I love October. The changing of the seasons always gives me a tinge of serenity. But it’s not just the arrival of fall that makes October great, but also the fact that I love the atmosphere of Halloween time. For my blog each year, I like to take the month of October to play and write about a few horror games I’ve been meaning to get around to. This year has been kind of rough, and I haven’t had a lot of time to write here, but I’d like to get that back on track, and I’m also hoping these Halloween posts can kick off a reasonable amount of regularity again. First up this year is Yomawari: Night Alone, a Vita game I’ve wanted to try out for a while now.
Late at night a young girl, who I believe is only ever called “little sister”, is walking her dog when she becomes separated from her animal companion. Upon returning home, her big sister questions the girl about the dog’s whereabouts, but little sister is unable to tell her the truth. Not understanding what has happened, big sister leaves the house to find the missing pet. As time passes and she doesn’t return, little sister becomes worried and sets out into the dark, empty night to try to find out what happened to her. (Where the parents are in all of this is never explained.) Venturing out into the sleeping town, she finds it has become infested with dangerous ghosts and begins a long journey to rescue her sister.
Yomawari is played from an top-down isometric perspective as the little sister explores her haunted town. Wandering the town are various ghost enemies that attack if they sense the presence of the player. The girl is armed only with a flashlight and small pebbles. The flashlight is used to illuminate the roaming enemies, while the rocks can sometimes be used to distract them. The player is given no means of attack, which means that if a ghost gives chase, little sister has to either run away and lose them or find a nearby hiding spot, which are things like large bushes and street signs. The enemies won’t attack if little sister is hidden in one of these spots, so if the player can reach one, it then just becomes a matter of waiting for the enemy to leave before proceeding.
Behavior patterns among the basic enemies are fairly varied. For example, one enemy type is sensitive to sound, while another type stands perfectly still and will only attack if little sister crosses their line of vision. Aesthetically, the different ghost types aren’t particularly horrific in appearance. While they’re not at all gory or grotesque, I did find a few of them to be oddly unsettling. In addition to these smaller enemies, each chapter of the game tends to feature a more elaborate monster as its focus. I guess you could consider these the bosses of the game. The encounters with these boss ghosts tend to be a little bit more complex than just running and hiding, and require better reflexes and sometimes puzzle-solving.
What really creates tension in the game is the fact that most of the basic enemies are invisible unless the flashlight illuminates them, which results in an atmosphere of suspicion and unease in the player’s surroundings. If an enemy is nearby, however, you can hear little sister’s heart beat increase, which is the telltale sign that the player needs to be careful. Furthermore, the flashlight will only shine directly in front of the player, which means that when a ghost is pursuing little sister, there’s a greater sense of suspense, since the player can’t tell exactly where the enemy is behind them. Unfortunately, horror games always tend to walk a fine line between tension and frustration, and at times the invisible enemies can result in a lot of irritation. This is compounded by the fact that the game operates on a one-hit game-over principle, so if a ghost touches little sister, the player is immediately sent back to the last checkpoint.
The one-hit deaths in the game are by far my greatest complaint. It can be really frustrating to randomly die to an unseen enemy when you’re busy trying to figure out a puzzle or find an important item that you just can’t seem to locate. In addition, little sister’s movement is quite slow (even when running) and a bit stiff, which sometimes made evading even the enemies that I was fully aware of a clumsy experience. Particularly late in the game, there are several enemies that require a high degree of agile movement to avoid, and the game became rather tedious at points. Getting past those sections felt more like luck to me than skill.
On the positive side, I found the story to possess rather interesting themes, and little sister definitely has a surprising character arc that I didn’t quite expect. Little sister is scared by the supernatural dangers she faces, but her resolve to save her sister keeps her steadfast in the face of her fear. The entire story is approached with a level of innocence that I found unusual for a horror game, probably because most horror games feature adult protagonists.
Yomawari is one of those games that I kind of wish I liked more than I actually do. That’s because it’s both tonally and mechanically trying to do something different as a horror game, and I always appreciate when games set out to try to be something original. I found little sister’s quest to be really endearing. Unfortunately, particularly in the second half of the game, it can become rather tedious for the reasons I’ve described above. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad game, but I don’t feel like I can give it my highest recommendation either. But it is certainly good enough that I’m looking forward the to upcoming sequel, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows. I will definitely check it out if they can clean up some of the frustrations I had with this first iteration.
Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition (PSVita)
Duke3D was not only released this month for PS3 and PSVita, it was also of no charge to PSPlus subscribers. I bought a Vita back in December to occupy my time during my holiday travels, so I decided to give the handheld version a go. It actually works pretty well on the Vita. The Vita’s sticks are quite a bit shorter and don’t have as much range as the traditional Dual Shock-style controller, so it takes a little bit of getting accustomed to them for a first person shooter, but once I did, I found aiming to work pretty well in the game. In addition, the game’s simplicity, especially when regarded against modern shooters, makes it a good fit for the small screen, handheld experience. I’m one of those people who have the bad habit of playing games in attention-deficit mode, where I play a game on a handheld or laptop while Netflix or something is streaming on my TV, and Duke3D on the Vita is pretty ideal for that.
I’m actually not the biggest Duke3D fan, and what I mean by that is that I don’t have a particularly long history with it. My first time playing the game was the XBLA version that was released a long while ago. I liked it well enough then, but I just sort of dropped it halfway through the second episode after I lost interest with it. I’m hoping to beat the Vita version though. To be honest, I find Duke Nukem to be kind of an annoying character, and the themes of strippers and hot babes being abducted by alien invaders is something only the lowest common denominator of the newly pubescent could appreaciate. There was a time in gaming during the late nineties where this sort of game was considered “mature” and edgy, and I understand why that was the case. Gaming (or mainstream gaming at least) was growing up at the time, and part of growing up is going through an awkward phase that is clouded by gratuitous attitudes towards sex and violence. Regardless of these themes though, I think that the action game that underlies all this immaturity is still quite good, and thus I continue to play it. It has that quality of unfettered run and gun adrenaline that you just don’t get in today’s heavily “cinematized” FPSes.
The Last of Us Remastered (PS4)
This is probably the game I’ve spent the most amount of time with this month. I rented the original PS3 version out of Redbox when it came out, but I only got a little ways into the Summer chapter before returning it. I was just too busy at the time to commit to playing it. When talking about a Naughty Dog game (at least post-Uncharted 2), it seems most people immediately fixate on the storytelling. To be honest, I don’t find the storytelling in the Uncharted series to be particularly interesting, and I’ve always been amazed at the amount of praise that they receive. I don’t find it bad, just unexceptional. The plots of the Uncharted games all feel very common to me. They are all relatively standard action movie plots that don’t do anything particularly unique for that genre. I do feel, however, that Naughty Dog is good at creating characters that are a great deal more likeable than the standard action game hero who is designed more to embody a masculine power fantasy than feel like a human being. And beyond the story, I feel the Uncharted games aren’t exactly the pinnacle of TPS design, although they are adequate. Uncharted 3, in particular, I think has serious problems with much of it’s design.
With regards to story, I feel that The Last of Us is more or well the same. Plot-wise it is tracking through very well trodden ground, and it hits many of the same beats and tropes that recur across modern dramatic zombie fiction a la The Walking Dead. It’s very predictable. This is particularly a problem in the beginning of the game. I found it picked up quite a bit though toward the middle, however, with a well designed arc that, despite following another template of the genre, did manage to create some genuine suspense.
In addition, I’ve found The Last of Us to be a significantly more compelling game to play than the Uncharted series. It is generally more focused on aggressive stealth action, similar to Splinter Cell Conviction, with the player character using stealth more to set up ambushes rather than sneak by unseen. There are a number of ways to attack a given situation, as the game allows the player to take down enemies from a behind the back sneak attack, use them as human shields, snipe them silently with arrows, use a wide variety of throwable explosives, or just simply take them out in a blaze of gunfire. It’s quite a bit more stimulating and thought-provoking than the Uncharted-style encounter design where they just pour a bunch of dudes into an area of chest high walls and tell you to “don’t stop shooting until nothing’s left moving.” I do have a big gripe about the crafting system, however. It’s not so much about having to craft items, rather, I feel that the way the game makes you root around in so many little side rooms for crafting ingredients puts a drag on the pacing. In addition, the AI characters would often walk off without me while I was collecting crafting items, but I could vaguely hear them in the distance still talking to me or each other. It made me continually feel like I was missing important dialogue and story information. Still, I’m looking forward to finishing the game soon.
Brandish: The Dark Revenant (PSP, PSVita Compatible)
This was a quiet release during the month of January. I’m a huge fan of the Ys games that XSEED released on PSP, and seemingly out of the blue they have released another PSP port of one of Falcom’s classic series. Brandish: The Dark Revenant is a PSP remake of the original Brandish, somewhat similar I think to how Oath in Felghana is a remake of Ys III. Falcom is really good at designing great action RPGs, but although Brandish and Ys both belong to this genre, they play very differently.
Brandish is technically a dungeon crawler, tasking the player with reaching the top of an underground tower, but this is not the type of dungeon crawler that focuses on grinding for loot and levels. The levels have been crafted by the developer instead of being randomly generated, and there is more a focus on puzzle solving, careful exploration, and arranged combat encounters. The closest modern analogue to this game I can think of is the Legend of Grimrock series, although Brandish is played from a top-down perspective and lacks a party of characters. Another commonality that these games have is that while actions occur in real time, movement is confined to a square grid.
The story in this game is nothing particularly special. In fact, it doesn’t just take a backseat to the action, it’s locked in the trunk. The game starts with your character being ambushed by a bikini-clad sorceress seeking revenge on behalf of her master (or at least I think that’s what’s going on). An earthquake occurs during the confrontation, and the two characters fall into a crevasse and become trapped in a long lost underground kingdom. The player is then tasked with ascending a monster-ridden tower to return to the surface. Every so often, you cross paths with the sorceress and a small confrontation occurs, but otherwise there’s no story to speak of. If my description of this story sounds so exasperated, that’s because it’s just a very thin aspect of the game. This is definitely not a title for gamers looking for a story-dense experience.
The gameplay is actually fairly fun, fortunately, but it starts off a bit too easy. I think the description in the PSN store says that there are 40 dungeon floors to the game, but for about the first fifteen or so, I found both the puzzles and the monster to be an incredibly light challenge. I stopped playing the game for a little while, because the lack of difficulty was making it feel more like a chore than a stimulating experience. Fortunately, it does start to become quite a bit more challenging, and I’ve begun pouring a lot more time into it as a consequence. In addition, one cool thing about the dungeon design is that on most floors there are optional areas that require some extra-tough puzzle-solving and secret hunting to gain access to.
I have a feeling I won’t finish this game anytime soon. This is probably more of a positive than a negative. The lack of story kind of makes it a game that is easy to come back to after having put it down for long periods of time. Ultimately, I think this is an easy recommendation to any fans of Falcom’s other action RPGs. It’s a PSP game, but it is compatible with and looks great on the Vita’s screen.
Games I’m Looking Forward to in February
It seems that I haven’t beaten a single game in the month of January. I have a feeling though that I’m not to far from the end of The Last of Us, and, as I said, Duke Nukem and Brandish are games that I’m going to be coming back to for a while. There are a few games I’m looking forward to picking up in February. First up is Resident Evil Remake HD. I’m a big fan of the Resident Evil series, particularly the first two games, but I’ve never been able to play this version due to lack of a Gamecube. It’s always been a bit of a fascination for me though, as it makes the mansion look and feel like a much more sinister entity than what it was in the original games. I’m super excited to play the just released uprezzed version.
I will also definitely be getting into Majora’s Mask 3D. As I didn’t own an N64, Ocarina of Time 3D was my first experience with that game, and it left a big impression on me. I had always sort of doubted the fanfare around that game when it was released, since game-starved Nintendo 64 fans tended to play up every game that came out for that system as THE GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!! But after having seriously played it on the 3DS, I completely understand OoT’s popularity. I realize Majora’s Mask is a very different game from OoT, but I’m still excited to get a hold of it.
I’m also considering getting into the re-release of Grim Fandango, although the talk I’ve heard about the absurdity of the puzzle logic it possesses kind of makes me cautious. And, looking over what I’ve written, I’m recognizing a running theme of re-releases dominating my playlist. I’m thinking maybe I should spice things up with something more contemporary. After all, I believe it’s okay to have a healthy appreciation of the past, but obsession with those past experiences at the expense of rejecting the arrival of new experiences is what will turn you into an old man.