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.
I always have a slight feeling of cognitive dissonance when it comes to narratives that are player controlled. On the one hand I love that it allows me to imprint myself upon the character, crafting them into the person I want them to be in the game’s world. On the other hand however I sometimes feel like doing that runs contrary to what the true nature of the character might be, especially when I’m operating on imperfect information about said character. Oxenfree, the first title from Night School Studios (who count former Telltale Games and Disney staff among them), falls somewhere in the middle but still provides a great player driven narrative experience.
Oxenfree puts you in control of Alex, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who’s heading out to an end of year rager with a bunch of her friends. Among them are your best friend Ren, his current crush Nona, a girl who used to date your brother Clarissa and your newly minted step-brother Jonas. The night starts off normal enough with everyone engaging in a rousing game of “Truth or Slap” however things start to quickly come unraveled as Ren beguiles you into investigating some of the island’s more paranormal features. From then on the night changes from being one of drunken revelry into a fight against a paranormal force.
The visual style of Oxenfree harks back to a time of pre-rendered backgrounds with simple 3D visuals layered on top of them. The backgrounds have a kind of textured paper look about them, as if they’re part of an arts project. The character models are quite simplistic, obviously done in that way to blend in more seamlessly with the backgrounds. However unlike the games which this art style pays homage to Oxenfree makes heavy use of lighting and visual effects, both in terms of aesthetics as well as forming part of the plot mechanics. Overall, from a visual perspective, Oxenfree is very well crafted and is done in a way that amplifies the story rather than distracting from it.
In terms of gameplay Oxenfree is primarily focused on the narrative and the dialogue choices you make as a player. You’re usually given 3 different options when responding, each of which can direct the story in a certain way. The main puzzle mechanic comes in the form of a radio which you tune to different stations, either to listen in for clues or to resonate with objects which will cause something to happen. There’s also some other puzzles which range in the form of simple to nigh on impossible although thankfully the latter, even if failed completely, will not stop you from progressing the narrative.
Oxenfree gets credit for keeping the story linear in nature whilst giving you the freedom to explore should you choose to do so. Too often I’ve played similarly styled games which lock core story elements behind inordinate numbers of puzzles, detracting from the narrative. The puzzle mechanics might be simple but they’re enough to keep you engaged through the times when there’s less dialogue about. One criticism I will level at them however is the “improved” radio which just doubles the number of frequencies you have to cycle through. Honestly that just adds tedium as you have to scroll through far more things in order to find the right frequency.
Oxenfree’s narrative deals with a lot of heavy subjects and does so through the lens of a teenage coming of age story. The paranormal aspects, whilst being downright scary in their own way, are used more as a mechanic to explore these issues rather than just being a license to do whacky things. You, as Alex, have quite a lot of control over how the story develops and this can radically change how you feel about the characters and, most interestingly, how they feel about each other. I really can’t say much more without wading into spoiler territory but suffice to say that Oxenfree delivers a solid narrative that deals well with issues that the video game medium is still coming to grips with.
Oxenfree is a powerful narrative driven game, one that shows how simplicity in all things but story can still add up to a great experience. The visual style pays homage to simpler times where pre-rendered backgrounds were a tool to get around the limitations of thte day. The mechanics are simple and do their best to get out of the way of the story. The story is what makes Oxenfree worth playing, both from the core story aspect as well as the level of control that the player is given over shaping it. For those who love a good story, or just a decent thriller, then Oxenfree is definitely worth a play through.
Oxenfree is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
Reaction based games have never really been my strong suit. Ever since the brutality that is the Battletoads bike level I think I’ve been left scarred, the flashbacks of the nigh impossible stretch haunting my thoughts whenever I face a similar challenge. There is something to be said for those kinds of challenges though as, given enough tries, you will eventually succeed. However there are other reaction based games which have no such safety net, forcing you to develop strategies to cope with the unknowable path that lies before you. Linea is an example of these kinds of games, one where a random set of obstacles must be overcome in order for you to be victorious.
The idea behind Linea is simple: avoid all the obstacles for 60 seconds. This is, of course, much harder than it sounds as whilst the objects you need to avoid a telegraphed before they’ll reach you it’s not like you have forever to make up your mind. Hesitate, or make a wrong move that you try to correct, and you’ll likely collide with something, sending you all the way back to the start. However once you start again the pattern of objects will change which means there’s no amount of memorization that will help you succeed. Instead you have to learn to understand the visual cues being given to you and, critically, translate them into the right kind of movement.
This is where Linea’s minimalistic aesthetic is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst there’s little extraneous stuff to distract you there’s just enough to trigger you to react in the wrong ways. The level below, for instance, has obstacles that you will avoid automatically if you do nothing. However should you only look at the top or bottom half of them chances are you’ll think you need to do something to avoid them and, unfortunately, hit them. Whilst there are some repeating patterns within the randomness (or that could just be me noticing patterns in RNG, I’m not 100% sure) you’ll need to hone your reflexes in order to beat Linea, something which I simply haven’t had the patience for over the past week.
Although this doesn’t count either way in terms of my review one thing I did think would be cool would be to code an AI to play the game for me. The games simplicity lends itself well to a first time project and would cover all the basics of visual processing, input management and look-ahead algorithms. This could also just be me thinking it’d be easier for me to code something than to actually, you know, beat the game myself but it’s one of the few games in a long time where I thought that would be an interesting thing to do. (For the record the last one I can remember wanting to do that for was Super Meat Boy).
Linea is a challenging reaction based game that’s sure to delight fans of the genre. The core game is fast paced with minimal downtime, ensuring that you’re not doing much else but bashing your head against the game’s primary challenge. The minimal visual aesthetic is great to look at but also a punishing part of the core game, making it that much more difficult to visually distinguish everything on screen. Whilst it might not be my usual cup of tea I was surprised I played it for as long as I did, especially when I started craving after a few achievements.
Linea is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was 1 hour with 62% of the achievements unlocked.
The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign showed that there was a want for virtual reality to start making a comeback. However the other side of that equation, the ones who’d be delivering experiences through the VR platform, weren’t really prepared to capitalize on that. There are numerous reasons for this but mostly it comes down to consumer VR still being a nascent industry with the proper tooling still not there to make the experience seamless. Unfortunately it’s something of a chicken and egg problem: standards and tooling won’t fully emerge until there’s a critical mass of users and those users won’t appear until those standards are in place. This is why the high price of the Oculus Rift consumer model costs far more than its sticker price.
Many looked towards the Oculus Rift as the definitive VR headset, something which Oculus has obviously taken into account when designing it. Whilst I, as an early adopter of many pieces of technology, may appreciate the no-holds-barred approach for devices like this I know this limits broader appeal. Whilst this is sometimes a good strategy in order to get your production line stood up (ala Tesla when they produced the Roadster and then the Model S) the Oculus already had that in the previous two iterations of the dev kit. I think what many were expecting then was the Model T of VR headsets and what they got instead was a Rolls Royce Phantom.
However Oculus is no longer the only name in the game anymore with both the HTC VIVE PRE and the PlayStationVR headsets scheduled to come out in the first half of this year. Both of these are targetting at much more reasonable price point, although they admit that their headsets are not as premium as the Oculus Rift is. Whilst Oculus’ preorders may have surpassed their expectations I still feel that they alienated a good chunk of their market going for the price point that they did. For those who balked at the Oculus’ price the other two headsets could prove to be a viable alternative and that could spell trouble for Oculus.
Whilst Oculus won’t be going anywhere soon as a company (thanks entirely to the Facebook acquisition) they will likely struggle to cement their position as the market leader in the VR headset space. Indeed the higher price point, which according to Oculus is the bare minimum they can charge for it, won’t come down significantly until economies of scale kick in. Lower sales volumes means that takes much longer to come into effect and, potentially, HTC and Sony could be well on their way to mass produced headsets that are a fraction the cost of the Oculus.
In the end it comes down to which of the headsets provide a “good enough” experience for the most attractive price. There will always be a market for a premium version of a product however it’s rare that those models are the ones most frequently purchased. Oculus’ current price point puts it out of the reach of many, a gap which HTC and Sony will rush into fill in no short order. The next year will then become a heated battle for who takes the VR crown, showing which product strategy was the right one. For now my money is on the cheaper end of the spectrum and I’m waiting to be proved wrong.
Ah the post christmas drought, where everyone is still reeling from the barrage of AAA titles that were released just in time for the holiday season and nothing else is scheduled to come out for weeks. Often this is the time where I catch up on titles from the previous year that slipped my grasp but this time around I managed to do much of that over the christmas break. So I wandered the Steam Winter sale (something which is incredibly disappointing when half of the titles are already in your library) and came across Hocus, a curious little game whose puzzles take inspiration from the mind bending drawings of M.C. Escher.
The principle of the game is simple, you have a red cube and you need to get it into the little red ditch. Of course it’s not as simple as clicking on it however as the path to get to the goal isn’t as straightforward as it might look. Instead you’ll have to figure out which pieces cross where, how your perspective is being twisted and which parts of the impossible drawing are real. It’s a mind bending exercise in throwing away your preconceived ideas of geometry and figuring out just how all the bits and pieces actually fit together, something that can be a quite complex challenge once you’re in the thick of it.
Whilst Hocus most certainly started out as a mobile game I really have to commend the amount of work the developer put into the steam version of their title. The game has been fully reworked to make use of the PC platform rather than just being a straight port dump like so many others are. This goes hand in hand with the beautiful minimalistic stylings, both in terms of the game itself and the background music. This just seems to be the start for Hocus too as the developer has promised to deliver a level editor in the not too distant future.
In terms of actual game play Hocus is most certainly a satisfying challenge, providing you with numerous puzzles to try your wits against. The difficulty curve isn’t entirely linear though as some puzzles, even though they look complex on first glance, are by far the easiest. Indeed it was the seemingly simple puzzles which presented me with the most grief, probably because they really only had one true solution. Hocus’ puzzle design also fits the mobile platform better than the PC, due to the fact that it starts to feel a bit repetitive after a longer session.
Hocus is a great puzzler, one that benefits greatly from the developer’s commitment to the game and the community that has cropped up around it. The minimalistic stylings are a perfect fit for this kind of game, focusing you directly on the challenge at hand. The puzzles themselves are no trifle either and are sure to provide a challenge for even the most non-linear thinkers among us. If you’re looking for another time killer for your phone or just enjoy a good non-Euclidean styled puzzler then Hocus is definitely a title you should check out.
Hocus is available on iOS and PC right now for $0.99 and $1.99 respectively. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.