City building games are a lot like open world and sand box titles, as whilst they might contain some form of over-arching narrative much of the true story of the game emerges from your interaction with it. I’ve avoided the truly open ended games for the most part, primarily due to their seemingly endless beta states, but that’s not to say I haven’t been intrigued by the stories they generate, far from it. Thus when the tales of people’s experiences with Banished started to percolate through the Internet I was intrigued as the punishing mechanics led many to give up in frustration, only to come crawling back the next day. I feel much the same way and the lack of a pre-determined win condition only made it worse.
Exiled from your home town you find yourself in charge of a group of villagers who need to make a new life for themselves. You start with little more than a pile of resources, somewhere to store them and a desire to not die in the first winter that will come soon enough. Over time however the challenge shifts from simply surviving to keeping your town functioning, making everyone happy and ensuring they have everything they need to keep subsisting. The longer you play the more intricate and delicate the equation you need to balance becomes as a mistake in one area can have effects that ripple far beyond where you think they did and, if you’re not well prepared, devastate your town.
Like most games which have a tendency to generate a lot of on-screen elements as they drag on Banished’s visuals are a relatively simple affair although they do look particularly nice when zoomed all the way out. Many of the buildings have a very similar look and feel about them, even though there is a bit of variation in the house models to break it up a bit, which can lead to some confusion when your town is tightly packed with numerous structures. It’s relatively easy to remember where you placed important buildings though and often you won’t need to hunt around for them anyway. That being said there does seem to be some notable slowdown when you’re scrolling around, even in the early stages when there’s not much on screen. This may be due to my preference to playing on 5x speed, however, although I neglected to test that out.
Banished is a city building game, one not unlike Anno 2070 where you’re on a never-ending quest to find more resources in order to grow your population so you can…get more resources. Compared to other city building games that come with tech trees and other intricately layered mechanics Banished is actually quite simple, mechanically speaking. You can essentially sum it up as needing to provide life’s basics to a group of people (food/water/shelter) and doing so in a way that allows the town to grow and prosper. Typically this revolves around finding ways to overcome particular resource shortages with the most forgiving of which just prevents your town from getting bigger whilst the worst could see everyone dead within a few short years.
In the beginning you’re focused on 2 primary resources: food and firewood. Building enough houses usually doesn’t take you too long however getting up a store of firewood and establishing a renewable food supply is one thing that’s likely to kill your town in its first winter if done too late. There are several methods to getting this done although my favorite was by far the quad placement of a forester, herbalist, hunter and gatherer which provided a bevy of resources that kept coming in continually. After a while however you begin to notice that the amount of resources required to build other buildings, the ones that will enable you to do more things, can’t simply be gathered anymore and you start needing more people to accomplish certain tasks.
This then pushes you towards the dangers of increasing your population at a rate that you can’t currently sustain, quickly showing any flaws you have in your city planning. Typically the first hurdle you’ll face is food as the surplus you generated over all those years starts to quickly evaporate. Then, not too long after, your workers complain of their tools breaking and they start to become inefficient at performing their assigned tasks. Considering one of these tasks is making more tools this can have devastating consequences down the line, wiping out a good chunk of your population because it was all predicated on things getting done in a certain time frame. Once you’re past those initial hurdles though the problems you’ll face become much subtler and can easily go unnoticed for decades of in game time.
Indeed my first town that made it past the 20 year mark, which suffered all of the problems I described above, seemed to be struggling to make use of the vast resources I had put before them. No matter how many more people were born I just couldn’t seem to provide enough of everything for them, the parable of Sisyphus running through my head. A quick bit of research showed that my entire town was uneducated and thus would be incredibly inefficient at performing any of their tasks. Including a school now wouldn’t solve the problem for years to come and, with an aging population and a declining birth rate, it was unlikely that would even save my poor town. Sadly I closed that game file and started again.
What followed has been a mildly successful town, reaching 300+ citizens in under 50 years with a surplus of food at almost all times with maximum happiness and a mostly educated population. The same problems propped up again of course however this time around I was able to head them off before they became too much of an issue. However new problems arose simply from the size of the population I was now dealing with and small decisions or events, placing a house in the wrong spot or a teacher dying, had effects that I couldn’t fathom. There are solutions of course but these are the sorts of things that you just don’t think about when you’re starting out and solving them can sometimes be more costly than just living with it.
For the most part Banished avoids some of the more major issues that have plagued other city building games however there still seems to be times when things go awfully wrong for no apparent reason. The screenshots above shows one of my population (one of many, unfortunately) taking a trip down to the bottom right corner of the map for no particular reason. This wouldn’t be an issue, tyipcally, however many of the people who embarked on this trip would come back cold, hungry or simply die on the way. Additionally whilst you’re able to dictate a number of people to a job you have no control on who does what job, sometimes leaving you with people travelling long distances to do work. You can fix this by removing all your workers and re-assigning them every so often but it feels like a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.
I was really surprised by Banished as when I first looked at it I figured it would be a couple hours of fun figuring everything out and that’d be it. However the initial simplicity belies the greater complexity that lies underneath everything, something which is only revealed to you the longer you play Banished. It has its flaws and once you get past a certain stage there’s a definite feeling of “playing the waiting game” so you can progress to the next stage but it’s hard to fault Banished for that when it managed to draw me away for so long. You’ll definitely need to enjoy the city building genre to really appreciate Banished but that’s about the only barrier to entry I can think of.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Banished is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 15 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.
If there’s one thing that I can’t stand in any game it’s visual tearing and stuttering. This is the main reason why I play all my games with v-sync on as whilst I, like any gamer, enjoy the higher frame rates that come with turning it off it’s not long before I’m turning it back on again after the visual tearing wreaks havoc on my visual experience. Unfortunately this has the downside of requiring me to over-spec my machine to ensure 60 FPS at all times (something which I do anyway, but it doesn’t last forever) or lowering the visual quality of the game, something which no one wants. It’s been an issue for so long that I had given up on a fix for it although there was some hope with a 120Hz monitor. As it turns out there is hope and its name is G-SYNC.
The technology comes by way of NVIDIA and it’s a revolutionary way of having the GPU and your monitor work in tandem to remove tearing and stuttering. Traditionally when you’re operating a monitor like I am your graphics card has to wait for the monitor’s refresh interval every time it wants to write a frame to it. In a highly variable frame rate game (which is anything that’s graphically intensive) this leads to stuttering where repeated frames give the appearance of the game freezing up. Flipping v-sync off leads to the other problem where the GPU can write frames to the monitor whenever it wants. This means that a new frame can start being written halfway through a scan cycle which, if there’s even a skerrick of motion, leads to the frames being out of alignment causing visual tears. G-SYNC allows the GPU to dictate when the monitor should refresh, eliminating both these issues as every frame is synced perfectly.
For me this is basically monitor nirvana as it gives me the advantages of running v-sync without any of the drawbacks. Better still all the monitors that support G-SYNC also run up to 144Hz, something which was going to be a requirement for my next monitor purchase. The only drawback that I see currently is that all these high refresh rate monitors are TN panels which aren’t as great when compared to the shiny new IPS panels that have been flooding the market recently. Honestly though I’m more than willing to trade off the massive resolution and better colour reproduction for solving my main visual gripe that’s plagued me for the better part of 20 years.
Unfortunately your options for getting a G-SYNC capable monitor right now are fairly limited. Whilst there are a good number of monitors that were recently announced as supporting G-SYNC none of them have become commercially available yet, with all of them scheduled for release in Q2 2014. You can, if you’re so inclined, purchase an ASUS VG248QE and then hit up NVIDIA directly for a G-SYNC upgrade kit (currently out of stock) and upgrade your monitor yourself but it will require you to crack it open in order to do so. There are places that will do this for you though but they too are out of stock. Still for something like this I’m more than willing to wait and, hopefully, it will mean that other components of my new computer build will come down a touch, enough to justify the extra expenditure on these new fangled monitors.
Ever since I played Dear Esther I’ve been on a quest to figure out why it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not like I don’t enjoy exploration games, indeed I’ve played numerous since then and typically found them to be quite entertaining, and you don’t have to look far to figure out that I’d favour a good story over game play. Dear Esther then should’ve been right up my alley but something about it just made me hate it in a way that I haven’t felt for many other games. Playing through Journal though revealed where my frustrations came from: the deliberately vague and abstruse way the story was delivered. Where Dear Esther frustrated though Journal used to great effect, although not without some initial frustration.
You wake up one morning to find your journal, the precious record of all your thoughts and experiences, mysteriously blank. Venting your frustrations to your mother seems to lead to no where and as far as you can tell everything else seems to be going on as normal. However it becomes clear that more things are happening outside the world that’s being presented to you, things that are having a big impact on everyone around you. It doesn’t seem to be changing you however something which seems to be equal parts weird and strangely welcoming.
Journal’s art is interesting as it feels like you’re playing through a cartoon of someone’s drawings in their diary. I can’t say that it’s hugely impressive, especially with the rudimentary animation and effects employed, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from a game of this nature. The small circus sections serve as a visual break between sections, a good inclusion that heaps alleviate the fact that Journal heavily reuses nearly all the scenes throughout the entire game.
Mechanically Journal is a puzzler, requiring you to figure out who needs to be talked to, what needs to be said and which outcome you’re looking to achieve. In this respect it’s pretty simple as all you have to do is figure out who you haven’t talked to yet and go through the motions with them. Indeed even if you manage to forget exactly what it is you were supposed to be doing one of the characters will likely turn you around in the right direction which makes the pacing of Journal much more steady than other games in the genre. You’re also given a wide selection of dialog options to choose from which will shape what the story ultimately becomes.
Unfortunately Journal feels a little awkward mechanically as the main ways of interacting with it are always a little off. Things like the inclusion of a jump mechanic, which seems to have no other function but to give you something to do between scenes, make you think there are more puzzle elements than there actually are. Additionally the dialog options are hidden by summaries that are way too short to predict how your character is going to react and you’ll often find yourself wondering how the option you chose lead to the things your character said. This might be intentional (as I’ll talk about in a bit) but it still feels like this is a known anti-pattern in game design, one that needs to avoided at all costs.
From the onset it’s clear that the game isn’t telling you everything as there’s references to things that have happened or are in the process of happening that you don’t see. This is fine when it doesn’t involve your character, you can’t be there for every little plot detail, however since the whole story is centred on you this means the initial parts of the story are thoroughly confusing. Indeed even whilst you’re given control over how all the conversations play out it’s quite clear that one of the options is the “true and correct” one while the others lead to situations that just don’t quite to fit with reality. This also leads to your character being almost completely unrelatable for the majority of the game only coming together right at the end.
POTENTIAL PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
It’s obvious after the first couple days that this is a fantasy world, one that’s being recreated to fit an idealistic world created by the main protagonist, but the lack of critical information means that the majority of the initial story is just plain confusing. Whilst I was able to relate to the character’s struggles after the big reveal I could in no way do that before I knew what could lead someone to act in such random and unpredictable ways. To be fair it does represent the struggle that teenagers face, dealing with adult emotions yet not having the tools to both express and understand them completely, however that doesn’t mean it makes for good story telling. The pay off somewhat makes up for this but that doesn’t stop the majority of the game from feeling like a chore.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Journal is an incredibly personal story that reflects upon life’s greater themes through the eyes of someone who is not yet equipped to deal with them. The concepts are great however the game falls short of delivering a good experience with the main character obliterating any sense of relatability early on and the story remaining utterly confusing until the very end. Journal is a game that I want to like a lot more than I do but it’s incredibly hard to look past the faults even if the story will strike a chord with many of us. I bought Journal on the back that it was made by the man behind Kairo and, honestly, I can only recommend you do the same if you are also a fan.
Journal is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.7 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.
There seems to be two major camps of thought when it comes to levelling in MMORPGs. The first are those who like to take their time with it, soaking in the experience of the vast world presented to them and diving deep into the story elements. The others are fiercely focused on the end goal: get to max level and begin attacking end game content to create the most powerful characters possible. Both are legitimate forms of play and indeed a good MMORPG caters to both players but no matter which camp a player belongs to they will all ask the same question of a new game before they dive into it.
How long does it take to get to max level?
The reasons for asking the question differ significantly between both camps. For those who enjoy the levelling experience (I count myself as being primarily in this camp, although a little more on that later) the time to max level is a signifier of how much content they can expect to see before their preferred experience comes to an end. Heavily story based MMORPGs like Star Wars: The Old Republic the answer comes back as varied range depending on how far you want to dive into a particular story arc. End game raiders typically want to know the minimum amount of time required, often shortcutting past story elements and less efficient levelling zones, as the game for them doesn’t really start until they reach max level.
After you’ve done the levelling once though it’s often not the same when you go through and level again. Whilst many recent MMORPGs have made significant inroads to delivering unique experiences to different character classes, factions and whatever delineations they might have it’s almost inevitable that there will be some overlap between them. Thus levelling another character, referred to as an alt (alternate), can often be seen as something as a chore. Indeed for my first alt in World of Warcraft the game played out almost identically with the only difference being how combat evolved and my place in the various dungeons. It’s quite different now though and indeed the time taken to reach max level has been drastically reduced so when an item like the above shows up, allowing you to reach max level instantly for a price, the reaction has been somewhat mixed although I feel it’s overwhelmingly a positive thing.
I’ve been the proud owner of at least one max level character (usually 2) in every World of Warcraft expansion that’s come out. Whilst I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the levelling process on every occasion I rarely want to go through it again. Indeed nearly every time I’ve come back to World of Warcraft there’s been some kind of incentive program that made my levelling life a whole lot easier and the thought of having to redo it, for real this time, often doesn’t appeal enough. Something like this which would allow me to try out a character class which I’d otherwise have to slog through for countless hours for seems like a good deal to me, even if I feel the asking price is maybe a smidge above what I’d be willing to pay. I think that’s the point though and the next expansion comes with a free level up anyway.
I would put one caveat on it, if I could, and that would be that you would need at least 1 max level character before being able to purchase additional ones. This is something that the World of Warcraft forums have long debated over, often wanting the ability to boost their alts up to a certain level once they have a single character at max. I think the idea has merit as those who truly enjoy the levelling experience will do it regardless and those who are seeking end game content, the ones who usually spend the most time with the game by far, will always have at least a single max level character before they seek out another.
For me though things like this present a chance to reinvent myself every time a new expansion comes out. Whilst I’ve been an on again, off again player for the better part of 10 years now there are still classes I’ve yet to play in any meaningful sense and the allure of starting completely fresh in a new world is always enticing. I may never purchase one of these level boosts but I’m glad they exist as they would give me the opportunity to play with others who don’t have the time to invest in levelling.
I developed a love for fighting games early on in my gaming life with my brother and I playing through the tournaments and then facing off against each other and our friends in endless bouts. However I never really spent as much time with a fighting game as I did with Soul Calibur, a game that managed to capture not only my attention but that of good chunk of my friends. We’d play for hours on end with the crown of being the best player routinely passed on to someone new every week. Those days might be behind us now however the love of a solid fighting game still burns strongly within me and I think that’s why I find Nidhogg so rewarding.
Thrown into the ring with only a sword to defend yourself with you will face off against another opponent with the same. The aim is simple: to fight your way past your endlessly respawning foe to make it to the final, glorious section where you will be soundly applauded before the Nidhogg will devour you whole. Do not shy away from your fate, it is an honour to best your enemies and then be consumed by this giant worm and you will do it for as long as you deem necessary.
Nidhogg is visually simplistic even for pixelart games, with the majority of the world being solid colours that are utterly devoid of texture and lighting. This is done deliberately, of course, as whilst it would be nice to have some lush, hand drawn backgrounds it would only serve as a distraction from what you should be focusing on: you and the enemy you’re poised to defeat. Most of the levels work well however there was one which was a little bit irritating as it made your character and sword very hard to distinguish from the background. In a game where positioning is king this meant that fast became my most hated level but thankfully it’s only like that for a single screen.
When I was first thinking about how to describe Nidhogg I struggled to place it in a specific genre. From a technical standpoint its a sidescroller however it lacks the usual horde of enemies and instead pits you against a single respawning foe. Indeed the fact that Nidhogg supports “local multiplayer” (I.E. 2 people use the same keyboard to play against each other) makes it feel even more like the sidescrollers of old. However the actual game mechanics are much more in line with old school fighters, albeit with only a single character to choose from that has the same moves as anyone else. So if I had to describe Nidhogg I’d call it a sidescroller fighting game, one that has an incredible amount of technical depth for such simple mechanics.
You have a sword and you can place it in one of three heights and should your sword collide with your opponent’s you’ll bounce off each other harmlessly. You can also make a short gab towards them however should they move their sword down or up to block they’ll disarm you in the process. After that it’s down to fistcuffs for you which can still be surprisingly effective as it seems you become slightly more nimble without a sword to encumber you. Typically at this point you’ll be attempting to dive kick or trip your opponent so you can either grab their sword or snap their neck while they’re down or simply try to force them back enough so you don’t lose too much ground.
After the initial bout whoever won must then make their way across the map in their specified direction. The maps are symmetrical, so there’s no advantage to being on either side, and at predetermined points along the way from one side to the next your opponent will respawn, triggering the fight all over again. Should they defeat you then it’s their turn to start running to the other side, undoing your progress while furthering theirs. So sometimes you’ll breeze past your enemies, defeating them with a single blow (or, if you’re like me, jumping over them and sprinting) only to have it all come undone in much the same fashion.
Once you’re familiar with the levels and the sword/no sword mechanics the game evolves from a button spammer to one that has a good amount of strategy behind it. If you’re playing the single player the enemies all have a very distinctive style, forcing you to adapt your current play style in order to be able to defeat them. This is what prepares you for the challenges of multiplayer as there are numerous tactics you can use to unseat your opponent. Even with the best tactics however you can still be undone by the twitch reactions of your opponent, something that all good fighting games rely on.
Nidhogg is a deeply tactical fighting game that’s been distilled down to its very core. The simple graphics, distilled game mechanics and ultimately satisfying battles makes Nidhogg simple to pick up but incredibly difficult to master. The single player is a great introduction to the various tactics that you (and other players) can use, preparing you for the ultimate showdown with your opponent sitting right beside you. It might not draw me in as much as Soul Calibur did but it’s a great fix for someone who’s been aching for a decent fighter for a while.
Nidhogg is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 1.5 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
The number of games I know that have made the transition from a mobile platform to the PC is vanishingly small. Primarily this is due to the limitations of the mobile platform that necessitates simplicity in almost all respects, something that is at odds with the expectations of gamers of other platforms. Some do make the jump, indeed they can even be quite palatable if some effort is given to the transition, however their roots are always indisputable with the trade mark multiplicities baked into the very core of the game. Echo Prime, a new title from Robot Entertainment who are behind the Orcs Must Die! series, is a textbook example of a game with a primary platform in mind that suffers when translated elsewhere.
You’re an elite enforcer on a quest to protect the galaxy from an alien threat. During an engagement with the enemy however your ship becomes damaged and drifts slowly towards a black hole. However this black hole is actually a tear between this universe and the wider multiverse allowing you to establish a link with a race of beings called the Echoes. This link grants you abilities far beyond that of any normal human, enabling you to protect the galaxy from the imminent alien threat. From then on its up to you to fight your way through untold hordes of enemies ranging from robots gone awry all the way up to massive alien commanders, ready to squash you without a second thought.
As is the case with all mobile ports the graphics of Echo Prime are incredibly simplistic, done so that it can run on the widest range of devices possible. There’s no option to crank them up to ridiculous levels on the PC unfortunately, so you just end up with the same thing running at a larger resolution. This means it runs well but honestly there’s rarely enough happening on screen to stress even a decade old PC, even if you try to do something silly like run through the whole level to bunch up all the enemies together (there’s rarely more than 20, total, in a level). This makes it somewhat obvious that the target market was most certainly not the PC and more on the mobile market.
Echo Prime is a hack ‘n’ slash time waster with every level being no longer than a couple minutes long and you never being swamped with more than a handful of enemies at once. There’s 2 basic forms of combat the first being a simple ranged attack that you can spam by holding down. The second is a melee attack that you’ll automatically switch to when enemies are in range. The enemies you’ll face are just about as varied with them being designated as either melee or ranged and acting accordingly. If this isn’t sounding incredibly nuanced to you then you’d be right on the money as it’s catered more towards spamming attacks, either kind will do, than any kind of meaningful strategy.
It became clear early on that the AI in the game is rudimentary, to the point where I’m sure that the path finding algorithm is a straight “walk directly at the player” for 90% of the enemies. Whilst there are some elements of strategy that you can potentially take advantage of (environmental hazards like oil slicks and toxic gas) you likely won’t need them once you figure out that you can shoot nearly every enemy before they get on screen. This is because enemies are placed all over the level before you start and will remain there until their either hit with a projectile or they come within a certain range of you (which, you’ll note, is after you can see them).
This is not to say that playing a true melee character wouldn’t be viable, it certainly is given the fact that melee weapons are usually an order of magnitude more powerful. Consequently if you’re a classical min-maxer like myself you’ll quickly learn that there’s no need to buy any weapon but the very best you can for your level bracket. The first time doing this is a little bit of a struggle (time wise more than anything else) but after that you’re pretty much guaranteed to waste any enemy near you without having to think about it. This means that the challenge of the game is almost non-existent, removing any sense of driving purpose to improve on your character.
I will admit that the Echo system is pretty cool, allowing you to choose from an incredibly massive range of augmentations to spice up the game play. Better still you’re allowed to choose one from another player to use for that campaign, something which can lead to awfully broken builds like my double-double shot build which could spawn upwards of 20 bullets with a single click. This also sends back credits and upgrade points to the people you borrowed them from, encouraging you to upgrade your Echoes fully in order to have them picked before anyone elses. Unfortunately once you find a build you’re comfortable with you’re quite unlikely to stray from it, even if you happen to borrow an Echo that has some cool abilities.
It’s painfully obvious that the whole game is designed for fat fingering on a tablet screen with all the buttons being huge and all the controls having touch centric ideals built into them. This works horribly on PC with the dodge function detecting “swipes” all the time, often leading your character to dive in a direction that you didn’t expect them to. Worse still the large collision radius used for the cursor can mean that you sometimes end up clicking on things that you can’t see, like when you’re clicking on the edge of the screen to move forward. It’s highly frustrating to use and the game’s simplicity is its saving grace in this regard as any kind of twitch reaction is nigh on impossible.
The story is incredibly basic, being told primarily through small chunks of text before the mission begins. It’s little more than a bit of flavour text as it often doesn’t amount to much more than “You need to clear this place out” or “We need to defend this because of X”. Indeed past the initial set up the story seems to be a second thought something which is entirely a symptom of the game’s design to be picked up, played for 5~10 minutes, and then put away. This might be passable on a mobile device but in a PC title it really doesn’t cut it.
Echo Prime is a perfect example of why straight ports of a mobile game are just not compatible with the PC platform. The simplistic graphics, pick up/put down nature and extreme simplicity is perfectly suited to a platform where those things are key but when brought to the PC it just feels cheap. The idea has a lot of potential and I believe that Robot Entertainment could make a great version of it for the PC, however this current incarnation is far from that, showing its mobile roots almost too proudly. For PC gamers I’d rethink buy this on your PC as it’d be much better suited to your phone or gaming tablet.
Echo Prime is available on PC and iOS right now for $9.99 and $5.49 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours total play time and 25% of the achievements unlocked.
In the past the only genre of game that could get away with being intentionally difficult to play was survival horror. The reasoning there was that it built tension, mimicking the feeling of panic you would feel should you find yourself in the same situation as is on screen. However the past couple years have given rise to a genre of games, all of them from independent developers, that hinge on the idea of being incredibly frustrating to play. It’s hard to understand the comedic effect that this usually has, typically resulting in a whole bunch of emergent game play characteristics that become the game’s main attraction. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one such game, combining incredibly obtuse controls with ragdoll physics that results in much hilarity.
You’re an octopus, one that’s managed to integrate himself into normal society to the point that everyone thinks you’re just a regular guy. Indeed even your wife and kids don’t know your secret, blissfully unaware of the chaos that seems to ensue wherever you go. There is one person though that knows who you are, a chef called Fujimoto, and he’s made it his only goal in life to reveal you for who you are and, most unfortunately, cook you up and serve you. What follows is the tale of you trying to integrate into society whilst attempting to flee Chef Fujimoto’s attempts to turn you into moderately priced sushi rolls.
Octodad reminds me of the educational games I use to play as a kid, having a distinctly cartoony style that uses heavily stylization. Initially I thought it was a Unity game as I’ve seen a couple other games with similar visual styles (kind of like how Flash games tended to look similar) but it’s actually a homegrown solution meaning the visual style is very deliberate. Whilst it’s not going to win awards I definitely like it and feel that it’s very fitting to the game. It also has the added bonus of making Octodad playable on pretty much anything which is great considering what a wide appeal the game itself has.
As I alluded to earlier Octodad relies on the unpredictability of the controls to generate the majority of the challenge. Primarily you’ll be doing things that would be considered trivial in most games, picking up an item, moving an item, walking through a hallway of precariously placed objects, however you’ll likely be unable to do that without knocking something over or accidentally picking something up. This wouldn’t be an issue however anything out of the normal will attract the attention of nearby humans and, should you continue your flailing, the jig will be up and it will be back to the ocean for you.
The controls take a bit of getting used to as you have to constantly switch between modes in order to get things done. The first mode is where you can pick up and move objects about, simple enough you say, however the controls don’t translate like you think they would. Then when you switch to the movement mode all the rules you learnt in the other mode go out the window and now you’re on an eternal quest to put your feet in the right position whilst not knocking anything over. Thankfully the devs included snap points for a lot of the main objectives as otherwise there’d be hours of frustration in order to get things to work just right.
Whilst the unpredictability of the physics engine is a feature, not a bug, there are a some unfortunate glitches which can be a tad annoying. You can get yourself into positions where the camera seems to forget where you are and no amount of movement spamming seems to bring it right (reloading a checkpoint will, however). There’s also no way to tell what surfaces you can and can’t adhere yourself to and even when you can the amount of gripping power you have seems to vary wildly depending on the situation. I will admit that the latter seems intentional to an extent but sometimes it felt like the game was punishing you for no reason in particular.
I was pleasantly surprised by Octodad’s story as whilst it’s lacking in depth it certainly isn’t lacking in heart. The subtitles for your lines are great, making you empathize with a character that, in all honesty, has no business being in the position that he’s in. It’s also acutely self aware of the absurdity of its own situation, thankfully not to the point of overdoing it like a lot of games tend to do. It’s the kind of story that I feel would be great for someone with kids as they’ll love the absurdity of Octodad’s flailing arms whilst learning a few things along the way.
Octodad: Dadliest catch is a charming indie frustration title that breaks away from many of the traditional game norms in favour of its own brand of absurdity. The game mechanics might not be complex, nor the puzzles particularly challenging, but it is a great deal of fun to play. The are some minor technical hiccups that mar the otherwise solid execution but they’re not game breaking and indeed you’d almost consider some of them part of the game itself. There’s a lot to like in Octodad: Dadliest catch and I’d definitely recommend a play through.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $14.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s no question that the Double Fine Adventure was responsible for showing that the Kickstarter model could work for games. The now miserly looking target of $400,000 blew by quickly and the final tally saw it being funded a whopping 800% over what they initially hoped to grab. Now I’ll have to be honest here, I wasn’t completely convinced that it would be worth backing because whilst I appreciate Tim Schaefer’s ability to make games people love I just haven’t been a big fan of his. My mind was changed slightly after I played through The Cave however and when Broken Age came up in one of the Humble Bundles I figured it was worth the price of admission and the first chapter was released just recently.
Broken Age puts you in control of one of two characters. I initially chose to be Shay (voiced by none other than Elijah Wood), a young man who seems to be the only passenger on a vast space ship. It’s not your regular kind of space ship however as everything seems to be very….childish with animated stuff animals running around and all the controls reminiscent of Fisher Price toys for toddlers. Indeed this spaceship seems to act more like a prison than a safe haven as the overly motherly computer foils any attempt that you might make to break the monotony.
At any time though, should you want a change of pace or you’re stuck on a puzzle that just doesn’t seem to have a proper solution, you can switch over to Vella, a young woman who has been given the honour of participating in the maiden’s feast. Nearly all your family is incredibly excited for you with the notable exception of your grandfather, a grizzled war veteran from a time long past. As you start to enquire about what the maiden’s feast actually entails the shocking truth comes out: you’re to be eaten by the huge beast Mog Chothra in order to appease him and avoid conflict with the village. Understandably you don’t want anything to do with this and vow to defeat Mog Chothra once and for all.
The art style of Broken Age is simply delightful with every scene exuding this feeling of meticulously hand painted scenes coming to life before your eyes. I’ll admit that the start I felt it was somewhat simplistic but as you play through you get a real feeling for just how detailed many of the scenes are, especially the ones that contain puzzle elements. Indeed when you revisit places throughout your adventure it becomes apparent just how much detail is there which you simply didn’t notice on the first time through. The art style also fits the slightly whimsical nature of the game which makes it even more impressive to me as I’m not usually one for that kind of style.
Broken Age is your typical point and click adventure game where you’ll spend your time shuffling your character around the environment, looking for things to interact with and solving various kinds of puzzles along the way. Unlike other titles in this genre Broken Age doesn’t attempt to put a unique mechanic or twist on the way the game plays through so it is really, truly an old school point and click adventure. Double Fine has gone to the effort to eliminate the inventory hell that plagued traditional point and clicks but apart from that the game would not be out of place, mechanically at least, if it was released a decade or two ago.
For the most part the puzzles are pretty rudimentary, usually requiring you to have the inquisitive kind of mind that long time players of this genre will already have. Most of the time you can solve the puzzles by simply clicking around and finding the things you can interact with and, should that fail, a quick rummage through the inventory typically gets you out of trouble. The final big puzzles of both Vella and Shay’s story lines present more of a challenge, definitely requiring you to think non-linearly, but they provide the lone challenge in an otherwise rather easy game.
One tip I’ll give without spoiling any of the story line is that, as far as I could see, there was one and only one solution to some puzzles. There were a couple times when I had thought that I had achieved a certain goal without needing to take a certain (seemingly obvious) path but found out later, after coming up blank on every other path, that I needed to do the obvious thing in order to progress. Thus if you think you’ve managed to skip over a section or picked up a useless inventory item you’re wrong and there’s something you’re missing.
However harping on the rudimentary-ness of the mechanics and complaining about how I over-thought some of the puzzles is a distraction away from the real core of Broken Age: its story. Initially I thought it was rather superfluous and poorly written, mostly due to me choosing Shay’s path first, however as you play on you realise that’s the point of that section and it’s setting you up for the grander plot. What follows is a beautiful story of two people looking to overcome tradition, in one way or another, attempting to cast off the shackles that have bound them since birth.
I will lament the fact that it’s episodic though as whilst I thought at one point this would be the future of games I always find myself wanting to play the whole thing through and grow disinterested in it between the lulls in content. This is not a fault of the game per se, more a gripe from a person who loves to envelope themselves in a game from beginning to end as one continuous experience. I understand the reasons for releasing Broken Age in this way but I would have not been mad if I had to wait another year to play the whole thing in its entirety.
Broken Age is a wonderful game, combining a whimsical art style with the tried and true adventure game play that Tim Schaefer is well renown for. It stays true to its genre, eschewing the current indie norm of adding in mechanics to distinguish themselves and instead opts for the more seamless improvements, ones that long time adventure gamers will be thankful for. Broken Age is definitely a game for the fans of Tim Schaefer and the adventure genre so I’ll stop short of recommending everyone play it but should you fall into either of the 2 previous categories then it’s definitely worth a look in.
Broken Age is available right now on PC for $24.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours.
My stance on Cloud Gaming is well known and honestly barring some major breakthrough in several technological areas (graphics cards, available bandwidth, etc.) I can’t see it changing any time soon. The idea of local streaming however is something I’m on board with as there have already been numerous proven examples where it can work, a couple of which I’ve actually used myself. So when I heard that Valve was going to enable In Home Streaming as a feature of Steam I was pretty excited as there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself wanting to use games installed on my main PC on other computers in the house. Valve widen the beta last week to include a lot more people and I was lucky enough to snag an invite so I gave In Home Streaming a look over during the Australia Day long weekend.
The setup couldn’t be more simple. At this stage you have to opt into the Steam client beta, requiring you to redownload the client (around 80 MB at the time of writing) and sign into both machines using the same account. Now last time I remember trying to do that I got told I was already logged in somewhere else and thus couldn’t log in but it seems this client version has no such limitations. Once you’re logged into both machines you should be greeted with a list of games available to play that matches your main machine perfectly and, when you go to play them, you’ll have the option to either install it locally or stream it from the other machine.
Clicking on stream will start the game on the other machine its installed on and, should everything go according to plan, it will then appear in another window on the machine you’re streaming to. The first thing you’ll notice though is that the game fully runs on the other machine, including display the graphics and playing sound. This can be somewhat undesirable and whilst it’s easily remedied it shows you what kind of streaming is actually occurring (I.E. DirectX mirroring). Using such technology also places some limitations on what can and cant’ be streamed by simply clicking on the stream button but there are ways around it.
I first tried this on my media PC which is a HP MicroServer that has a Radeon HD6450 1GB installed in it. Now this machine can handle pretty much any kind of content you can throw at it although I have had it struggle with some high bitrate 1080p files. This was somewhat improved by using newer drivers and later builds of VLC so I was pretty confident it could handle a similar stream over the network. Whilst it worked the frame rates were pretty dismal, even in games which weren’t as graphically intense. Considering the primary use case of this would be for underpowered machines to take advantage of the grunt other PCs in the house can provide this was a little disappointing but I decided I’d give it a go on my Zenbook before I passed judgement.
The much better hardware of the Zenbook improved the experience greatly with all the games I tested on it running nigh on perfectly. There were a couple issues to report, namely when the stream broke there didn’t seem to be a way to restart it so I was just left with a black screen and audio playing. The differing resolutions meant that I was playing with a boxed perspective which was a tad annoying and, unfortunately, it appears you’re limited to the resolutions of the box you’re streaming from (I couldn’t run DOTA 2 at 1080p as my monitors are 1680 x 1050). Still the performance was good enough that I could play FPS games on it, although I wasn’t game enough to try an online match.
Overall I’m very impressed with what Valve has delivered with In Home Streaming as it’s pretty much what I expected, bar it being so damn easy to set up and use. Whilst I’m sure they’ll improve the performance over time it does speak volumes to the fact that the end point does matter and that you will have a worse experience on low powered hardware. Still, even then it was usable for my use case (watching in game DOTA 2 replays) and I’m sure that it would be good enough in its current form for a lot of people.
The indie dev scene seems to go through periods of obsession with different genres. In the past it was with platform puzzlers as it seemed that every other week brought to me several new titles attempting to put their own twist on the tried and true genre. More recently it seems to have shifted to survival horror as many seek to replicate the success of DayZ. So when Contrast, a platforming/puzzler from Compulsion games, I felt a distinct twinge of nostalgia, harking back to the indie renaissance that was built on games such as this. Like many from that time it’s taken the puzzler/platformer genre and placed its own unique style on top of it resulting in a game that’s quite interesting, even if it has its faults.
It’s not quite clear who, or more importantly what, you are when the game starts but all you know is that only a small girl, Didi, can see you. In fact this bond seems to be somewhat mutual as you can’t see anyone else but her and the shadows of others that are in the room with you. You and Didi seem to share a bond however as she’s always getting into mischief, usually with your assistance, much to the chagrin of her mother. Still, Didi’s mother tries hard to support her, hoping to rise to fame as a wonderful singer and actress. Everything starts to change when Didi’s deadbeat father comes back into the picture, promising to make everything right.
The art style of Contrast feels like you’re in the mind of a child with many typical elements, such as houses, having a very whimsical nature to them. It’s all heavily inspired by the art deco movement of the 1930s and 40s with many of the environments having a really distinct BioShock-esque feel to them. They do feel a little dead and empty however which I do believe was done deliberately however it means you feel compelled to not stay in one area for too long, even though the game tries to encourage you to explore. Potentially this could have been solved by adding in more light sources that had shadows walking past it which wouldn’t seem out of place and would make everything feel a little more alive.
As I alluded to earlier Contrast is a platform/puzzler that has an unique mechanic to spice things up a bit. The puzzles are all fairly basic in nature, usually consisting of getting yourself from one place to another or moving an item into another spot that’s not exactly obvious when you first start out. Contrast’s twist however is that when a wall is lit up you can “shift” into it, becoming a 2D shadow on the wall that allows you to move in ways that would be impossible otherwise. This leads to some rather intriguing puzzles where you’re always looking for where the source of light is and how the shadows you can create will help or hinder you in your goal.
There’s also a set of collectables called “Luminaries” which are hidden in various locations throughout the game. They function as an exploration mechanic as well as a kind of in-game currency to progress past certain obstacles. Their presence isn’t fully explained however, although Didi is aware of them for some reason, so the motivation to collect them really only comes about if you’re a natural explorer or you happen to see one that isn’t far out of your reach. Indeed there was only once when I didn’t have the required luminaries on me to immediately continue a puzzle and then it took me less than a couple minutes to find the requisite number.
Unfortunately whilst this mechanic is indeed novel it suffers heavily from glitchy behaviour. True flat surfaces with light projected onto them appear to work quite well however anything with a ridge or a bump in it, like the numerous columns that dot the landscape, have a tendency to shift you back out of the shadow plane. It’s hard to tell if this is expected behaviour or not as you can walk through them, some times, and you can also blast past them again only randomly. The shadow detection itself can also get a bit buggy as Dawn’s hitbox appears to be significantly bigger than the character model, leading to some puzzles either being more complicated than they need to be or being trivialized.
Indeed there were quite a few puzzles where I figured I’d be restarting from the checkpoint again only to find myself standing on air next to the ledge I was trying to jump onto. Whilst I was somewhat appreciative of this at the time it does mean that the game doesn’t function as you’d expect leading to some rather undesirable behaviour. Worst still there are many places where you can find yourself caught in the environment for some inexplicable reason and while I never had to reload to get unstuck it certainly didn’t endear the game to me when it happened.
Contrast’s story, whilst clichéd, does help to smooth over some of the more rough edges of the game. The majority of the voice actors are great with the notable exception of Didi who’s lines seem to be heavily disjointed between sentences. The music is quite good, suiting the art deco environment aptly. Whilst it might not have the depth of other indie titles it certainly has a little bit of charm to it with everyone being able to identify with the idea of giving someone a second chance.
Contrast is a unique concept, filled with brilliant ideas that are unfortunately hindered by a less than ideal execution. The story, music and scenery are all above average, crafting a whimsical art deco world that’s incredibly delightful. However the core game mechanics suffer from inconsistent behaviour and glitchy collision detection turning the otherwise novel idea of moving through shadows into a laborious experience. Lovers of indie puzzlers will find a lot to enjoy in Contrast however I think that’s the limit of its appeal, at least in its current state.
Contrast is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $14.99, $14.99, $21.49 and $14.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 68% of the achievements unlocked.