Games

State of the Game: 18/09/2017 to 24/09/2017

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider: My Name Was Taken From Me.

I have to give it to those behind the Dishonored series as it really doesn’t take much from them to bring me back. I played the Knife of Dunwall expansion based on a single screenshot, the sequel simply because it’d been too long between drinks and, most recently, because of the name of the next instalment. For those familiar with the series the title “Death of the Outsider’ is an incredibly provocative one, almost begging to be played just so you can see if that title is justified. Whilst the game doesn’t bring anything particularly revolutionary or unique to the series or stealth games in general it is, for this writer at least, the best experience to be had in the Dishonored series.

Taking place shortly after the events of Dishonored 2 Death of the Outsider puts you in control of Bille “Lurk”, the right hand of The Knife of Dunwall: Daud. You awake aboard the Dreadful Wale, moored just outside of Karnaca, armed with the information that your former master is being held captive by a cult called the Eyeless. After you free him you learn that he is not long for this world and he has one last task for you: put an end to the outsider and the chaotic influence he has on the world. The plan is simple: find the knife that created him all those years ago and use it to end him. Of course things like this aren’t always as simple as they sound.

As you’d expect from a game released not a year after Dishonored 2 Death of the Outsider doesn’t bring with it massive improvements in the graphics department. The game’s big vistas and open environments are definitely its strongest point but the sheen wears off when you start to get up close and personal. This is also when the asset reuse starts to become painfully apparent with everyone have the same kind of cabinet, the same bathroom layout and a myriad of other things that are repeated ad-nauseam everywhere. Typically this wouldn’t be much of an issue as you’d be switching up scenes every mission but the majority of Death of the Outsider takes place in the same location. This issue isn’t unique to this instalment however so there won’t be much to be disappointed here for long time Dishonored fans.

Whilst Death of the Outsider retains most of the core game play aspects of the Dishonored franchise pretty much all of them have been streamlined considerably. No longer do you have the choice of what powers you get or upgrade; you get 3 and that’s it for the game. You no longer need to manage your mana closely as it regenerates back to full over time. Bone charms are still around but you can’t craft them until late in the game and the various “mechanical” upgrades are still available through the black market. Side missions are now contracts which you’ll gather off a sign outside the black market as well. There’s a grand total of 5 missions, each of which will probably take you around 2 hours (give or take) which puts it as the shortest of the stand alone Dishonored titles by a small margin.

As you’d expect everything about Death of the Outsider will familiar to those who’ve played any of the previous Dishonored titles although it is closest to Dishonored 2. Whilst you don’t have an extreme amount of flexibility in how you build your character your bone charms will dictate whether you’re a fighter or a stealth based player. I, of course, chose the stealth route for the most part although there was one contract which required me to literally kill every hostile in the level which put my stealth-first build to the test. Since there’s no levelling or chaos system to speak of the stealth/guns blazing kill/no-kill choice is largely symbolic however (save for a few achievements). The new powers aren’t different enough to set the game apart from its predecessors but, for me at least, that wasn’t really an issue.

Stealth and exploration is as good as ever, if a bit more involved than I would have liked. Instead of having a heart to squeeze and follow around (you still have one, it just lets you listen to rats instead) one of your powers is dedicated to marking things whilst your in a stopped time ghost form. No matter the mission there’s several ways to approach it, both from a physical and logistical perspective. A lot of these choices are lot more involved than I first expected too, sometimes finding what was the shortest route to finish a section only to backtrack “just to check” only to find what was essentially an entire other level. Interestingly I never found a route that required violence, instead all of them allowing a full stealth approach. Sure some of them would’ve been easier had I started killing right off the bat but I would’ve thought at least a few options would’ve forced my hand.

Some of the side missions are a bit buggy, two of which come to mind immediately. The first was one where you’re supposed to kidnap a bar tender then put him in a box somewhere. After spending far too long knocking out everyone in the bar I took my leave of it, bartender slung over my shoulder. However when I got to the area to drop him off a cutscene began playing and, I’m guessing here, in the interim I dropped him off the roof to his doom. No problem I can just load up my last save, except the game saved immediately after, obliterating my chances at a retry (without investing another hour at least). The second was the mime suicide one where, for some reason, it’d fail the mission randomly. I still had his unconscious body but it was simply not registered as the NPC I needed and the contract was failed. These are both minor glitches which can be circumvented with good old save scumming but it can be a rather frustrating thing to have to deal with multiple times over.

Maybe I’m getting older or more lenient on the Dishonored franchise as a whole but I felt that both the story and its delivery were the strongest yet. Dishonored’s voice actors typically delivered their lines flat and the story’s predictable nature didn’t help. This time around however the voice acting feels a lot better and the story, whilst still being somewhat predictable, was a lot more engrossing than I remember its predecessor’s being. Seeing as this might be the last instalment in the franchise, at least in this timeline with these characters anyway, it does feel like a fitting send off.

Should Dishonored: Death of the Outsider be the last we see of this series in its current state it will be a grand farewell, being the series’ best instalment to date. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, still retaining some of the issues that have plagued the series from day 1. However the streamlined game play, better story telling and overall tighter implementation (bar a few issues with some of the side missions) means that it’s much more easier to gloss over those rough edges than it ever was. Even if you haven’t played a Dishonored game before Death of the Outsider could be a great introduction into the franchise. Although if you do that know that it’s only downhill from here.

Rating: 9.0/10

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours playtime and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 11/09/2017 to 17/09/2017

Milkmaid of the Milky Way: Rhyming Couplets Isn’t Clever, No Matter Your Endeavour.

Even if I don’t manage to get 1 review per week out I do try to make sure I’ve at least played one game a week. That does become a little troublesome when I’m travelling for work, like I was all last week. Fear not, I thought, I’ll peruse the Google Play store and something will catch my attention. After an initial burst of excitement seeing Monument Valley 2 available I was inevitably let down by the fact that it’s not available on Android yet and was left to the pit of sorrow that is app discovery on the Play store. Eventually I came across Milkmaid of the Milky Way, a simple point and click adventure game that seemed perfect for playing through on the plane ride over to Singapore.

Ruth’s life has never been easy. Her mother disappeared when she was young and her father passing away many years later. Now she is in charge of the farm, churning out butter and making cheese that she sells at the local markets. Ruth can’t help but wonder if this all that there is for her in this life, doing the same things day in and day out. That all changes very suddenly when a UFO flies overhead and (predictably) steals away her cows, something that she just can not abide!

Milkmaid’s art style is now somewhat typical blend of traditional pixel art with a smattering of modern effects that we see in many modern adventure games. The detail is certainly on the low side, with most of the environments being decidedly uncluttered and most textures being solid colours. Considering most games are now overflowing with detail it’s refreshing to see a title that pairs it down a bit, letting the story and other elements do a bit more of the heavy lifting. Speaking of which the soundtrack to Milkmaid is top notch and is one of the things that will likely leave a strong impression on you. From there though things start to get a bit mixed.

Milkmaid is an adventure game, albeit a very short one. All the base elements you’d expect to see are there: a small inventory system, different areas that you’ll click madly around trying to figure out what you can interact with and some kind of challenge you need to complete before you can move on. There’s really nothing else of note to talk about from a base game mechanics perspective but, since I played this on my phone, there are some issues that I think are platform specific which bear mentioning.

Now I don’t know if Unity, Android or the game itself are to blame here but the touch detection on objects and UI elements is down right terrible. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to move an item out of my inventory only to have it not respond at all. Worse still tapping on the screen doesn’t always seem to register on interactive screen elements, leading to a bunch of highly frustrating incidents where I was stuck on a puzzle because I thought I’d already clicked everything, only to find out that nope, that thing I thought was unclickable actually was. Worse still is the fact that some elements are so small on screen (and it’s not like I’m using a small device either, it’s a Pixel XL) that it’s nigh on impossible to actually see them. This ultimately left me thinking the game was bugged as I simply couldn’t find anywhere else to explore. Checking a walkthrough showed that there was a screen I hadn’t got to yet, one which had an impossibly small area to click on to get to it. Suffice to say, whilst this game can be played on mobile, I’m not sure it’s the best platform for it.

From a story perspective it’s certainly not bad, indeed I’d rate it above most story-second games, however the developer made the horrendous choice of using rhyming couplets for all text. I’ve lamented the use of this kind of dialogue style before and my opinion hasn’t changed since then. For me it feels like it removes a dimension from the characters, constraining them all into the same cadence and making it hard for them to differentiate themselves properly. Worse still it seems like the dev actually started off with a more traditional script and decided to change it after writing the first chapter. How I’d feel about the story if it wasn’t told in this way is something we’ll never know.

Overall Milkmaid of the Milky Way is an average adventure game, one that’s probably better played on the PC rather than on a mobile device. The uncluttered pixel art style and great backing sound track are its stand out achievements, both of which are let down by the so-so mobile implementation and the honestly bonkers choice of writing in rhyme. Of course I’m willing to admit my impression might just be due to this old writer’s biases so take that into consideration. Though for the price of admission, and the fact I could play it on the go, Milkmaid of the Milky Way was a perfectly acceptable way to spend part of my plane trip overseas.

Rating: 7.0/10

Milkmaid of the Milky Way is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $5.99. Game was played on a Pixel XL running Android Oreo with approximately 2.5 hours of total play time.

State of the Game: 04/09/2017 to 10/09/2017

The First Tree: Through The Woods of Grief.

Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.

The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.

From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.

The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.

Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.

You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.

The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.

The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.

Rating: 7.5/10

The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 28/08/2017 to 03/09/2017

Late Shift: Not Your Typical Day at Work.

The use of full motion video in games used to be a kludge; done to inject a semblance of realism into an otherwise unrealistic world. Even with brand name actors they still had the penchant to be campy and overacted, but that ended up being part of their charm. The late 90s to early 2000s saw FMVs fall out of favour, replaced instead with cinematic renderings or in-game cut-scenes. Recently however the FMV has been making something of a comeback with titles like Quantum Break upping the ante when it comes to mixed-media productions. However what I haven’t seen up until now is a movie production that incorporates game elements and that’s where Late Shift, from CtrlMovie, comes in. At its heart Late Shift is very much a film production but it also incorporates the idea of player’s choice, putting you in charge of how the movie plays out.

Late Shift puts you in control of Matt, a young student who’s taken a job as a parking attendant for high end cars. The night begins like any other with Matt taking his place at the front booth and settling down to while away the hours until his shift is over. From here where the story goes is up to you and you’ll be faced with numerous decisions over the course of the film, each of which can have a drastic impact on how the plot plays out. Late Shift features some 180 decision points, 7 different endings, 14 chapters combining into a total of about 4 hours of film. Suffice to say it’s an impressive gambit and one that I didn’t think would grab me as much as it did.

The film made its debut on iOS and in select cinemas last year, only coming to Steam just recently. Reading up on the cinema release shows that they used an audience majority vote to dictate the choices, using the audience’s smart phones to cast the votes. Indeed it seems that CtrlMovie’s whole focus is on developing technology to support more movies like this with Late Shift demonstrating on the bare essentials of what they are currently capable of. In all honesty I’m excited to see where this kind of tech could lead as I’m a big fan of narrative focused games and, whilst I’ve said I like interactive movies before, this is probably the first title to be 100% true to that idea.

Mechanically Late Shift is very simple: at various points throughout the movie’s run time you’ll be presented with a bunch of options. Depending on which one you choose certain things will happen and the course of the story may change. I’d estimate that about half the chapters are “mandatory” in the sense that there’s really no way to escape them but even in them there’s a bunch of decisions that change how that particular chapter plays out. There’s also the option of not making a decision at all (if you allow the timer to play out) but from what I can tell that by default chooses the leftmost option. Once its all said and done you’ll be presented with a screen that shows you how many decisions you made, the number of chapters you saw and the endings that you unlocked. It would’ve been nice to see the global statistics for choices at this point but they weren’t included (and I can partly understand why, they don’t want to spoil the other endings).

I was initially on the fence about whether or not Late Shift would be worth it but after playing it through once myself I was sold on it. My wife also enjoys these kinds of interactive stories (she played Until Dawn no less than 4 times over) so we sat down to play it through again together, this time with her in the driver’s seat. It was interesting to see the choices which, on the surface, would seem to not matter actually influencing some aspects of the story quite heavily. Additionally her ending played out completely differently to mine, showcasing some decision points which, in my play through, meant nothing but for her meant a lot more. Interestingly her play through also highlighted that there is a “path of least resistance” as the game will put up a lot more roadblocks to some decisions than others.

The tech that drives this is relatively simple however there are a few rough edges that could be smoothed out a bit. CtrlMovie boasts “seamless playback” on their website but it’s anything but with decision points, the interface freezing up for a half second or so as it loads the next bit of video. Additionally, and this might have been due to us using Steam in-home streaming for the second playthrough, the click recognition on the decisions can be a little finicky at times. Both of these things aren’t huge distractions from the overall experience though and are things that can be easily fixed with a few minor patches.

Late Shift’s story is a crime thriller and its strength comes from the interactivity. If it was presented just as is I don’t think it’d be anywhere near as engaging as it is otherwise. There are a few weird plot holes that exist due to the interactive nature, mostly things that may/may not have relevance to your particular story thread. I’ll stop short of saying it’s a must see for everyone but if you’re a lover of narrative-first games, walking simulators and the like then Late Shift is definitely up your alley.

Late Shift shows that the ideas of player choice can translate well into the land of cinema. It’s definitely a 1.0 product although that being said the rough edges and handful of choice-driven plot holes are a small price to pay for the overall quality of the end product. I really can’t say much more without diving into spoiler territory but suffice to say Late Shift was an unexpected gem, one I’m sure will get a few more playthroughs in the future.

Rating: 8.75/10

Late Shift is available on iOS and PC right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 21/08/2017 to 27/08/2017

Last Day of June: Some Things Can’t be Changed.

When playing games that wouldn’t fit the typical definition of the medium there’s always one question I ask myself: was this the only way this story could be told? Certainly for games where your choices matter there’s a strong argument (although who didn’t love those choose your own adventure books as a kid) but for linear, narrative focused games the choice is less decisive. There’s a lot to be said for interactivity, which can drive immersion in a story, but for some titles this can actually be a distraction. Such is the story of Last Day of June, a story that could have been served just as well, if not better, if presented as a short movie rather than as an interactive title.

Last Day of June follows the story of Carl and June, two people who are so adorably in love that you can be absolutely sure that tragedy is just looming around the corner. The sun is setting on a beautiful autumn day which you’ve spent down at the lake together. However it starts to rain and you both make a beeline to the car before you get soaked. On the trip home however tragedy strikes and you awake as Carl, alone in your house and wheelchair bound. What follows is a story of uncovering the events that led up to that tragedy and, interestingly, giving you the chance to undo the damage that has been wrought on you.

On first look Last Day of June’s visuals appear simple though they are anything but. The aesthetic is a combination of Picasso-esque caricatures and dreamlike visual effects which give it this kind of surreal cartoon feel. The characters big heads and lack of eyes do make them a little disconcerting to start off with but that fades relatively quickly. The amount of detail put into the areas you’ll be wandering around is impressive until you realise that you’ll be retreading it multiple times over throughout the course of your play through (more on that later). If nothing else Last Day of June is a visual marvel, one that manages to escape the Unity look-and-feel trap that many other titles fall into.

Whilst not strictly a walking simulator Last Day of June plays a lot like one. The same day is presented to you through different perspectives and the only way to progress is to figure out the way to change their outcome. Each of the different puzzle perspectives are simple enough but changing actions in one can have effects on another. This is all interspersed with flashbacks to the character’s memories, hidden collectables and a few other things which tilt this more towards a story focused puzzler than a more traditional walking simulator. Last Day of June’s biggest flaw isn’t from the execution of its core mechanics however, it’s from the ungodly amount of retreading a path already taken to progress the story.

Each of the new perspectives brings with them a new puzzle to solve and all of them will require you to undo things that you’ve previously done with another character. This means re-watching the same cut scenes over and over again as you stumble your way through each of the puzzles. Worse still all of them require you to go through the motions of failing the puzzle first before giving you the freedom to fix them, even if you’ve already managed to figure out a solution in the first place. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any skip function, even for cut scenes you’ve already seen multiple times before. I can partly understand this from a game length perspective, with my play through only clocking in at around 3 hours, but padding a game out with repetition isn’t something I’m in the habit of commending.

Last Day of June is also not free of technical issues, one particular one which I couldn’t get a fix to for several days. After playing for an hour or so I decided to call it there for the day but, upon launching it again, the game would crash just before the main menu. I traced the issue down to my save file (renaming it allowed the game to run) but nothing could cajole it to run with that file. After logging a support ticket and getting told to reinstall and verify the cache files (something I had already done but did again anyway) I was able to get back in. I’m not the only one suffering from this issue either as there’s quite a few people reporting the same problem both on Steam and on the official forums. I’m sure issues like this will get ironed out eventually but it did mean that I spent an hour or so on troubleshooting when I could have otherwise been playing.

I’m on the fence with Last Day of June’s story. Sure some parts of it resonate with me but the lack of dialogue does mean that there’s a certain lack of depth to most of the character’s development. Carl, for instance, doesn’t really receive enough development for me to empathise with him and June’s best friend’s crush on him feels like an unnecessary aside. I can identify with the themes of dealing with grief, wanting to change things that you can’t and all that but if I’m not invested in the characters their struggle will just feel hollow. It’s possible that a lot of my feelings are born out of the frustration I felt with having to retread the same path so many times which is why I thought that this story may be better served as watched rather than played. I would be interested to hear what anyone who watched it on Twitch or YouTube has to think as my money’s on the experience being just that much better.

Last Day of June comes out strong with it’s beautiful visuals and wonderful sound track but falls short in most other respects. The constant replay of puzzles you’ve already solved means that a lot of time is burnt on repetitive tasks, something you wouldn’t usually see in a 3 hour game. The short play time also means that most of the characters aren’t given enough time to develop fully, at least not to the point which this writer empathised with them enough. I’m willing to admit that it might be my frustration that was boiling over into other aspects of the game that’s influencing my feelings here, so your mileage may vary.

Rating: 7.0/10

Last Day of June is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 71% of the achievements unlocked.