing the party in their honor.  Can you see where all this is starting to go?

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The only way up and down the mountain from the lodge is by cable car.  And of course, the cable cars become cut off as an escape option, and the teens find themselves assailed by a murderous “mystery man”, as well as facing the dangerous secrets of the mountain’s dark past.  You trade-off controlling each teen as the story dictates.  Sam is the closest to what I would consider to being the main character, as she’s the most morally-centered and shows the most focused-thinking.  She’s also the only female character that doesn’t turn into a whimpering mess when faced with harrowing situations.  Aside from her, the teens mostly follow very well established tropes.  There’s the funny guy, the funny guy’s girl next door love interest, the athlete, the class president, the hot girl, etc.  But I thought there was a small amount of subversion of these tropes.  For instance, I found Matt the Athlete, who would in other forms of this template be the most self-centered of the characters, to be the most reasonable and diplomatic in the face of interpersonal conflict.  Meanwhile, the more academically-accomplished and intelligent Mike and Emily are the most manipulative and cruel of the protagonists, far from the meek, socially-inept nerds that they would be in other uses of this trope.  And the “hot girl” Jess, who to the others appears shallow and superficial, shows real depth in moments of self-reflection and confessions of her insecurities.

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Over the course of the story, we see conflict and betrayal as well as selflessness and loyalty evolve in these characters.  Some might call these individuals “flawed”, but I’m not sure that I would use that exact wording.  Rather, I just think they’re very realistic.  They can be cruel to each other, they make mistakes, but they also have redeeming qualities and moments.  The game features a “celebrity” voice cast led by Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. I’m usually very skeptical and annoyed by big name voice actors, since most of the time they don’t take gaming seriously and do poor jobs.  But I have to say that this crew mostly does quite well in their roles.  

Choice is something that developers have been enamored with for quite some time now.  After all, video games are an interactive medium, so it’s logical that players should have some ability to influence the course of events that occurs in a game’s plot.  Unfortunately while this is a great ideal, in the real world it’s a rather hard thing to implement probably because having significantly deviating paths in a game requires the production of a lot of additional content by the developer.  As a consequence, most choices in games tend to work like little diamonds.  The player’s choices can have some impact on the unfolding of immediate short-term events, but the story is set up such that in the long-term the divergent story paths find a way to come back to the same point.  I think most gamers have caught on to this, but developers still love to use the concept of highly consequential “choices” as a selling point for their games.

And Until Dawn is no exception considering its genre.  The game begins by introducing the player to the butterfly effect and explaining how their choices will result in significantly diverging events in the game’s story.  There’s also a menu in the pause screen that shows you the critical determinant choices and actions the player has made.  I’ve only played through the game once, so at this time I can’t really say how radically different the story can play out.  But as far as I know, the three acts play out roughly the same regardless, with the first act introducing us to the characters and setting up the rest of the night’s events, the second act sees the slasher’s plans set in motion, and the third act brings together all the mysteries surrounding the teens’ ordeal.  There are pre-scripted parts where a specific teen can die if the wrong decisions or actions happen, but, as I understand, that doesn’t change the story beats.  I think it just changes which characters are involved in each event (and their collective survival odds), not which events happen.  But like I said, I really can’t say for sure, as I haven’t exhaustively explored the game’s many divergent paths.  

But what about Until Dawn as a scary game?  After all, this is a Halloween Gaming post.  I have to say Until Dawn probably isn’t one of the scariest games I’ve played.  It does have an appropriate atmosphere and mood for the story it’s trying to tell, but I was never really spooked by it.  There were a few exceptions that did really rattle me, though.  In particular, the abandoned sanitorium that the player must visit really set my teeth on edge for some reason.  It might have just been the mood I was in at the time, and maybe a function of how many drinks I had that night.  I did worry about the teens survival, but it wasn’t really dread or fear I felt for them.  It was just that I liked these characters and wanted to see their stories play out.  I managed to keep all the teens alive until the climax of the game, and the first time one died I was so disappointed with myself that I turned the game off in anger at myself.  

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One thing I will say about this game is that it likes its jump scares.  This is particularly true in the first act of the game where there’s really not a lot of danger, and the focus is on introducing the protagonists, their relationships with each other, and the mountain location that they find themselves on.  This part of the game, in particular, has a lot of cheap “BOO!” moments even though there’s really not much threat to them.  I suspect this is because the developers didn’t want the player to forget that they were in a horror game considering how peaceful things were at the start.  I have to say, the jump scares got kind of annoying after a while.  

One thing I did like about the game was the fixed camera that it employs.  It made me nostalgic for the survival horror games of old that used this perspective, even though this game isn’t survival horror, itself.  I definitely think the camera was a big part of the tension I felt in the sanitorium that I mentioned above.

Although I didn’t necessarily find the game to be among the scariest I’ve ever played, I do think I really enjoyed it in the end.  It does have a good atmosphere and mood and creates a cast of characters that are compelling to watch and play.  The third act goes in a direction that I felt was less interesting than what was set up earlier in the game, but I still found myself suitably invested in the game’s climax and seeing the protagonists through to the end of the story.  I actually would really like to talk about the story and characters more in-depth, so I hope to get a spoiler-tagged post on this game out in November, after I’ve finished my final Halloween gaming post.

Thanks for reading!

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