Games

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.

State of the Game: 19/06/2017 to 25/06/2017

Nex Machina: A Synthwave Bullet Hell.

Whilst I spent quite a lot of my childhood playing games like Raptor: Call of the Shadows I never really got into the whole bullet hell/twin stick shooter scene. Indeed my recent experience with bullet hell sections in Nier: Automata reinforced that as I didn’t find much to like in them there. However when scrolling through the popular new releases section on Steam Nex Machina caught my eye, both for it’s outrageously neon visuals and synthwave sound track. Whilst I may have once again affirmed my aversion for the genre it’s hard not to appreciate what Nex Machina brings to the table, especially for the fact that it heavily rewards those with skill.

If there’s a story in Nex Machina I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. As far as I can tell Earth is being invaded by an alien force and it’s up to you to push them back. You’ll do this by slaughtering untold numbers of aliens whilst rescuing what humans you can, progressing through each self contained level until you reach the final boss. The challenge comes from not dying, finding all the secrets and, of course, beating each section in as fast a time as possible. At its heart Nex Machina is a mechanically simple game but it does a great job of ensuring that you’re never left without another challenge, especially if leader boards are a motivator for you.

Initially I thought Nex Machina was just another indie game based on the Unity engine but, as it turns out, it’s from Housemarque, a veteran indie developer of over 20 years. Nex Machina is based on a reworked version of the Resogun engine which itself was based on the Super Stardust Delta engine. The visuals themselves are pretty simplistic with the environments utilising voxels for some interesting destruction physics. Where the game shines is in its lavish use of neon lighting effects often to the point of utter visual domination where it’s hard to figure out just where the hell you are. The aesthetic is well matched with its backing sound track however, giving the whole game this great retro-future vibe.

In terms of actual game play though there’s really not too much to talk about. It’s a twin stick shooter, meaning you’ll be surrounded on all sides by enemies which you’ll have to do your best at avoiding whilst you gun them down. As you kill enemies random power ups will drop, making the game ever so easier. If you die however you’ll drop one power up and if you don’t pick it up before you die or complete a section you’ll lose it forever. In this sense the game rewards those who are able to skillfully complete sections without dying, making it easier to do so in future sections. Indeed your first playthrough is likely to be a frustration ridden affair as you figure out what the environmental hazards are, how the different enemies behave and how you can use certain mechanics to your advantage.

However what Nex Machina is quite lacking in is variety. Whilst each different world has its own theme with accompanying enemies they really aren’t that all different when you sit down and compare them. The environmental mechanics are also pretty much all the same, even if they have slightly different triggers or look visually different. Thus, for someone like me, there’s really not a whole lot of replayability as it all starts to feel very samey quite quickly. If, however, mastering a game’s challenge completely is the kind of thing that appeals to you then I’m sure there’s endless hours of enjoyment in Nex Machina. It’s just not there for me.

Nex Machina is a solid twin stick shooter with an excellent retro-future vibe. Whilst this is a genre I’d typically not even bother foraying into the visuals and driving sound track were enough for me to want to give it a go. It might not have swayed me on the genre, indeed it reaffirmed it more than anything else, but I do feel like Nex Machina is a great example from a veteran developer in the genre. If you lust for the old days of twin stick arcade shooters then Nex Machina is right up your alley.

Rating: 7.5/10

Nex Machina is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 1 hour of total play time and 21% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 12/06/2017 to 18/06/2017

STRAFE: Sometimes Nostalgia is Just That.

A sizeable percentage of the games I own are wholly or in part due to my feelings of nostalgia towards them. Some are originals, games I keep around because of the fond memories I have of playing them and have grand ideas of going back to replay them one day. Others are there because they invoke the feelings of that era, with simpler graphics and without all the trimmings that modern games bring with them. STRAFE got attention and Kickstarter backing because of the latter, promising to bring the best of what the 90s shooters had to offer. Unfortunately all it seems to have done is provide a strong reminder of how far we’ve come.

You play as an unnamed “scrapper”, a person who’s job is to collect scrap so they can get paid. Your corporation has sent you to the ship Icarus which is on the outer limits of humanity’s reach in space. No other scrapper has returned alive from the Icarus so, the logic goes, surely its littered with tons of scrap just waiting for collection. Of course the corporation takes no responsibility for what happens to you whilst you’re there so it’s up to you, dear scrapper to make sure you stay alive. That’s about all the motivation you’re given before being thrown back several decades to a low poly hell filled with monsters, scrap and a varying array of weapons.

STRAFE comes to us via the Unity engine which, for once, isn’t to blame for the way the game looks. The visuals are reminiscent of the early Quake era although its obvious that the textures are much higher resolution and the low poly models likely having several times more polys in them than they did back in the 90s. The aesthetics are quite confusing at times, making it extremely hard to work out things like what constitutes a door or an elevator at a glance. Due to the game’s fast paced action and use of semi-procedurally generated terrain this is a bigger deal than it would be in other games as it can make it quite hard to actually figure out just where the hell in a level you are. Overall it does a good job of emulating the 90s shooter experience, warts and all.

STRAFE is a fast paced FPS centred on clearing a level as fast as you can whilst discovering all the secrets and collecting as much scrap as you can. The levels are semi-procedurally generated, a random grab bag of rooms selected and then cobbled together every time you load a new section. What this means is that secrets will never be in the same place, enemies will never be where you expect them to be and, most annoyingly of all, the vendors where you can buy ammo/armour/upgrades are never where you need them to be. The variety of enemies is low and the challenge comes from the game throwing ever more of them at you whilst you struggle to find enough ammo to take them all out.

Now I’m as much of a fan of spammy, fast paced combat as the next person but STRAFE’s was just straight up boring and frustrating. Sure it was fun to line up a bunch of enemies and take them out with a grenade, but having to do that 20 times over per level meant it lost its lustre very quickly. The weapons also felt very samey, none of them feeling particularly unique or interesting in their own right. Couple this with the deluge of samey enemies and you’ve got a recipe for combat that’s uninteresting, repetitive and frustrating. I honestly couldn’t play for more than 15 mins at a time before getting horrendously bored and giving it up for another day or two, it was that bad.

Some may say that it’s simply too hard for someone like me or I don’t enjoy this kind of challenge. To counter that argument I’d point you to my reviews of games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls III both games which punish its players but I found far more rewarding than anything STRAFE had to provide. Sure, I’ll grant you those games probably had several times the budget that STRAFE did but the point still stands: I do enjoy a good challenge and I don’t believe STRAFE provides one. Instead it provides a samey, randomised experience that does far more to frustrate than it does to challenge and reward the player.

STRAFE had grand ideas of being the best 90s shooter ever but falls incredibly short of that mark. Indeed whilst STRAFE borrows a lot of elements from FPS games of yesteryear, like its visuals and fast paced action, it fails to do much with them in order to make a good gaming experience. The visuals, whilst staying largely true to the 90s formula, are a visually confusing mess that only serves to amplify the game’s less than stellar qualities. The combat is repetitive with a distinct lack of variety in weapons, enemies and level design. The Roguelike elements simply add another level of frustration rather than challenge, leaving this reviewer feeling that his time was better spent playing almost anything else in his library.

Rating: 5.0/10

STRAFE is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.96. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours played.

RiME: Paradise Lost.

Once your average game development house find some success they tend to stay on the same track. Even in the indie scene, which is ripe with games that explore every niche possible in the gaming medium, you’ll see developers stick to a formula once they know they have an audience for it. However there are a few developers which, for better or for worse, branch out with every new release. Tequila Works, who previously brought us the survival horror game Deadlight, is very much in the latter category as their latest game RiME is nothing like anything they’ve released before. Whilst it might not be the most original idea (indeed I think we’ve had enough games in the “young child lost in ancient ruins” genre that it’s something of a stereotype) it is exceptionally well executed.

You wash ashore, the waves lapping at your feet and the sounds of a tropical island echoing in the distance. What lays before you is an island of ruins, the marks of a civilisation that has long since fallen dotting the landscape. In the distance stands a great tower, looming over the picturesque landscape below. Your memories of how you came to be here at hazy and there’s an ever present feeling that someone is watching you from a distance. This island and its mysterious tower hold the secrets to your past and, eventually, your future.

RiME’s cartoon-esque style comes from its cel-shading which typically goes hand in hand with low-poly work. RiME is most certainly not a low-poly piece however as after I cranked everything up to its maximum my system turned into a slideshow. As the screenshots will attest to though you can see that RiME is making good use of all the grunt you can throw at it with its large, expansive environments that are all lavished with details and modern effects. There were a couple sections where performance dropped through the floor although I’m not 100% sure if that was due to me alt-tabbing out or not. Also worth mentioning is the absolutely amazing soundtrack and foley work that coincides with RiME’s impressive visuals, something that is often overlooked in similar games.

RiME is a 3D platformer/puzzler, pitting you against a variety of challenges that you’ll need to beat to progress to the next section. It’s a linear game in terms of progression, meaning that there’s no backtracking through previous puzzles with new abilities in order to unlock something that was previously unavailable. Mechanically all the puzzles are straightforward and self-contained, rarely requiring you to go far away from the current area in order to solve them. However exploration is still very much encouraged as there are various things to collect scattered all over the place, the purposes of which aren’t made clear to you until the very end. Overall RiME is a very simplistic game, one that would have you focus more on the overall experience rather than any one aspect of the game itself.

As there are no real progression mechanics to speak of all of the puzzles in RiME build up in difficulty based on your understanding of the mechanics it presents to you. Initially the puzzles are simple, putting this block there or getting a NPC to do something for you, but over time you’ll be introduced to different mechanics which you’ll need to understand fully as the game goes on. RiME makes clever use of mechanics like perspective, day/night cycles and sound, all of which can be combined together in a variety of different ways. RiME shies away from making anything too complex or deliberately challenging although there are some sections (like the one where everything gets non-euclidean for a spell) which I can see some players getting stuck on.

For the most part the puzzles are intuitive although the game does have some issues when it comes to visual signalling. As an example not all surfaces are climbable and, whilst climbable ones are marked, there are some you can climb that aren’t marked (which are required to solve the puzzle). This becomes more apparent when you start exploring to find secrets and other hidden things as there’s numerous (unintentional, I believe) false flags scattered around. Now I’m not usually one to go object hunting in these kinds of games so I may be a bit more critical of these kinds of things than other reviewers may be but it was enough that I gave up on it after only an hour or so into my play through.

RiME tells its story visually with no dialogue to speak of. Whilst you get the general gist of what brought you to the island early on the nuances of the story are left until much later in the game. The ultimate reveal of RiME, whilst a powerful statement in its own right, probably required a bit more development of certain story aspects for it to have the impact it was aspiring to. Don’t get me wrong, RiME certainly had its heart wrenching moments for me, however I feel like the conclusion (which came together in the last 30 mins or so) needed a bit more time to develop to ensure that I was fully invested. Still the journey to that end was an enjoyable one.

RiME is a beautiful, well executed puzzle game from a game developer that continues to demonstrate their ability to innovate. The cel-shaded environments belie the incredible amount of detail throughout the game which, if you’re not careful, can bring even the most beastly of gaming PCs to its knees. Mechanically RiME is simple, putting the focus on the overall experience rather than challenging puzzles. The story, told visually without dialogue, is done well although its ultimate conclusion needed more development to have the impact it desired. If for nothing else RiME is worth playing just for how well everything is put together as the music, mechanics and visuals all work together beautifully.

Rating: 8.75/10

RiME is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 29/05/2017 to 04/06/2017