State of the Game: 24/07/2017 to 30/072017

Tacoma: The Human Part of the AI Equation.

It’s been almost 4 years since Fullbright released their seminal title: Gone Home. It was a game that hit close to home for me, the story echoing parts of my own life which I had similarly had to overcome. When I heard that their next game was set in a space station in the future I was incredibly excited for a similar kind of storytelling experience. Whilst the game is far more deep mechanically than its predecessor was, giving me a lot more to talk about before getting into spoilers, the overall narrative failed to capture me in the same way. I’ll dig into this a bit more later but suffice to say the reason Gone Home did so well was because of how relatable its story was, something that Tacoma unfortunately lacks.

Taking place some 70 odd years in the future Tacoma puts you in charge of Amy Ferrier, a contractor who’s been hired to retrieve an AI from an abandoned space station. You’re given strict instructions to retrieve the AI’s data and do nothing else, as your contract stipulates. Downloading the AI’s data takes quite some time however and, of course, your mind (and legs) begin to wander. This is when you start to unravel the mystery of why the station was abandoned and how the crew dealt with the crisis.

Tacoma uses Unity with what appears to be little modification. The visuals are simplistic and functional although there’s a great amount of attention paid to things that don’t matter in the overall theme of things. For instance the developers have made numerous brands for things like food, medical supplies and even cigarettes which litter around the space station. Sure it adds a little bit more depth to the environment but after you’ve seen the same brand of snacks 10 times over it starts to just look like mess. Some of the items do have a game play purpose but they’re few and far between. Given that this is a walking simulator/story first game though Tacoma gets a pass for its run of the mill visuals.

All of the game mechanics in Tacoma are centred on discovering more about the characters, their interactions with each other and the overall plot. You’re viewing everything in retrospect, able to move about through the recording as you wish both in time and space. At certain points people’s VR desktops will become available, giving you an even deeper look into their lives. Quite often you’ll play through the same scene several times in order to follow all the various conversations that are happening simultaneously. This does give Tacoma’s storytelling a very natural feel to it, especially when events in one scene affect another. There’s also a few hidden areas that can be unlocked if you pay attention during the VR playbacks or if you track down the various clues hiding in plain sight.

There’s no real blockers to you progressing apart from the timer on the AI download which, I believe conveniently ticks itself up to 50% after you view one half of the VR recording and then to 100% after you view the other. Either that or I had amazing timing every time I finished an area. Interestingly though I think these mechanics are more of a distraction than anything else as Tacoma’s predecessor had nothing like this and still managed to tell a deep, engrossing story. Whilst I won’t specifically lay the blame at Tacoma’s more ambitious game mechanics it does feel like some of the effort expended there might have been better spent elsewhere.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Tacoma’s plot seems to meander between various ideas without feeling like it comes together into a cohesive whole. Gone Home, by comparison, kept building up the tension right until the last moment, pulling you ever deeper into the mindset of its main characters. Tacoma on the other hand throws up various different red herrings, none of which have enough time to mature in order to be realised as a credible threat. Is it Odin that’s out to kill the crew because it’s finally become self-aware? Did the crew perish in an attempt to save themselves by modifying a cargo drone? Did some of the crew die in cryosleep? All of these ideas and more are explored in the games short 2 hour play time and most of them are dealt with in the same scene as they’re brought up in.

The ending also feels weirdly tacked on. I mean it’s great that Odin got to survive but I didn’t really see it hinted that you were someone from the AI Liberation Front in any of the in-game material. They were alluded to as an entity in the larger world but there was nothing to suggest you were part of it. For me this fits into Tacoma’s larger overall issue of not giving enough time for the various story elements to develop. Instead the focus seems to have been more on telling that story in a more inventive way which, whilst commendable, doesn’t feel like it worked out as intended.

Perhaps the whole reason I feel this way is due to how much the story of Gone Home resonated with me by comparison. The experiences detailed in that game were very close to my own life in many respects and so I felt a deep connection with the characters. Tacoma by comparison feels alien. I mean sure, some of the things the crew goes through are relatable, but not in the same way the events in Gone Home were. Combine this with the lack of overall story development and, for me at least, you’re left with a game that falls short of the high standard its predecessor set.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

There’s no denying that Tacoma is much more mechanically deep than its predecessor was but that’s about as far as the improvements go for Fullbright’s second title. The graphics feel about the same, although there is a lot of attention paid to details that I feel many will never see. The way Tacoma tells its story is unique and interesting, giving you the ability to see the same story from multiple angles and see how they interweave with each other. Unfortunately the story failed to resonate with me in the same way its predecessor did, possibly due to the fact that it’s just not as relatable. The game’s short length also didn’t allow for many of the story elements to mature as much as they needed to, leading to a feeling that many purported threats weren’t as bad as they could have been. Suffice to say I’m somewhat disappointed in Tacoma as it fails to reach the same heights as Gone Home did.

Rating: 7/10

Tacoma is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 17/07/2017 to 23/07/2017

Pyre: We Will Be Together Again Under the Stars.

We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.

For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.

Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.

Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.

Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.

Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.

The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.

Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.

The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.

It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.

Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.

Rating: 9.0/10

Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 10/07/2017 to 16/10/2017

What Remains of Edith Finch: Growing Up Surrounded by Death.

Maybe I’m getting older or maybe I just have less time but walking simulators fill a perfect niche for me. Their short play times, slow pace and (typically) well crafted stories make them a great escape from my usual diet of non-stop work and rage-inducing DOTA 2 matches. It’s also been quite some time since I got to play one, the last being Event[0] towards the end of last year. So when a friend mentioned that I should look into What Remains of Edith Finch, a game from the same developers who brought us The Unfinished Swan, I was instantly intrigued. Like all walking simulators it’s certainly not for everyone but, if you like a gripping (albeit tragic) story, then it’s definitely up your alley.

The Finches are an unfortunate family, one that appears to be pursued by a curse that befalls nearly all of them to untimely deaths. You play as Edith Finch, returning to your ancestral home for the first time in many years. What unfolds from there is the story of how your family came to be in this place, the stories of their deaths and why you left. Much of the family’s history had been hidden from you as a child, your mother refusing to discuss anything. However with her death she had relinquished to you a key, one that unlocked the many tragic tales that befell your family.

What Remains of Edith Finch is built on the Unreal Engine 4 and whilst it does a good job of hiding that “Unreal” feeling there are a few telltale signs that give it away. The visual aesthetic fits in between realism and fantasy which is tied in heavily to the story’s themes. The visuals excel in the wide open spaces, with lovingly crafted vistas sprawling out before you. Up close the lack of detail in some areas becomes apparent but, for the places you’re meant to explore in depth, you can definitely see the extra effort that’s been put in. Overall I’d say that What Remains of Edith Finch’s visuals are above par for the genre, even if they’re not a selling point.

As is expected for this genre What Remains of Edith Finch’s mechanics are simple in their execution. Typically you’ll be locked inside a room or area which you need to find one clue or dialogue trigger. You’ll be rewarded with additional dialogue and story development the more you explore although, thankfully, the game keeps red herrings and dead paths to a minimum. All of the flashback sections have their own little twist on story telling, blending in different story telling elements to make each of them unique. Beyond that there’s not much I can say without spoiling certain story elements but, if you’re a fan of the walking simulator genre, then I’m sure what I’ve described appeals to you.

SPOILERS BELOW

Knowing that all of the flashbacks would result in that family member’s death ignited something of a moral conundrum for me. In order to progress the game I had to do as the game requested but this, essentially, meant I was condemning them to their fate. Like when you were the child swinging over the cliff it was obvious what the outcome would be. However if I did nothing I could go no further and morally speaking they had already died, so I wasn’t changing anything. I guess the feeling came from the deep engagement I had with the game and the sense that I should have some form of control over the outcome, even if it’s already set in stone.

Whilst, overall, I think that the tragic tale of the Finch family was told well I didn’t like the fact that the narrator was killed off in the end. Sure, I understand that this is part of the “Finch Family Curse” motif the developers are going for but it just didn’t seem necessary to the overall plot. Perhaps my feelings about this come from the sense of loss that the game instils in you, wanting the stereotypical Hollywood ending to soften the blow, so to speak. Of course how you react to the story will be unique to you and there is no right or wrong way to feel when the credits begin to roll.

SPOILERS OVER

What Remains of Edith Finch well executed tale of tragedy, taking you through the history of family that has been forever surrounded by death. It’s visuals straddle the line between realism and fantasy, echoing the story. As you’d expect the mechanics are simple and unobtrusive, focusing you on the story. The dialogue and story elements are well paced and delivered excellently, ensuring that you’ll want to complete this game in one sitting. The genre suggests that this game is likely not for everyone but, if you’re a fan of a good story (even if it’s a sad one) then What Remains of Edith Finch is worth your time.

Rating: 8.75/10

What Remains of Edith Finch is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 56% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 03/07/2017 to 09/07/2017

Black The Fall: Fleeing the Oppression.

When I reviewed Inside last year I remarked that Playdead had modernised the formula they pioneered with Limbo many years prior. With Limbo it took many years before other games seeking to emulate the style would come out and I had expected similar with Inside. However here we are barely a year later and we have a game that, on first glance, seems to be heavily influenced by Inside both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Indeed even digging into the game’s development history you see how heavily Playdead’s games influence Black the Fall, with the original bearing an uncanny resemblance to Limbo and the subsequent versions looking a lot more like Inside. Of course emulating greatness doesn’t mean that you’ll attain it and whilst Black the Fall is good simulacrum of a Playdead game it fails to attain the same heights as that developer’s titles do.

Black the Fall transports you back to an alt-history communist Romania, putting you in charge of an old machinist who’s lived in the oppressive regime for decades. However today he decides that enough is enough and it is time to make his escape. Along the way he discovers an unlikely companion: a small robot who was caged up and left behind to rust. Will their quest to escape their oppressive leaders be successful? Or will the world devour them before they ever get the chance.

Black the Fall has the unmistakable Unity game feel, lacking the finesse that other titles have in hiding the telltale signs that the default engine configuration leaves behind. The low poly/cartoony look is very reminiscent of Inside, as is the use of a fixed camera that pans around the environment for cinematic effect. Truth be told the Inside-esque visuals were what drew me to the game in the first place and whilst they might not be up to the same standard they are most certainly a step above similar Unity based titles. What could really use some love is the animations, especially the main character. Looking at them closely they all have the signs of hand-animation, something which is honestly a rarity to see these days. Considering that all you need is a Kinect to get decent motion capture data I’m not sure why you’d go the manual route these days.

Unsurprisingly the game play of Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer. Pretty much all the puzzles are single rooms with everything required to solve them available in the one spot. None of them are very complex and thankfully the time limited puzzles are limited. The tutorial for mechanics are cleverly hidden in various signs and artefacts that make up the game’s background, meaning that every time a new mechanic is introduced you should have a general idea of how it functions. For myself there were a few instances where the developer’s logic didn’t gel with mine however most of those could be put down to me misinterpreting various visual cues. There’s really not much more to Black the Fall than that and for the most part it’s executed well.

There is some issues with the hit detection however which can cause an incredible amount of frustration. One section in particular, the one in the factory where you have to avoid being cut into strips by big spinning blades, stands out in my mind. At the end it’s obvious you have to jump onto an overhanging bar to proceed. However just jumping straight up isn’t sufficient, you have to do a running jump. “That’s obvious!” I hear you say, well it’s not when your character’s jump height doesn’t appear to visually change between a running and standing jump, but it does in the code behind. Other sections had similar issues with my character not latching onto ledges, refusing to interact with objects and other slight annoyances which made otherwise simple sections horrendously irritating. I’d like to say that a little more dev time could have polished over these rough edges but Black the Fall was already released 2 years after their original Kickstarter promised delivery date.

The story likely has more of an impact for those who lived under such regimes but for someone like me there wasn’t much to appreciate. Sure, I can understand the oppression that these regimes imposed on their people but Black the Fall doesn’t provide a new perspective on the matter. Instead it’s your run of the mill escape the oppressive regime story, one that doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. In this case the addition of a narrator or something else to give a deeper insight into what was happening on screen could have done much to improve player immersion and the emotional impact of the story. As it stands Black the Fall doesn’t do much of anything, at least not for this writer.

Black the Fall pays homage to Playdead’s masterful side-scrollers but does little to push that genre forward itself. The graphics, whilst retaining some of the default Unity engine’s branding, are a solid emulation of the Playdead style although the animations could use some work. The mechanics are simple, and, for the most part well implemented save for some hit detection issues that plague certain sections. The story may resonate for some but does little to show an unique perspective on well trodden ground. Overall Black the Fall is an adequate game but one that stays firmly in the shadows of the games it seeks to emulate.

Rating: 6.5/10

Black the Fall is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.2 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 26/06/2017 to 02/07/2017

Tekken 7: Heihachi’s Betrayal.

Tekken and I go a long way back. It wasn’t my first fighting game, that honour belongs to Street Fighter, but it was the first one I played on my original PlayStation. My character of choice was Hwoarang and I’d spend hours practising his 10 string combo in the hopes of using it to decimate my friends. However after Tekken 4 I never made my way back to the series, instead spending my fighting game time on Soul Calibur with my housemates and friends who’d come over to join the fray. When I saw that Tekken 7 was announced and was getting good reviews I figured it was finally time to revisit the series. Whilst I’m glad I did there was one thing I was missing from the experience, something which I think all fighting games need.

The world is still ravaged by the massive war between the Mishima Zaibatsu and G Corporation. The war, started by Jin Kazama to awaken Azazel (the source of the devil gene), has now turned into a power struggle for control of the world. Without Jin to lead the Mishima Zaibatsu Heihachi retakes control of the corporation and formulates a plan to end the war and take control of the world for himself. The story is told from the viewpoint of a unknown reporter whose family was killed in the war, seeking to find out the truth about each of the organisation’s motives for participating in it. What he finds though is the troubled past of the Mishima clan and the supernatural forces at play.

Tekken 7 has been around since 2015 in the arcade and so it’s somewhat understandable that the graphics feel like a generation or so behind. Of course with fighting games that rely on frame perfect execution visuals will often have to take a back seat to performance. Still even the cinematics seem oddly underdone, the character animations usually stiff and stilted, especially when compared to their in-game animations. Interestingly this is probably the first game in a while to run on the Unreal 4 engine that has that “unreal engine” look about it, especially with models that have high specularity. I haven’t gone to an arcade to compare the visuals however, so I’d be interested to see if this is an artefact of the porting process.

Tekken has certainly come a long way in the almost 15 years since I last played it, although there are still some things that remain the same. The core fighting feels very much the same with the same combos still working a decade and a half later. There are two new mechanics introduced in Tekken 7: rage art and power crush. Rage art activates when your health is critical, giving you a damage boost and can be used to execute a devastating attack (at the cost of the rage state). Power crush allows you to continue a move even if you get hit, although you’ll still take the attack’s damage. Included alongside this are the usual trappings we’ve come to expect from current generation fighting games including an online mode, customisable player icons and health bars, a story mode and the traditional arcade mode.

Whilst both of these new mechanics are used to frustrate the hell out of you in the campaign they actually make for a much more action packed game in the traditional 1 on 1 bouts. Rage art ensures that battles are much less one sided than they used to be, giving you a chance to even the odds if you find yourself getting pummelled relentlessly. Of course Tekken’s fighting style is still very much that of long combos and juggling, making sure your opponent doesn’t have the opportunity to respond. It also took me a while to get back into the Tekken button combination mindset as it’s vastly different to that of the fighting games I’ve recently played. Still the fighting felt familiar once I was in control of the characters I used to play which is saying something when I haven’t played Tekken for so long.

Now early on I mentioned that I was missing one key ingredient that all fighting games need. This isn’t a fault of Tekken at all, instead it was mine. After playing through the campaign and the arcade mode a few times I started to lose interest quickly and for a while I wasn’t entirely sure why. Then I remembered all the times I used to play fighting games and it was always ringed by a bunch of mates who’d be there with me for hours on end. You’d have your set of characters, who could beat who with what and inevitably there’d be the person who just unstoppable for a week or two before everyone figured out how to counter them. I didn’t have that this time around and, as a consequence, I didn’t feel as engaged with Tekken as I would have before. Perhaps the online mode could’ve been a decent substitute but I’ve never had much success with them, always feeling like I was a dozen or so frames behind where I needed to be. I may go back and try it again sometime in the future but if this experience has taught me anything its that fighting games are meant to be shared.

The story of Tekken is your pretty stock standard fighting game affair although there has been a lot more care and attention put into its telling. The Mishima Saga does a good job of exploring the back story of the series’ main characters although, honestly, the voice actor for the reporter sounds like he wants to be somewhere else. The individual character sections after that give you a little more insight into what they were doing during the main campaign’s events but are too short for any meaningful character development. Additionally whilst I’d love to believe the ending at face value if the Tekken series has taught me anything its their main characters always manage to find their way back from whatever fate befalls them.

It’s somewhat reassuring that a series like Tekken can feel so familiar after a 15 year break. Whilst the controller and platform may have been wildly different the movement, combos and other mechanics all felt instantly familiar. With all the other modern fighting game trimmings it would seem that Bandai Namco has been no slouch when it comes to modernising the series, ensuring that it has stayed relevant all this time. Indeed playing this now I feel remiss that it has taken me this long to come back, especially without my cadre of fighting game companions at my side. With all that said though Tekken 7 is still an outstanding game, something that’s easy to see even with the small amount of time I’ve put into it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Tekken 7 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC (with a controller, of course) with a total of 3 hours play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.