Spurred on by the success of Far Cry 3 Ubisoft seems intent on transforming the series from its once long development cycle into a yearly release event. Whilst fans of the series are likely to relish this in the short term it does make one wonder just how long it can be sustained before it becomes as derided as other yearly franchises are. For now though it seems like Ubisoft haven’t yet run out of ideas to work into the Far Cry mold with the latest being Far Cry Primal. Whilst it retains much of the IP’s stylings Primal does manage to stand on its own, even if it’s still troubled by the same issues that come with all of Ubisoft Montreal’s open world titles.
You are Takkar, member of the Wenja tribe who has been travelling for many suns to reach the promised land of Oros. It has not been an easy journey, with your brother falling to a sabre-toothed tiger mere days before reaching your final destination. Upon arrival you learn that Wenja of Oros have been scattered to the wind, terrorized by another tribe who seeks to cannibalize the Wenja. It is up to you Takkar to unite the Wenja together and protect them against the Udam.
The Duna Engine 2 is as capable as ever, bringing with it the impressive visuals that are becoming a trademark for the Far Cry franchise. The graphics are at their most impressive when you’re up high, surveying the surrounding landscape and taking in the expansive views. The wide and varied environments, whilst being completely unrealistic (seriously you can walk between a temperature tropic environment to snow capped mountains in under a day), are great a keeping the visual variety up even after hours of game play. The experience loses its sheen somewhat when you’re up close but that’s part for the course in these large open world sandbox games. It might not be a huge upgrade over its predecessor, even with my new beast rig powering it, but at least this time I was able to enjoy it in high frame rate G-Sync-ed goodness.
Far Cry Primal follows the series’ formula for the most part whilst brining in some new mechanics to make it stand out. You’ll still be assaulting outposts (stealthily if you have the patience), crafting using materials you gather along your journey and unlocking skills using the tried and true levelling system. On the flip side you now have a village to take care of, one that will provide you with numerous benefits as the population grows. You’ll also be quickly empowered with the ability to tame many of the animals you’ll stumble across, many of which will provide you with some additional benefit. These changes, coupled with the new setting and the limitations that come along with it, make Far Cry Primal feel familiar to those who’ve played the series before but different enough to keep you interested.
Combat keeps the same basic mechanics from the previous Far Cry titles however it’s limited by the array of weaponry you have at your disposal. Previous games usually threw dozens of weapons at you to use, allowing you to pick the perfect gun for any encounter. Primal, by contrast, is limited to a few types of weapons with each of them having 1 or 2 variants for you to unlock. This means that, for the most part, combat encounters will play out along a very similar line depending on which weapon you choose. Sure you can switch up at will but you’re either arrowing people from afar, jabbing at them with a spear or swinging your club wildly in the middle of a group of enemies. This limitation is born out of the setting, for the most part, and its admirable that Ubisoft stuck to it by not letting you build a crossbow or something equally out of place.
The taming mechanic is definitely Far Cry Primal’s stand out feature, allowing you to have a predator by your side to take down enemies and provide a number of other benefits. It’s quite satisfying to find a rare animal, track it down, tempt it with bait and then claim it as your own. The master beast hunts, of which there are 3, are also quite enjoyable and provide you with a companion that feels completely overpowered. Indeed soon after I unlocked them I went straight for the sabre-toothed tiger quest which had the highest stats of all of them and, as a side benefit, is also rideable with the appropriate talents. Suffice to say most of the other beasts I tamed past that point didn’t really get much of a look in as the tiger is simply too good at what it does. This might be because it ties into the way I found myself playing (running in, bow blazing) so I’m sure the other beasts have their uses. Still it’s an idea that I’m sure Ubisoft could expand on, either in the Primal world or in other future Far Cry instalments.
The level and talent systems are well designed with talent points coming at you thick and fast. This means you’re never wanting for progression, ensuring that if you want to unlock a particular skill you shouldn’t be far off getting it. I favoured crafting/gathering skills mostly as that seemed to be the main roadblock but you could just as easily focus on other ones that improved your quality of life in other aspects. The better talents will require far more points than the lesser ones, something which does slow down progression a little towards the end. Still though there’s enough missions, encounters and random events around the place that it’s just a question of how much time you want to put in before you get bored.
Like all sandbox games though Far Cry Primal starts to get repetitive after a while. The encounters, non-campaign missions and even the outposts all play out very similarly. The enemies naturally progress up in toughness in the way you’d expect them to: gaining one-shot headshot protection, more armour, ability to call reinforcements, etc. Gathering becomes a chore when you have to track down rare animals or ingredients, something which the game does not really help you with at all (the map and scent trails rarely lead you to what you actually need). The one thing that Primal does have going for it though is that it’s a much more succint experience, clocking in at a couple hours shorter than most titles if you play it like I do, focusing on the campaign.
The main campaign is unfortunately a little confused, lacking the overall cohesiveness that previous titles had with the single arch-nemesis plot line that ran throughout the entire campaign. Instead it’s split into 3 different enemy tribes that threaten the Wenjas. There’s a semblance of continuity between them however upon beating what appears to be the “final” boss you’re simply sent back to your village to continue on. It was honestly very confusing as all the other titles, whilst having similar mini-bosses along the way, was always building up to a big final battle. Primal lacks that and unfortunately feels worse off for it. The individual stories are still interesting, it’s just that there’s nothing to combine them all together into one whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts.
Far Cry Primal shows that yearly franchise releases can be done whilst still bringing fresh ideas to the table. The base game elements will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the Far Cry series with enough new elements to keep you coming back for hours on end. The taming mechanic is the best feature, adding in a new layer of game play that none of the other instalments have had. However it’s still not able to break away from the issues that plague sand box style games, which is only made worse by the lack of cohesion in the main story and campaign missions. It was a fun 12 hours though but definitely not a game I’d want to invest enough time into to 100% (which, by my rough calculations, would take about 36 hours). Far Cry Primal is definitely worth a look in however, both for Far Cry fans and general gamers alike.
Far Cry Primal is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 37% completion.
Just as the indie resurgence saw the rebirth of game genres from the golden age so have other mediums seen the old come new once again. The new music genres of synthpop, vaporwave and future funk are all examples of this, seeking to capture the essence of the 80s/90s music scene and revamp it for current times. With them has also come the aesthetic of the time something which Outdrive embodies whole heartedly. Indeed Outdrive is more a tribute to this music scene than it is an actual game, serving mostly as a neon-slathered music player.
You play as, I believe, a reformed criminal who’s trying to leave his old life behind him. You can’t believe that you’ve managed to find a second chance with this girl who’s taken you, and all your faults, into her life without question. Unfortunately tragedy strikes and she’s mortally wounded by your former crew and the only chance you have to save her is to hook her up to your car (really). Now you must drive to keep her alive. How long she lives for is up to you and your driving abilities.
Outdrive’s visuals take cues from the 80’s stylized vision of the future with bright neon glows drenching the jagged, low poly landscape. There’s also a few distinctive elements to really seal the retro-future vibe like the low-fi sun that hangs over the landscape and the 80’s styled billboards. The environments aren’t terribly detailed, something which isn’t an issue most of the time since you’re flying past them, but does mean that once you’ve driven past them twice you’ve basically seen it all. There’s really not much else to say about Outdrive’s visuals as what you see in the screenshots here are pretty much what you get.
The game play is a pretty simple driving simulator that uses pre-generated segments that are randomly mashed together. You have to keep your speed up in order to make sure the girl stays alive, but not so fast as to hurt her. There’s going to be various objects that will get in your way, including an attack helicopter, but even the most egregious of crashes likely won’t lead to the girl dying. Indeed you can bump, grind and floor it constantly without any ill effects which takes any semblance of challenge out of the game completely. Given that it’s mostly focused on the music above anything else I’m not completely surprised but that does mean that, as a game, Outdrive doesn’t really stack up.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the kind of music that Outdrive is promoting and do enjoy the odd mindless game when I want a break from the more cerebral titles I find myself playing. However once you’ve played Outdrive for 10 minutes or so you’ll have figured it out completely and likely seen every landscape it has to offer. The music, whilst great, isn’t enough to hold the game together. It’s a bit of a shame as putting a little more effort into the overall experience would have made it so much better, rather than it just being a nice visual MP3 player.
Outdrive does a good job of showcasing the music it set out to highlight however, as a game, it simply fails to deliver anything above a rudimentary driving experience. Visually it’s impressive, capturing that retro-future feeling aptly with its bright neon glows and muted hues. However when it comes down to it the game is unchallenging and not particularly interesting. It’s a shame as more effort put into the actual game itself would have made the entire experience so much better. It’s still worth a look in if this kind of music appeals to you, as it does to me, but for anyone else this one is probably best left to one side.
Outdrive is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.
There’s a small trend developing which I like to call MMORPG-Light. Essentially developers are looking to craft the big, epic experience of a MMORPG but are concerned about the way to sustain it. Whilst Free to Play is the way many attempt to go you’re competing against so many in the same space it’s hard to stand out. The traditional subscription model is a much harder sell with only a few lumbering giants still maintaining that model going forward. Thus they choose somewhere in the middle, often in the form of regular paid expansions or season passes. We saw it first with Destiny and now with The Division, the latest game in the Tom Clancy universe.
On Black Friday a terrible disease sweeps through New York City. Known only as the Green Poison it devastates Manhattan and causes widespread chaos, requiring the city to be put into quarantine. You are an agent of The Division, an elite unit with sleeper units embedded everywhere around the world, tasked with dealing with situations like this. You are part of the Second Wave of agents, tasked with retaking Manhattan and tracking down the source of the epidemic. It won’t be easy however as the lawlessness has given rise to gangs of looters, crazed workers and paramilitary corporations looking to exploit the chaos. You will do battle with them all agent as there is no one else left who can.
The Division comes to us via a new engine called Snowdrop, developed by Massive for use on next-generation consoles (except the WiiU) and PCs. Unlike other MMORPG styled games The Division is a visual assault of detail, down the most interesting levels. For instance shooting out glass works almost exactly how you’d expect it to, with pieces breaking off and shattering much like it would in real life. Things like that, coupled with the incredible attention given to all of the environments, makes for a very immersive experience. This is what makes the relatively small world seem so impressive as there’s just so much to explore when compared to your more traditional MMORPG affair. It’s also worth mention that the sound design of The Division is well above any other game I’ve played which helps to sell you on the world even further.
The comparisons to Destiny, which would appear to be its closest relative, are somewhat apt however The Division leans much more heavily towards a more traditional MMORPG experience. There’s no classes to speak of but you can choose from an array of skills that can be unlocked through gathering supplies for various parts of your base. There’s talents and perks to choose from that allow you to further customize your character to your play style. There’s quests to be done and dungeons to plunder, all in the name of the ultimate goal of any RPG game: the quest for sweet loot. However the end game of The Division is unlike that of any other game out there, being a hybrid model of PVP and PVE. It’s a game that definitely has the potential to capture you for a long period of time, however due to its end game design it feels like there’s an expiration date for nearly all who play it.
Combat comes in the form of your standard cover-based shooter, augmented by the RPG elements of skills and talents. You’ll spend most of your time running between cover, taking shots and enemies doing much the same. Often you’ll have to strategize to make sure that certain enemies are downed quickly before others, lest they wipe your entire group. You have semi-infinite health regeneration in the form 3 bars which will regenerate over time but not into the next bar. You’re also limited by the amount of ammunition you carry although until the end game you’re never likely to run out. The variety of different kinds of weapons means that there’s something to suit almost any playstyle, although you’ll be quick to learn that close combat is as much a fool’s errand here as it is everywhere else. Overall the combat is enjoyable even if it isn’t particularly inventive.
Progression is comparatively fast paced with max level (30) reached in around 20 hours or so. Each main quest will easily give you a full level and the side quests/events giving you anywhere from 10%~20%. You’ll also be receiving lavishings of gear, talents and perks as you level up and complete quests, meaning you’re never too far off feeling like you’re getting somewhere. This can be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask as it’s far too easy to lose long stretches of time, especially when it comes to the longer, more in depth missions. For a seasoned MMORPGer like myself I liked the reduced amount of effort required to max out my character, although beyond that point things start to get a little murky.
Like with any MMORPG the end game is all about the loot and crafting your character to be the best they possibly can be. In The Division this comes through three main avenues: the Dark Zone, Challenge Modes and Phoenix credits. The Dark Zone is the open slather PVP arena that’s peppered with numerous NPCs who drop end game gear. However you can’t simply pick it up and walk out with it, instead you need to go to an extraction point to lift it out. At any point between when you pick up the loot and when you extract it another agent can kill you and take it. This leads to some rather tense situations where you’re all sitting around an extraction point, hoping no one gets any bright ideas. The Challenge Modes are simply harder versions of the regular missions which give better rewards at the end. Both of these activities give you the end game currency of Phoenix Credits which can then be redeemed for high end gear. So no matter your preferred play style you’ll be able to get end game loot but how long you keep at that is anyone’s guess.
You see once you get that gear there’s really not much more to do. My current character is already sporting half high end gear and half purples and there’s really no more content that’s beyond me. Sure, my team still struggles to do challenge modes perfectly on the first go but we can still do them in a reasonable time frame. With other MMORPGs there’d be some kind of raid or equivalent for us to try our mettle against but, in its current state, The Division lacks any further high end content. This means that for hard/casual-core players we’re likely to tap ourselves out in the coming week or so with no new content in sight for some time. Granted this is something on the order of 60+ hours worth of game play, but that’s minuscule when compared to other MMORPGs. It’s an interesting issue that Massive will need to tackle if they want to keep everyone interested between content drops.
The Division is also anything but a perfect experience, marred by weird behaviour, glitches and the ever present threat of server lag. Quite often you’ll find skills not working how they’re supposed to, physics bugs trapping you in certain places or things straight up not working at all. The server lag issue remained throughout my play time, even after the initial burst of players settled down somewhat. This usually manifests itself as damage occurring in chunks and NPCs moving in fits and bursts. Thankfully I only had one crash to speak of but I did have numerous other times where I or another party member was dumped to menu or sent back to my last safe house. Overall though the experience was good when compared to other MMORPGs, even if it was frustrating at times.
The story of The Division is interesting, having a modicum of depth to it thanks to it’s roots in Tom Clancy’s writings. It’s an interesting twist on the post-apocalyptic scene that’s all the rage currently, giving a good explanation to the “everyone is the hero” problem that many similar games face. The various enemy factions you face are given decent development, making them more than just faceless masses you need to wade through in the quest for purples. Since this is a game that’s going to evolve substantially over the coming year though it feels like the current conclusion is just a stop gap until they can get the content engine turning. Suffice to say that most people aren’t going to be play this for the plot but it provides a serviceable narrative none the less.
The Division is an excellent MMORPG-Light experience, finding a solid balance between more traditional mechanics and a more modern, streamlined approach. The world is exceptionally well crafted with everything from the detailed environments to the sound design to even the UI blending together to create an incredibly immersive experience. The core mechanics are solid, providing a good challenge and well paced progression. The experience isn’t seamless, although given this is Massive’s first attempt at such a game its commendable how polished the final product is. The narrative is bolstered by the Tom Clancy name and writings, even if it’s somewhat secondary to what most players will be looking for in this game. Overall The Division is an excellent game that’s been deserving of much of the hype it received before release but the true test, in how long it can continue to captivate players, is still ahead of it.
The Division is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 37 hours of total playtime, reaching max level and completing all missions.
If there’s one genre that can be considered “solved” it would be pixelart adventure games. Originally they were born out of the limitations imposed by the hardware of the time, the low resolutions and meagre processing power only able to generate the simplest of graphics. Their appeal came from the stories and puzzles that laid within them, often relying heavily on logic and critical thinking above all else. The pixelart adventure games of today are not much different with the most innovative features being slightly better inventory management and quality of life improvements. Shardlight fits the mold perfectly in this regard, capturing the essence of what made those original adventure games great.
The world ended on the day the bombs fell. Since then, it’s always been like this: disease, hunger, death. The ruling Aristocrats, a faceless oligarchy that controls all resources, have unchallenged authority. There’s never enough food, water, or vaccine to go around. The rich receive regular doses of vaccinations in exchange for their unconditional government support. The poor live in fear, superstition, and squalor until they die. You play as Amy Wellard, a young woman reluctantly working for the government to qualify for the vaccine lottery, believes there’s a cure — and she’s going to find it. Even if it costs her her life.
Shardlight pays homage to the adventure games of old, replicating their pixelart stylings in loving detail. The pixelart is obviously hand drawn, using every pixel carefully in order to convey the maximum amount of information in the smallest number of pixels. The larger, more detailed works show this off well with the character portraits and backgrounds being on par with many top tier games in the same genre. There’s no modern effects or layering in Shardlight, instead staying true to the pixelart adventure games of old. One thing I’ll also note is how well the voice acting is done being a cut above what I’ve come to expect from games in this genre. Overall it wouldn’t be out of place with games that were made 20 years ago, something which I hope the developer takes as a compliment.
Shardlight is your stock standard adventure game affair, pitting you against puzzles of logic, inventory management and dialogue tree exploration. You’ll be hunting around for items to pick up, figuring out how to use them and working out what the intended way of solving a puzzle was. You’ll also need to make sure you choose the correct dialogue options as many puzzles are reliant on you either setting someone up to do something or having a specific piece of information revealed to you at a certain time. Of course there’s all the usual red herrings, unnecessary items and levels where there’s not much to do at all which will make your journey through Shardlight a lot more difficult than it appears on first glance.
Indeed, just like the adventure games of old, Shardlight makes no attempt to hold your hand or guide you through it. Skip through a dialogue too quickly and you might miss something important for solving a puzzle or do something out of its intended order and you’ll be left wondering what you need to do next. Indeed one puzzle, shooting a statue off a ledge, wasn’t allowed to be done until after a certain event had occurred. I have to admit it was these kinds of things which had me reaching for the walk through guide as I honestly couldn’t be bothered retrying everything in order to figure out what I had missed. Still for the most part I was able to get by and I’m sure more seasoned adventure gamers won’t have any issues at all.
Shardlight’s story isn’t exactly an unique one, exploring the issues of a post-apocalyptic society with a stark class divide between the haves and have nots. It is however developed very well, allowing most characters enough on screen time to allow them to develop and have you empathize with them. All the elements come together quite well with no major loose ends left over leaving you wanting. Overall I’d say it was an aptly told story that didn’t extend beyond its reach, achieving what it set out to do without any fluff to get in the way. It may not have engrossed me as much as it seems to have other reviewers but I do recognise that’s a very well told story.
Shardlight is a true homage to the adventure games of old, both in terms of graphics and style. The pixelart is wonderfully done, eschewing any modern flairs and staying true to its roots. The game plays as you would expect it to with no embellishments or enhancements on the old school formula. The story, whilst not the most captivating for this writer, is expertly told owing to the no-frills attitude that permeates throughout the game. Overall Sharlight is a solid adventure game that’s sure to delight fans of the genre and those who just love post-apocalyptic stories.
Shardlight is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.
Truly unique game mechanics are a rarity. This is not because of any lack of imagination on the part of game developers, far from it. More it’s to do with the fact that there have been so many games made that it’s almost inevitable that a mechanic has been explored before. So often game developers combine different mechanics, hide them cleverly or just rely on the story to carry things along. SUPERHOT however brings with it the novel mechanic of only moving when you do, putting you in a kind of eternal bullet time movie. It was this mechanic that made it a Kickstarter success (full disclosure: I backed it at the $75 level) and the resulting game is much more than just an extended version of their prototype.
You get a message from your friend. It’s this game, superhot.exe, and it’s amazing. He sends you a crack for it so you can get in on the action. It’s interesting but in the end it’s just you, no plot, no nothing. Just killing red guys. Still you can’t seem to draw yourself away from it, going back again and again, playing through the various scenarios it throws at you. Things start to get weird after an unknown entity starts talking to you, warning you that you don’t know what you’re doing. Will you play on? Or will you quit while your mind is still free?
SUPERHOT retains the minimal, low poly aesthetic that featured in the original game and accompanying marketing material. The environments are all stark white, lacking in any real detail apart from a few objects strewn here or there. Your enemies are bright red, easily distinguishable against the plain background. Other than that there’s not much to say about SUPERHOT’s graphics as they’ve been done to focus your attention, rather than be a distraction. Considering how hectic things can get, even though the game doesn’t move unless you do, this visual simplicity is something I’m sure all players will be thankful for.
At it’s core SUPERHOT could be considered a simplistic FPS, one where a single shot takes down all enemies (and you, if you’re not careful). Of course what changes it from being a rudimentary FPS to the novelty that it has become is the fact that time only moves when you do. So whenever you shift sideways, look around or perform an action the game will advanced forward. This means that you have an almost unlimited amount of time to plan your next move, choosing the best course of action possible. Each level you clear is played back to you, showing your superhero like fighting skills in real time. In the end SUPERHOT ends up being more like a FPS puzzler as each level is a game of optimization and understanding what actions happen when.
The core time mechanic would, on the surface, make the game incredibly easy. However whilst the game freezes while you contemplate your next move you are not an omnipotent being and, as such, you don’t know everything that’s happening around you. Whilst most of the time it’s easy enough to figure out what you need to do there are numerous puzzles where enemies spawn behind you, meaning you’ll probably have to die a few times before you know exactly what to do. Also the AI isn’t dumb and will attempt to lead you when shooting which can see you running into their bullets rather than away from them. Indeed whilst the first few levels are a breeze SUPERHOT quickly becomes a much harder game than you’d first expect it to be.
Most of the levels are done well, giving you enough opportunity to flex your FPS and prediction skills whilst punishing your mistakes. Some levels are far more strict than others, really only having one solution that you need to execute perfectly. One issue that I have to point out though is that the AI doesn’t react in the same way to the same situation every time which makes some of the more difficult levels pretty frustrating. The very final fight, for instance, required a good chunk of luck for everything to go perfectly. In the first 10 seconds an AI deciding to pick up a shotgun or simply run directly at you could be the difference between barely making it through and not having a chance at all. All that said however the challenges are beatable but they can be a little frustrating at times.
The story, whilst somewhat basic, is presented in an interesting way. Most of the dialogue is presented to you through a DOS-like terminal at the start of the game, taking the form of a chat between you and someone on the other side. Eventually it takes over the main game, using the SUPERHOT flashes. It’s best described as a psychological thriller, one which makes you question what is real and what is not within the game world. It ends rather predictably but then again I wasn’t expecting massive narrative development from a game that’s only a couple hours long. Suffice to say for a game that rode to fame on its mechanics the story was well above my expectations but SUPERHOT isn’t a game you’ll play for the narrative.
SUPERHOT sets the bar for Kickstarter games priding themselves on innovative game mechanics. The minimal visual aesthetic is purposefully done to focus your attention on what matters most, casting all visual distractions aside. The core “time only moves when you do” mechanic is done well, transforming an otherwise rudimentary platformer into an intricate puzzler. The story is above par for these kinds of games, even if it is somewhat predictable towards the end. Overall SUPERHOT is an excellent game that makes great use of its core mechanic,
SUPERHOT is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the project on Kickstarter at the $75 reward level.
Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.
You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.
Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.
Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.
The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.
Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.
At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.
Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.
Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.
Walking simulators have seen an explosion of popularity and I believe with good reason. Their reliance on the story to move things forward, rather than mechanics or game play, often means the narrative has much more attention paid to it. For those of us who appreciate good stories this genre has brought us many great titles, although I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all up to scratch. Indeed the intense focus on the narrative means such games live and die by their story and, should it fail to capture the player it will fail as a game. Firewatch however makes no such missteps, quickly dragging you into its world of heartache, love and loss.
It’s 1975 and you, Henry, find yourself in a bar with your friends. No matter how hard you try though you can’t take your eyes off a girl at the bar. You walk up, tell her she’s pretty, her name is Julia, and before you know it you’re in a loving relationship. You’re happy, you get a dog named bucket and spend the summer afternoons drinking beer on the porch together. You’re not the definition of Hollywood romance, life still gets in the way from time to time, but you remain together. However Julia starts to fade in and out mentally and she gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the young age of 41. You’re both devastated but you stick it out for her until it becomes too much and she moves back home with her parents. That summer you find an ad for a job in the Shoshone national park. You take it.
Firewatch feels like it’s set somewhere in the Team Fortress 2 universe, having the same kind of cartoony style. The world is simplistic with little detail however it’s the small touches, like the volumetric lighting and the soft noises of the forest in the background, that elevate the experience by creating a great atmosphere. The ebb and flow of the background noises and music are done perfectly, ensuring that there’s no long periods of awkward silence as you make your way through the map. Overall Firewatch is an excellently crafted game, one that is deserving of the praise that has been lumped on it.
In terms of game play Firewatch is your stock standard walking simulator, plopping you in the middle of a vast area to explore. The key difference however comes from the inclusion of a walkie talkie that allows you to communicate with your superior, Delilah. This forms the basis of the narrative for the game, the back and forth between you two serving as both the main plot driver as well as the exploration reward mechanism. Essentially you can unlock additional dialogue options by looking around and finding things of interest which you can then radio back to Delilah about. Other than the only real mechanic is reading the map to know which direction you need to go in, something which shouldn’t be too difficult since you have a GPS indicator on the map of your current location.
The base game of Firewatch gives the appearance of being a free form exploration title however it’s anything but. Unlike other walking simulator games like Gone Home, which essentially give you free reign over an area and put the onus on you to piece together the story, Firewatch is crafted along a very specific path. Sure you can go exploring, and you’ll find things before you’re meant to see them, but the game will inevitably right your path. For someone like me, who’s a fan of well crafted narratives, this is a great thing however I do know that there are some who prefer freeform walking simulators over this kind.
I’ll admit that at first blush I thought the opening scenes, told through text on screen dialogue choices interspersed with short bits of game play, was a little cheap. However that quickly evaporated as I was given choices that felt like they had an impact and was made to care for the characters I was helping to craft. The ultimate reveal of Julia’s condition towards the end of the opening is heart breaking and Henry’s abandonment only exacerbated the pain I felt. There’s been few games that have been able to make me care so quickly and then used that care against me, something which helped set the tone for the rest of the game.
The main story of the game is a little messier as whilst the relationship development between Henry and Delilah is strong the weird, unknown force acting in the background kind of muddles things. As my long time readers know I’m not really a fan of horror and I had sinking feeling I might end up in some kind of supernatural show. However the story does manage to wind up well, even if it feels like there were some unresolved things between the two main characters that could have been tied up in an epilogue or something similar. Still, maybe that’s the way its meant to be as life doesn’t always resolve itself neatly, especially when you’ve spent a good deal of time running away from your problems.
Firewatch is a brilliant, narrative focused walking simulator that deals with heavy hitting issues that few other games dare to touch. It’s simplistic, stylized visuals serve as a backdrop for the story, serving not as a distraction but a canvas on which the story is painted. The foley and sound effects are done exceptionally well, fading in and out with poignancy at just the right time. The story is what pulls everything together and while it comes unstuck during the middle third or so it does wrap itself up well in the end. Firewatch, in my opinion, is a walking simulator that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than its genre might suggest.
Firewatch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 3 hours of total play time.
Tomb Raider’s reboot of 3 years ago was a successful one, reinvigorating a franchise that had been sidelined by newer IPs in the same genre. Indeed it was the first Tomb Raider game I had played in many years as the bug ridden Underworld was simply unplayable. The reboot was enough to spark my interest in the IP again and since the sequel was announced about a year later I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The (thankfully short) timed exclusivity to the XboxOne was a little annoying, since I had to dodge more reviews and articles than I usually do, but finally last week I spent a good chunk of time playing through the latest Tomb Raider.
Rise of the Tomb Raider begins about a year after the events in the preceding instalment. Lara, after witnessing many supernatural occurrences on the island of Yamatai, seeks out answers in her father’s research notes. There she finds his white whale: the lost city of Kitezh which supposedly holds the key to immortality. Her quest sends her to Syria where she seeks out the lost tomb of an ancient prophet linked to the legend of Kitezh. It’s there however that she comes face to face with an organisation called Trinity: an ancient order dedicated to seeking out the supernatural and taking it for themselves. Lara is undeterred however and travels to Siberia where she believes the lost city of Kitezh resides.
The production values of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally high with every aspect of the game above the standard I’ve come to expect for AAA titles. Visually it is incredibly impressive with the environments being rich and detailed, ranging from wide open valleys to deep cave systems. There’s no one thing I can point to that really makes it so well crafted, more it’s the numerous small details like the trails you leave in snow or the way Lara’s gait changes after she’s had a fall. Unlike the previous instalment (which suffered from inflated expectations due to it following Crysis 3) Rise of the Tomb Raider felt impressive from the very start, a rare achievement in today’s torrent of AAA titles.
Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the same core game play that its predecessor did, being a combination of 3D platformer, 3rd person shooter and semi-open world exploration. The platforming functions pretty much the same as the last one did, giving you the same leeway when it comes to grabbing ledges or landing that jump perfectly. The 3rd person shooter mechanic functions largely the same although the upgrade system allows you to unlock some rather cool abilities that can change it dramatically. The semi-open world stylings mean that there’s much more to the world than just the campaign missions and, should you go exploring, you’re quite likely to be rewarded for your efforts. Overall it’s not a massive change from the previous Tomb Raider game and honestly, with the extra layer of polish this game has, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
The puzzles and platforming sections are frequent but are, for the most part, easy enough to understand and complete without being too frustrating. In the beginning, with a limited number of mechanics at your disposal, it’s pretty easy to see how things need to be done. The difficulty starts to ramp up when you’ve got several other potential mechanics at hand, some of which aren’t explained as well as they could be. Still there was only one time when I find myself reaching for a walkthrough guide as all the other puzzles could be solved in a manageable amount of time. The platforming was a little less satisfying however as, whilst you have some leeway, it can be a little finicky about when it will pull you right or just let you fall to your death. Once you’ve worked out the quirks though (like not hitting jump if Lara is still shimmying across something) you can make up for those little quirks.
Combat, again, feels largely the same with the game favouring head shots and thus any weapon that allows you to make them rapidly. The bow once again is the stand out weapon especially once you get the skill which does automatic head shots on up to 3 targets at once. Similar to its predecessor though there comes a time when the enemies start wearing helmets and you’ll have to land several consecutive head shots to take them down. This time around however it doesn’t feel as cheap as it did before as the increased number of stealth options provides much more opportunity to take out the heavy hitters before dealing with the rest of them. Overall the combat feels a little more streamlined with a little bit more variety on the side, should you wish to make use of it.
The skills, upgrades and crafting system is back with a few improvements to keep the pace of the game up. You can now craft arrows, other special ammo and healing on the fly if you have the required materials to do so. The mechanic of finding parts for major upgrades is still around and if you want those weapons you really will need to go exploring to complete them. The skills are interesting as early on I went for the additional XP traits something which meant that I was levelling up maybe every 20 minutes or so. Probably about halfway through the game I had all the skills I could ever want and so from there I was just unlocking things that were mildly interesting. It certainly helped to keep driving me forward as there was always a sense of progression but it did seem like I was maybe completing things a little faster than was probably intended.
Like its predecessor there are few rough edges on Rise of the Tomb Raider although none of them are particularly game breaking. You can quite easily glitch yourself through terrain if you roll, jump or sprint near say a set of stairs or similar. I had more than one occasion where I found myself stuck in between trees or falling forever when I jumped into a particularly cramped area. There’s also the aforementioned finicky-ness of the platforming system but once you know its limitations it’s a little easier to work around. Thankfully though many of the combat related issues are long gone although some of the enemies do seem to do wildly different amounts of damage during the same encounter.
Rise of the Tomb raider brings a much more developed and polished plot, one that dives further into the backstory of Lara and the Croft family. Thankfully the torture porn has been dialled back somewhat, instead focusing more on the trials and tribulations of Lara trying to come to grips with her father’s past and the impact it’s having on her current situation. The introduction of a big bad “thing” in the form of Trinity is a not-so-subtle hint there’s going to be several sequels to come but they at least function decently as an antagonist. Indeed they’ll likely be the focus point of the next instalment as they go after the next supernatural artefact that they’ll use to take over the world. The supernatural themes are better done this time around be less wrought and more subtly woven in the larger narrative. Indeed it seems that the writers behind this instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise have matured significantly since they wrote the last plot.
Rise of the Tomb raider accomplishes what many sequels don’t: improving on their predecessor whilst still retaining the core aspects which made it great. The production value is extremely high with attention paid to every little detail. The game play is as solid as ever with several streamlining changes that keep the pace of the game up for its entire duration. It might not be the picture of perfection with a few rough edges still poking through but overall the experience is so well polished that it’s easy to write off those few moments. For both fans of the Tomb Raider IP and those who just love a good action game Rise of the Tomb Raider is well worth the asking price.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, XboxOne, Xbox360 and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m not one to talk about my most anticipated games but long time readers will know that I’ve been hanging out for The Witness. Braid was one of the most amazing titles of its time, demonstrating that it was possible for an independent developer to make a game that would delight and enthral thousands of people the world over. So when I heard he was working on another title of his own making, his magnum opus that would consume his entire Braid fortune, I was sold instantly. The screenshots and tentative pieces of game play only drew me in further and made me excited for its release early on the PlayStation4. However that day came and went but here we are, 2 years later, and I’ve spent the last week playing through it. Whilst it may not evoke the same level of feelings in me that Braid did it’s hard not to respect the craftsmanship of The Witness, a true masterpiece from one of the leaders of the indie game developer community.
The Witness starts without a lick of dialogue or even a starting screen. Instead you’re placed in a long corridor, a bright light at one end beckoning you to come forward. What you find when you open that door is a bright and vibrant world, one that seems to be locked behind a series of line drawing puzzles. These puzzles strictly adhere to the idea of “show, don’t tell”, guiding you through their mechanics slowly so you can feel your way around them. What happens in this world is up to you however as you are given no direction, no purpose and, above all, no restrictions bar the puzzles in front of you.
Visually The Witness feels like a cross between the cartoonish stylings of games like Team Fortress 2 and the low-poly look that’s quite trendy among the indie scene currently. The resulting visual landscapes feel like something out of a dream, lovely and beautiful to look upon but strangely devoid of detail when you get up close. The wide and varied landscape of the island means that you won’t be wanting for lack of visual variety as there’s everything from a wide desert to a swap to a snow capped mountain top for you to explore. Of course this simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the game world, something which I feel will only be fully revealed to players who invest dozens of hours into this game.
Mechanically The Witness is easy to explain at a high level although as the mechanics pile on things start to get extremely complicated. Essentially the base puzzle is drawing a line from one end to another, simple right? Well how about having to solve a maze whilst going through certain points? Or possibly having to separate different coloured blocks into 2 sections that don’t overlap? Those are just some of the simpler mechanics and, as you progress, you’ll begin to find that the puzzles cross-pollinate with each other. So a solution you’ve learnt in one puzzle might be needed to figure out another or, and this is where it gets really tricky, you’ll need to figure out how both of those mechanics combine in order to solve it.
In the beginning this process of mechanic discovery is incredibly rewarding. Each of the puzzle sets has its own language, a way of expressing to you the player what you need to do in order to solve it. For all of the mechanics these are shown in a tutorial like puzzle which demonstrates it in the most simple way possible and then progressively introduces new variables which give you the bounds of how it works. I can clearly remember after stepping out of the first area finding what looked like a secret path that was blocked by a puzzle that, on first look, was completely impossible. However after finding a tutorial near by it became clear what I needed to do and I was able to unlock my first secret, something which I had literally no idea what to do with. Still knowing that I had uncovered something that would be used later was pretty cool and kept me playing for a while longer.
Probably the most inspired part about The Witness, and this is mildly spoilery (skip to the next one if that bugs you), is that the very world you live in is actually a puzzle. I was fooling around in the desert puzzle area when I noticed that, from a particular angle, parts of the scenery looked like one of the puzzles I could solve. Sure enough by clicking on it I was greeted with an actual, solvable puzzle, one that has the most satisfying noise when you first discover it. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse however as from then on you will be forever questioning what is part of a puzzle and what isn’t. Of course that adds yet another layer of complexity onto an already complex game and this, unfortunately, is where the wheels started to fall off the experience for me.
After I spent a good hour or so on solving the desert puzzle I was keen to dig into a new challenge, one that would engage a different part of my brain. Sure enough I found it however after a while I started stumbling across a symbol I hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, of course, I went searching for other puzzles but it would often come to a point where I’d find yet another mechanic which I wasn’t familiar with. Now I’m the kind of player that hates leaving things unfinished and having to trudge around the whole island to find the right mechanics didn’t really enthuse me. So I did what anyone would do in that situation, I looked the mechanic up on the Internet.
While I’m sure that’s tantamount to heresy for The Witness purists the fact of the matter was that, after spending 8 hours stumbling around solving puzzles I was still coming across new mechanics and, frankly, I was getting bored. Whilst the mechanics are novel and inspired the fact of the matter is that it always boils down to getting a line from one side to the other. So sure, there’s different things to think about, but you’ll be staring at the same grid again and again for hours on end. It was at this point I felt I just wanted to see the ending and hopefully dredge up some semblance of a story out of the game that had barely uttered more than a handful of paragraphs at me.
However if there’s story in The Witness it’s buried so deep in all the secrets, recordings and imagery that you’re really going to have to enjoy exploration and puzzles to find it. After playing The Talos Principle I was incredibly excited for the prospect of a deep narrative in The Witness, one that would pull me along through the puzzles. What I found instead were quotes and snippets from famous scientists and, if the people I’ve been reading on Reddit are to be believed, a strung out metaphor about the development of The Witness game itself. Honestly this was my biggest disappointment with The Witness as Braid managed to do so much more with less. Perhaps someone will post a synopsis that changes my mind someday but after 10 hours of searching I’m still left wanting.
The Witness is an absolutely beautifully crafted game, both from an aesthetic point of view and the novel craftsmanship of its puzzles. It’s amazing to see how such a simple idea, drawing a line from one point to another, can be given such mechanical complexity. Taking that one step further and including the very world itself as part of the mechanics is an inspired achievement, one that blew me away when I finally figured it out. However the repetitive nature of the puzzles, coupled with the lack of narrative to drive you forward through those puzzles, makes it hard to keep coming back after a while. The Witness is most certainly a testament to Jonathan Blow’s dedication to perfection in all things he sets out to create however it falls short of acquiring the “must play” status that his seminal title did. Overall I believe The Witness is certainly worth playing, just maybe not to its ultimate conclusion.
The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 10 hours of total play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Games have been rapidly maturing as a medium, going from a distraction that was only for kids to the canvas upon which many artists now create their wares. As the medium has matured it has taken on the attributes of the others that preceded it, meaning games have been used for things beyond simple entertainment. More recently I’ve begun to see more games that are a kind of therapy, not for the user but for the game developer themselves. That Dragon, Cancer (the first title from Numinous Games) is a deeply personal journey for the developer, one that surely resonates for many, represented in a game that deals with many issues that come from battling this terrible disease.
That Dragon, Cancer follows the true story of Joel Green who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was only one year old. You’ll take on many forms throughout the journey although primarily you’ll be put in the shoes of Ryan Green, the father. Throughout the 2 hour journey you’ll walk alongside the Green family as they deal with the incredibly difficult and trying experience that is childhood cancer. What you make of the story will be as personal as the story itself as I’ve yet to read an impression that was identical to any other.
Visually That Dragon, Cancer is striking with its low poly art coupled with bright pastel colours and lighting. The minimal aesthetic is purposefully designed to have you focusing on the key elements that are on screen at any particular time (like the chemo bag in the screenshot below). Whilst it’s not exactly an unique style it is well executed, running flawlessly on even mediocre hardware. Things do seem to come unstuck a bit when the 2D and 3D elements are mixed together however I get the feeling that’s part of the developer’s intentions.
Mechanically That Dragon, Cancer feels like an exploration with the game ebbing and weaving through various different styles of games over its short duration. Each of them has been crafted for a particular part of the narrative and for the most part they fit, however their implementation can be somewhat lacking in parts. Since this is a narrative first game however that doesn’t matter too much as they’re not designed to be blockers to progressing the story. Overall the mechanics were an ample backdrop to the main story of the game which is really the only reason you’d be playing this in the first place.
As to the story I’m in two minds. So often I was caught up in Joel’s tale, his stories echoing with my own experiences with my dad who’s currently battling cancer. However after a while the muddled progression of the story lost me, making me wonder just what exactly was going on. That coupled with the fact that I’m not exactly the religious type meant that the latter parts of the story, which are very faith heavy, meant that it began to grate on me heavily. However as a chronicle of Joel’s and the Green family’s life it is more than apt.
That Dragon, Cancer is an extremely personal journey of one family’s battle against cancer and the challenges that it brings. As a game it is simple, favouring minimal looks and mechanics over anything else that might distract from the story. It most certainly achieves its vision of being a memorial to Joel’s life, capturing his personality and the effect he had the people he interacted with. The telling of that story though can be somewhat muddled and, if you’re not the praying type, may rub you the wrong way towards the end. Still if you or someone you know is facing the same challenges as this game describes then it’s definitely worth playing, if just to know that you’re not alone in your struggles
That Dragon, Cancer is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.