Indie games are typically a tradeoff between several different aspects that were once considered to be critical for a game to be successful. The typical approach is to tone down graphics, mechanics and even interactivity in favour of better storytelling. This is what attracted me to the indie scene in the first place as I find it easy to write off larger faults in the game should it be able to tell an engaging narrative. However sometimes there are little gems of indie titles that manage to do well in more than just one area, executing more than just a good story. Mind: Path to Thalamus is one such indie game, being able to deliver an experience that’s above many higher budget titles yet still retains the same aspects that make indie titles so charming.
You are stuck in a surreal and desolate world, one devoid of any other humans and that seems to react to your very presence. Some of the places are familiar, reminding you of places that you used to visit as a child, whilst others seem to have risen up from your deepest nightmares, shaking you to your very core. There’s only one thing that keeps pushing you forward: you must reach the Thalamus, no matter how painful the journey to it is. Can you suffer through the mistakes you made in order to find redemption? Are you even worthy of it? These are the questions you’ll answer as you journey towards the ever elusive Thalamus.
For an indie game Mind: Path to Thalamus is incredibly beautiful with the wide variety of different environments providing a great array of eye candy. Part of this is due to it using the Unreal under the hood, an engine that’s renowned for being able to produce great visuals, however the artwork is above that of many other indie games of similar calibre. This goes hand in hand with the soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, swelling at all the right points in concert with your character’s emotions and dropping to deathly silence, reminding you that you’re alone in this world. The screenshots I’ve taken really don’t do it justice, it’s an exceptionally well crafted experience.
The core game of Mind: Path to Thalamus is that of a puzzler, done in the now traditional indie style of not telling you exactly how everything works but giving you enough visual clues in order to be able to figure it out. The various mechanics change throughout the game however they’re introduced individually so you can get a feel for what their triggers are, how they combine and what bits and pieces of the environment you should be on the lookout for in order to be able to progress to the next section. Overall the puzzles are pretty simple, if you’re struggling it’s typically because you’re doing something the wrong way, however there’s enough challenge that they feel like an organic part of the game rather than a brick wall designed to pad out the play time.
This is probably why Mind: Path to Thalamus has such great visuals as they really are key to the overall game experience. Pretty much every time I found myself stuck on something was due to me not noticing or forgetting about a particular game mechanic, usually one that was just introduced to me not 1 puzzle ago. The last few puzzle stages kept me busy for a good couple hours as they use every mechanic to their fullest, forcing you to figure out what sequence of events you have to go through in order to unlock the next piece. It was well timed however as the final dialogue sections, which are scripted to repeat after a certain time, only did so right before the final scene showing that the developer has paced Mind: Path to Thalamus out extremely well.
For the most part Mind: Path to Thalamus runs well with no graphics glitches or broken gameplay elements to speak of. It does however seem to crash randomly on occasion, something that didn’t seem to have any one particular cause. Some sections that would crash at one point would inexplicably play through fine afterwards. They didn’t happen often however the checkpointing system seems to get confused when it happens and will send you back to the start of the chapter and not the current respawn point you’re at. It’s not a big deal, especially if you’ve already worked out all the puzzles, but it was a slight frustration when I was elbows deep in the story.
What sold me on Mind: Path to Thalamus originally was one of the trailers that showed some of the opening scenes of the game which had some extremely gripping voice acting. Whilst that same level of passion isn’t carried throughout the game the story is delivered well by the sole voice actor. Usually out of order narratives annoy me but Mind: Path to Thalamus does in it such a way that several story threads are built around you and only towards the end is the relationship between the two revealed. It wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster however it was a solid story on regret, redemption and the highly illogical process we all go through when we’re grieving. Suffice to say I’d rate it above many other story-first games that I’ve played in recent memory although I wasn’t exactly in tears at the end of it.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a fantastic example of what the indie development scene is capable of producing, from the gorgeous visuals right down to the engaging story. Whilst a story-driven indie puzzler might not be everyone’s cup of tea I feel Mind: Path to Thalamus would stand well just on its mechanics alone, with the inventive mechanics requiring more than passing glance to understand fully. It might not be a perfectly polished gem however Mind: Path to Thalamus expertly delivers on the goals it set out to accomplish and is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 48% of the achievements unlocked.
The once strict definition of what constituted a video game has taken a massive beating over the past couple years. There’s been numerous releases that just weren’t different enough to be excluded from the game genre but yet also didn’t feel like they had enough game-like aspects to be included. For me these types of games are quite intriguing as their lake of gameplay is usually made up for in story or the gameplay itself is what builds the story. Velvet Sundown is one such title, including some of the basic elements of game but feels more like a digital version of a murder mystery party. It’s hard to describe how I feel about it as whilst I think the concept is novel the execution, one that relies on other players playing their part, is both the best and worst thing about it.
You’re aboard the Velvet Sundown, a private yacht that caters to the rich and famous. You’ll find yourself in control of one of many characters in the game ranging from crew members all the way up to famous tennis players or wealthy socialites looking for a good time. However everyone aboard this ship has a secret, maybe something about them or a desire they want to fulfill, and your interactions will determine whether those secrets come to life or if those desires will be fulfilled. How will you play your role? Will you seek out your goal with reckless abandon or will you be the troll that tries to fellate everyone aboard?
Velvet Sundown has this kind of Second Life vibe to it which I think mostly stems from its graphics. The environment, that is to say the ship that you can walk around on, is pretty barren in terms of detail and feels quite sterile. This is only amplified by the rigid animations that all the characters have, especially when they’re walking around. It seems this might be due to the fact that Velvet Sundown is built upon an engine called Dramagame which appears to be geared more towards social simulation rather than something with game play. Usually I wouldn’t hold this against a game, especially one which focuses on other things, however when they’re asking for a monthly subscription fee for premium content I do expect a little more bang for my buck.
A the beginning of each scenario you’ll be randomly assigned a character to play and then given a background blurb on who they are, what their motivations might be and usually a goal to start you off. After that you’re essentially in a 3D chat room with a bunch of other players which, depending on how lucky you are, will be filled with a mix of serious players and trolls. You can engage people in conversation (and, if you’ve got premium access, you can hear them talk in wonderfully horrible text-to-speech) to try and figure out who might be the right person to talk to regarding your objective or use various items to progress the scenarios story. For some characters you’ll receive prompts every so often about your changing motivations, hopefully inducing a bit more drama into the overall experience.
As a concept I think the idea is really strong. You get given what’s essentially a character breakdown but how that character plays out is all up to the players behind them. I had some pretty fun scenarios where other people played to their characters aptly, like the Nigerian prince who spoke in slightly broken English and tried to get everyone to welcome Nigeria into their hearts. However at the same time if people don’t play to the story exactly the scenario doesn’t really go anywhere and then you usually end up in boring conversation that inevitably leads onto someone trolling. The best example of this was my last scenario whereby one person, playing Lora, tried to get everyone on the ship to do sexual things to her. Whilst it was funny at first it just ended up distracting from the overall game, and it eventually went no where.
Velvet Sundown could be vastly improved by adding in a little more interactivity and freedom into the game in order to generate more interesting narrative. The rigid structure that the story requires to be followed in order to progress it means that there’s really no freedom outside of it, even if you’re allowed to say whatever you want to anyone. Adding in some other interactions that you could apply to anyone else in the game would mean that, even if the original story wasn’t panning out, players would be able to create their own stories within the bounds of the scenario. I’m not suggesting they put in full cyber-sex animations for everyone (like the slutty Lora in my last game would love) however a few more interactions would go a long way.
Velvet Sundown is an interesting concept, taking the idea of a murder mystery party and translating that into a digital playground for players to fool around in. However it feels like a beta product, with all the environments feeling sterile and the character animations making them all look like robots with back problems. The player to player interactions are the main source of entertainment however and whilst they can be amusing at times if everyone doesn’t stick to their story exactly the scenario just ends up going no where. I feel with a couple years worth of polish Velvet Sundown could really be something but for now it’s just a curiosity that simply not worth paying for.
Velvet Sundown is available on PC right now. It is free to play with an optional subscription fee for premium content.
I feel it’s pertinent that I get this out of the way before I start the review in earnest: Roguelikes give me the shits. I can understand the appeal that many find in them, figuring out a strategy to deal with whatever might come before you, however I really detest games that punish you with things that are completely out of your control. You get to a point where you think you’re doing great only to find that you hadn’t accounted for situation X which then proceeds to tank your game, forcing you to redo the entire section just so you can account for it. Whilst Gods Will Be Watching isn’t exactly a Roguelike (it describes itself as a Point and Click adventure, which it partly is) many of its gameplay elements take inspiration from the genre and, unfortunately, are the downfall of what would otherwise be a brilliant game.
Gods Will Be Watching is one of those games that started out as a entry to the Ludlam Dare game jam which received such wide acclaim that it then went onto a successful IndieGoGo campaign for development into a fully fledged title. You play as Sergeant Burden, a long serving member of the establishment who’s infiltrated himself into the idealistic rebellion group called Xenolifer. Your mission is to play along with them, gain their trust and hopefully limit the amount of damage they can do. However it becomes apparent that it’s not black and white when it comes to Xenolifer, or even your own organisation, and therein is where the real challenge lies. Can you protect everyone? Are you strong enough to make the tough choices at the right time? These are the questions you’ll be faced with and living with those decisions might be easier said than done.
Since the theme for the original Ludlam Dare entry was “minimalism” Gods Will Be Watching took the cue to use the current ultra-minimalistic pixelart styling that other games like Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP are known for. There’s not a huge amount of visual variety in the game with the vast majority of it taking place within a single frame for each chapter of the game. It serves its purpose however, conveying the numerous visual clues and other elements form part of the core game play. It all kind of blurs into the background after a while as for the most part you’ll be spending your time in menus rather than constantly searching for things that you need to click on.
As I alluded to earlier the gameplay of Gods Will Be Watching is a mix between a traditional point and click adventure and a Roguelike. Each scene has a specific objective that needs to be completed in order to progress to the next chapter. Usually this objective requires you to play with a set variables in order to achieve the desired outcome so the majority of your time will be spent balancing them all out. Sometimes these variables are obvious, given to you in plain numbers, other times they’re hidden in the form of visual clues that you’ll have to decipher. There’s also several different ways of dealing with the problem at hand, some of which will make your life easier or harder depending on the objective. It’s an interesting concept however I feel that the execution has let it down somewhat.
You see I get the idea that there’s variables that need maximising and that you probably won’t get everything to go exactly the way you want however the inclusion of randomization feels like a big middle finger to the player. They mention this at the start, forewarning you that failure is to be expected and that you should just keep on trying, however the randomization can and will completely fuck you over numerous times before you get it right. It’s not even a matter of strategy after a while as even the best strategy can get completely wrecked by the random number generator spurting out a couple unfortunate numbers in a row. In a decently designed game this would be a low chance occurrence but in Gods Will Be Watching it happens constantly.
I’d probably be more forgiving if failing a chapter didn’t mean having to start all over from the start again, giving RNGesus another chance to fuck me over. Take for instance the torture scene where you have to distribute damage between the two characters in order to make sure you make it through the day. If your begs happen to fail, or you don’t get the response that allows you to rest, you’ll likely end up killing one of the characters. This isn’t to mention the Russian Roulette scene which can completely fuck you over, even if you use every trick at your disposal. The desert scene is even worse for this as even when I was doing things nigh on perfectly I still got ruined by random events that were out of my control which is where I ended up leaving the game.
Which brings me to the real reason why the random elements piss me off so much: the story is actually intriguing and one where I felt I was crafting my own little narrative within the game. Looking over the forums you can see how varied everyone’s experiences is, something that I really admire in a game when its done well. However like many games I’ve played as of late the mechanics of Gods Will Be Watching are just so onerous that those tasty morsels of story are so few and far between that they are simply not enough to keep you going. It’s a real shame as after reading a couple other reviews I’ve found out there’s still 2 chapters to go but, honestly, I just can’t be arsed to slog through the numerous rounds of RNG roulette in order to see them.
Gods Will Be Watching is a game I really wanted to like as it had all the makings of other titles in the genre that I had considered good. The simplistic presentation and story with a some level of depth to it, coupled with the ability to craft your own narrative above that, has great potential. However the Rougelike elements destroyed any hopes of that happening, trapping the story behind too many RNG determined gates forcing the player to spend hours redoing content in order to get to the next chapter. I’m sure there will be many people who say I didn’t get the point of it or some other bullshit but the simple fact is that Gods Will Be Watching failed to provide the writer with a good game experience, hiding its moments of brilliance behind mechanics that are simply not fun to play.
Gods Will Be Watching is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 5 hours with 10% of the achievements unlocked.
The Steam Top Sellers chart is a rather strange place. For the most part it’s in a constant state of flux with titles popping on and off it almost daily, usually when sales of a particularly good title go on sale or a hotly anticipated game goes up for pre-order. However there are some titles that manage to secure a top spot on there for a long time, seemingly immune to the regular ebbs and flows of the market. Titles like Rust, DayZ and Counter Strike: Global Offensive are regularly up there but every so often one title manages to break into there, seemingly out of no where. Spintires was one such title attracting quite the following for a game that, to me, seemed to be little more than Euro Truck Simulator with mud. Still the videos were enough to convince me to give it a look in, even if it wasn’t a genre I’d typically play.
The premise of Spintires is simple: you’re to get a bunch of lumber from the mill to its destination, easy right? Well in between those places is a whole mess of treacherous terrain just waiting to stop you in your tracks, foiling any attempt at lumber delivery. However you have a multitude of vehicles at your disposal which you’ll need to make full use of if you want to complete that objective in a reasonable amount of time. Honestly after playing it for a few hours I feel like my initial assessment of it was quite apt as whilst the premise sounds rather dull there’s definitely a lot going on in Spintires that I’m sure simulation geeks will love.
Spintires is quite impressive visually, making heavy use of level of detail and depth of field that give it a much more realistic feel than it would otherwise. Games like this typically forego visual flair for more accurate simulation but Spintires seems to get a decent mix of both of them, being both visually appealing (if a little drab) combined with a driving simulation that matches my brief experience with driving in similar conditions. There are limits to the simulation of course which will provide joy and annoyance in equal amounts but overall Spintires is a surprisingly polished product.
As I mentioned earlier the core gameplay of Spintires is centered around taking lumber from one location and delivering it to another. Depending on what vehicles you have at your disposal (or unlocked by exploring the map) you’ll be able to deliver different loads which have higher point values, allowing you to accomplish the task quicker. However it’s not simply a matter of driving from one location to another as there are numerous hazards that will get in your way, not the least of which is the seemingly endless mud tracks that you’ll be trucking across. In some of these situations you’ll have to bring along additional help in order to get yourself out of trouble or, if you don’t plan it right, dig yourself in even deeper.
Whilst the controls are pretty easy to get the handle on initially it becomes quickly apparent that the tutorial, if you could call it that, is a little bit inadequate. The above screenshot shows you how most things work however even if you combine that with looking at the keybindings you’re still likely to find yourself wondering how to do certain things. Thankfully Oovee’s forums are filled with tons of good advice for people like me who had no idea what they were doing. Still it feels like Spintires could probably do with a short tutorial map with everything unlocked in it so you could get a feel for the game before diving into the bigger maps.
The simulation experience is pretty good and from what I can remember of the short time I went 4WD driving with my scount troop back in the day it mirrors real life pretty well. Whilst you’ll most likely be running full diff lock and all wheel drive constantly (which makes the point about it consuming more fuel mostly moot) there’s still a lot of challenge to be had, especially if you’re just exploring or trying to remove the cloaking on a map. The core game of transporting lumber is somewhat less exciting though as unless you’re transporting the long logs you’ll be doing multiple trips and that just loses its luster very quickly. Still there’s a lot of fun to be had in trying to bug out the physics engine, which I assume is part of the appeal for games in this genre.
It doesn’t take much to do that unfortunately as whilst the simulation seems to work well in most circumstances it starts to behave very oddly once it’s outside its comfort zone. Rocks floating softly up and down, vehicles having a distinct preference for being right side up (unless special circumstances are met) and ground changing it’s consistency randomly are all issues I encountered during my brief play through. There was also the issue of it crashing to desktop a couple times with one time resulting in my save game file disappearing. There’s also the issue of the camera which seems to be too smart for its own good, making moving it around an exercise in frustration. In all honesty it has much the same feeling as many other just off Early Access games do, something which I feel all developers need to take note of and avoid in the future.
Spintires is a game that I’m sure will appeal to lovers of this genre as it recreates the experience of driving heavy vehicles through muddy terrain with a disturbing amount of accuracy. This shows through in several aspects of the game, namely the visuals and the core simulation engine, something which I’m sure many will appreciate. However it still seems to be suffering from some early stage teething issues and honestly whilst I can see the attraction to these kinds of games it’s probably not the kind of title I’ll find myself investing anymore time in. So if you’re a lover of all simulators great and small you probably won’t go wrong with Spintires.
Spintires is available PC right now for $29.99. Total game time was 4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s nearly 2 decades ago and 10 year old me has found a new game to obsess over: The Incredible Machine. For a little while I’m captivated by the puzzles, trying to figure out the multiple ways in which I can solve the problem put before me. However it’s not long until I discover the real fun that this game contains: the free form creative mode. Soon I’m creating dozens of horrendous devices, most hellbent on inflicting as much torture as is humanly possible within the game’s confines. This debauchery was only exacerbated by the presence of friends with numerous hours being spent building all manner of wicked contraptions. So you can imagine when I heard that some of the developers of that game were out to make a spiritual sequel, called Contraption Maker, I was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia that wouldn’t go away until I hit the purchase button.
Contraption Maker has actually been available for quite some time now through Steam’s Greenlight program but it only just recently hit version 1.0. The result is a product that’s been heavily influenced by the community, being put through the wringer by some of the most die hard Incredible Machine fans for the past year. The result as it stands today certainly has the same feel about (at least that’s what the remains of the 10 year old me is saying, anyway) with all of the modern flair you would come to expect from a game of this calibre. However whilst I do appreciate that they chose the PC as their preferred platform I can’t help but feel that its place might no longer be with this platform.
Visually Contraption Maker really does feel like the Incredible Machine, just berthed in this time instead of 20 years ago. For me it felt a lot like a Flash game that had received a lot of love as the animations and art styling all had that Flash-y appearance to them. It also helps that the vast majority of the parts used in Contraption Maker had their mirror within the Incredible Machine, something which I’m sure was done on purpose. Still it’s to the developers credit that they’ve managed to capture that same feeling that I experienced so long ago whilst also modernizing the look and feel dramatically.
For those who remember The Incredible Machine the game play will be instantly familiar as Contraption Maker’s game play is pretty much identical to its spiritual predecessor. You’ll be given a scenario, a short blurb about what’s going on, what the goals are and a set of tools with which to make everything happen. From there you’re left to your own as to how to figure everything out which can be as simple as knocking something over to far more elaborate puzzles that can have multiple different solutions, depending on which behaviours you exploit. There’s also the creative mode which hooks into the Steam Workshop, allowing you to create and share puzzles with everyone else around the world.
Whilst I haven’t made my way through all 140 or so puzzles (I’m about half way through them) I’m glad to say that the difficulty ramp is quite well done, with the progression from Easy to Medium to Hard done well enough that you’ll likely find yourself challenged but rarely ever struggling for minutes on end. Should you find yourself breezing through everything Contraption Maker has to throw at you then dozens of incredibly obtuse puzzles await you care of the community, ensuring that you’ll likely never run out of new content to explore. If the current community is anything to go by Contraption Maker will have a long future ahead of it, fuelled by endless community challenges.
However the 1.0 version moniker is really only in spirit as Contraption Maker still seems to suffer from a few teething issues. Certain key combinations will inexplicably force you to desktop (copying and pasting is fraught with danger), usually erasing any progress you had made or anything you were working on at the time. The physics engine also appears to be a little bit selective in its behaviour with things not behaving exactly how you’d expect them to, something which I think was likely done in the aid of simplicity and limiting emergent behaviour. Considering the amount of development this game has seen over the past year I’m sure these issues will be resolved eventually (I submitted crash reports for everything I encountered) so I’d check the discussion forums to see how the latest build is faring.
What Contraption Maker really needs though isn’t so much an improved version, or even more puzzles, more I think it needs to find its way onto a tablet sooner rather than later. 20 years ago The Incredible Machine really only had one platform it could ever find itself on and thus no one would’ve ever considered putting it anywhere else. Today however games like this have a home that’s far more welcoming to it, one that is perfect for Contraption Maker’s innate pickup/putdown play style. Thankfully it looks like the developers are working on this and honestly if you’re thinking about getting Contraption Maker and don’t want to play it on PC I’d highly recommend waiting for the future release.
Contraption Maker is everything you would expect a modern version of The Incredible Machine to be, taking the original premise and thoroughly modernizing it for today’s market. The puzzles, parts and free form creative mode will all be instantly familiar to long time fans with newcomers to this series being able to pick it up in no time. It’s still shaking off it’s beta status with crashes and funky behaviour peppering it’s otherwise solid execution, something that I hope to see remedied in the not too distant future. Personally I think it will make an absolutely fantastic tablet game, one that the current generation of 10 year olds will remember as fondly as we do when it comes to The Incredible Machine today.
Contraption Maker is available on PC right now for $14.99 (although you get 2 copies for that price). Total play time was 2 hours.
A game based around any of the world wars is usually an instant turn off for me. The number of games that have been based around those events are so numerous that there really doesn’t feel like there can be any more angles to tackle it from as pretty much every story from it has been done to death. The alternate reality and fantasy versions of it, like those in Wolfenstein, get away with it since they’re not wholly dependent on war stories for inspiration but they’ll still need a little something extra to pique my interest. Valiant Hearts, which comes to us care of Ubisoft Montpellier, has been receiving wide praise for it’s touching story. As someone who’s just come off 2 rather lacklustre story based titles I wasn’t hoping for miracles but Valiant Hearts managed to surprise me, bringing this writer to tears as its conclusion.
The year is 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France, anticipating that this war will escalate far beyond those two countries, deports all of its German citizens back to their home country. Karl is one of those citizens, torn away from his wife and young son he is sent to the frontlines of the war to fight for his home country. Not long after his wife’s father, Emile, is called to duty as well and sent to fight for the French army. What follows is a tale of how the war drives families apart and the never ending quest for them to be reunited once again.
Valiant Hearts reminds me of the flash games of yesteryear, albeit with production values far exceeding that of any of its predecessors. It was developed on the same framework that powered Ubisoft’s recent release Child of Light and it’s easy to see just how heavily the choice of that platform influenced the art work. In contrast to Child of Light however Valiant Heart’s art style is far more dark and monotone with infinite shades of brown and grey being the primary colour palette. This does mean that when colour is used it’s quite striking and the art team does a fantastic job of using it to great effect. This also extends to the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the game, ebbing and flowing at all the right moments.
In terms of actual game play Valiant Hearts is much like other story-first games in the sense that it usually takes a back seat to progressing the story. For the most part you’ll be doing elaborate fetch quest missions that require you to find one item in order to progress through the next session. Sometimes you’ll have to make your way through various different people in order to get to the final objective and try as you might there’s no clever way to bypass certain things. There’s also a bevy of quicktime-esque events that will require you to either guess correctly or simply memorize the sequence in which events happen in order to move on to the next part of the story.
Thankfully Valiant Hearts didn’t fall into the trap of putting far too much game play in between sections of the story like both the recent titles I played through did. In all honesty I didn’t think it was a major hurdle for games of this nature to get past as many of them are done by indie developers and so ancillary mechanics are usually on the bottom of their to do list. However with 2 games falling prey to the same problems I have to commend Valiant Hearts for getting the pacing right which helps immensely with keeping the player interested in the story. There were some sections that could use some tuning but compared to my recent experiences it was heaven.
Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive as your inventory space is limited to a single item, limiting the amount of complexity that the game can throw at you significantly. There’s a pretty good variety of puzzle mechanics so you won’t be redoing the same thing over and over again but most of them shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so to figure out. A couple of them will require you to think laterally about what you’re doing as some of them lack obvious cues as to what might interact with what. This did lead to a couple confusing moments when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing but most of the time you’ll get there through trial and error.
One issue I did find with Valiant Hearts was that since there’s not a lot of visual differentiation between different parts of the environment it can be sometimes hard to find a path you’re meant to go down or what elements are interactive. This meant that in some of the more visually busy sections I was wondering just where exactly I was meant to go as I couldn’t find the particular path to go down. I also had some deaths that felt like they were more due to visual confusion more than anything else. This might just be a fault of the writer however but it’s still an issue that should be pointed out.
Of course what really makes Valiant Hearts worth playing is the story. Overall it’s a pretty typical story of a family torn apart by war, almost Romeo and Juliet like in the star crossed lovers from different houses idea, and the story of them trying to reunite with each other. The main characters all receive the background and development they deserve, which helps immensely when it comes to scenes that rely on engaging your sense of empathy with them. Some of the elements of it are a little on the fantasy side, which can be a tad distracting from the overall message that the game tries to put forth, however they’re only there as aides to the plot so they’re easily pushed aside.
I’ll have to admit that for probably the first half or so of Valiant Hearts I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the characters or story. Whilst the opening was gripping enough to draw me into playing the game further there’s a bit of dearth in the early game as the characters are seemingly just going through the motions. However as each of their back stories is developed in detail you find yourself becoming attached to them and each tragedy that befalls them starts to cut into you. The final climatic scene is by far one of the most bittersweet endings I have endured in recent memory and whilst it might lean on the cheesy/predictable side that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears, overcome with a sense of grief.
Valiant Hearts is a beautiful story masterfully told through the medium of video games. The art style and music direction are some of the best I’ve experienced in their category, taking the traditional flash styled game and ramping it up to the next level. The game mechanics are simple, enjoyable and thankfully stay out of the way of the story, leaving the player to enjoy Valiant Hearts for what it truly is. Finally the story is by far one of the best examples I’ve come across this year with all the characters receiving the right amount of screen time and development required for it’s ultimate emotional climax. If you, like me, have been feeling let down by the offerings of story based games of late then I can wholeheartedly recommend Valiant Hearts as the cure to what ails you.
Valiant Hearts is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $14.99, $22.95, $22.95, $19.95 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time.
I was never really a big fan of doing books of puzzles, like crosswords or sudoku. I understand the attraction to some degree, once you’ve got a modicum of skill in doing them such puzzles can be relaxing as you don’t really think about much else while you’re doing them. Since I’m primarily an escapist when it comes games the idea of doing puzzle only games like Lyne didn’t really appeal to me at first but after playing for a couple hours it became more of an optimization problem, one which had a very simple set of rules that could create rather complicated problems.
The basic premise of Lyne is simple, there’s a bunch of different coloured shapes and all you need to do is connect them all together. All of the shapes of one colour must be connected together so you can’t be tricky and skip certain blocks to make your life easier. Additionally every path can only be crossed once which means that the path you take for one colour will determine what paths are left available for the remaining ones. The number of puzzles available in Lyne is rather staggering, on the order of 600 or more by my guess, which should be enough to keep even the most intrepid puzzle solver busy for a while.
Lyne is incredibly simplistic in its aesthetic, using solid colours and distinct shapes for everything. At first I thought the unlocking of additional colour palettes was a bit of a gimmicky way of getting you to play for longer but they actually function really well as a visual break. Since the style is so basic everything starts to blend into each other after a while so changing up the colours helps to stop that from happening. The pallette unlocks seem to be spaced out evenly enough so that you’ll get a new one before you get bored of your current one which, I admit, did make me play for longer than I’d first anticipated.
The puzzle sets are well thought out, starting out easy in order to introduce the concept for that set and then ramping up the difficulty as you make your way through each of the puzzles. For me personally the most challenging ones always seemed to be somewhere in the middle of the set, usually because I was missing some trick that would enable me to progress through it. Indeed the more puzzles you do the more patterns you’ll recognise , something which can both simplify and complicate a puzzle for you. For me some basic rules like finding out which paths must go somewhere and dividing the board up by colour helped to get me past some of the trickier puzzles although even those could some times leave me in a tizzy.
The daily puzzles were an interesting aside from the regular sets as, from what I could tell, they are generated on the day using some kind of algorithm. In fact I think this is how most of the puzzles were likely generated however the sets have been guided somewhat by the developer whilst these sets seem to be far more random, with some of them being incredibly easy whilst the others horrendously complex. Still if you’re the kind of person that likes doing a puzzle daily then this will be a brilliant little feature for you as it’s almost guaranteed that these puzzles will be unique every day.
Lyne is an interesting minimalistic puzzle game that looks deceptively simple on first look. The mechanics are simple enough that you can figure it out without instruction but, like many things with simple origins, mastering those rules will prove to be far more challenging. Like all games of this nature though it does tend to become somewhat repetitive after a while however if you’re the kind of person who thrives on technical challenges like this then Lyne will provide endless hours of enjoyment.
Lyne is available PC, Windows Phone, Android and iOS right now for $2.99, $2.49, $2.99 and $2.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with4 hours of total play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.
In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.
Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.
The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.
There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.
However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.
It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.
Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.
SuperGiant games made a name for itself with its debut title Bastion, a breakout success that few companies are able to achieve with their first title. Indeed if you look deeper into the development team the success seems even more incredible considering that the team’s experience doesn’t have much of a pedigree in this genre. Still they’ve managed to win many fans, including myself, and when I first heard of Transistor last year I was already sold as it seemed like they took the core of Bastion and revamped it with an entirely new IP. The question on my mind was whether or not they could live up to the high standard that they set with Bastion as whilst I did my best to avoid the hype my expectations were already high for their next title. I’m glad to say that Transistor stands by itself as a great game with the ideas in Bastion taken as inspiration, not gospel.
Ah Cloudbank, the place where everyone has a voice. The city is shaped and sculpted by the will of the people, the seasons changing on the whim of popular opinion and the sunset painted a brilliant hue by visionary artists. Yes, for nearly everyone, this place is paradise where one person can truly make a difference and no one goes unheard. Something’s amiss though, people are starting to go missing, their voices seemingly snuffed out never to be heard from again. Even Cloudbanks most prolific and inspirational performer, Red, has gone silent leaving many to wonder what is going on. Little do they know that Red’s voice was stolen and her crusade to take it back will determine Cloudbank’s fate.
Supergiant’s trademark art style is back in Transistor, although this time it’s been reworked into a slick sci-fi theme. Transistor has a wonderful array of colour palettes, visual effects and scenery that makes it a visually exciting experience that’s dripping with detail. Despite the wildly different theme to Bastion it still has the same feel, employing the same isometric view with heavily stylized 3D elements that blend seamlessly with the non-3D backgrounds. This does mean that sometimes the visual experience gets a little overwhelming which is thankfully balanced off by the barren visuals of the Turn() mechanics, ensuring that the visuals don’t affect the core gameplay negatively.
Transistor takes nearly all of the core ideas of Bastion and reworks them all, leaving behind some of the more frustrating aspects and generally improving on them. You’ll still engage in the same style of brawler combat, with dozens of enemies throwing themselves at you, but it’s augmented by the Turn() mechanic that allows you to plan out your moves. You can also play the game completely in real time if you wish, something which can be advantageous depending on the encounter you find yourself in. The levelling and upgrade systems are quite intricate, allowing you to augment skills with other skills which can produce some truly outrageous combos. There’s also the famed “limiter” system which allows you to ratchet up the difficulty in exchange for more experience, giving power players the challenge they’ve been long desiring.
The combat system feels well thought out as nearly every combo I tried felt viable with the exception of some boss battles which ruled out certain strategies completely. Transistor encourages you to experiment with different build by making respecing free (you just need to find an access point) and giving you optional challenges with defined skillsets so you don’t have to figure everything out in the field. There are, of course, combinations that are far more powerful than others (like Breach + Get + Cull) and depending on what your play style is you’ll likely tend towards particular skills. I started off favouring controlling builds that gave me a lot of safety but after a while I switched up to a mega damage combo that could one shot nearly any enemy I came across. Funnily enough some of the limiters you can use can actually make some builds more viable (like having an army of bad cells), something which I thought was a rather cute idea, if intentional.
The biggest differentiator though is the inclusion of the Turn() mechanic which allows you to plan out a set of moves without the enemy being able to interrupt you. Essentially you can pause the game, plan out a series of moves up to a point and then execute them all in one go. Afterwards though you’ll have to wait for the ability to cool down again before you can use it and, unless you’ve skilled for it, all your regular abilities will be unavailable. It adds a deep level of strategy to the otherwise mindless brawling that you’ll constantly be engaged in, something that you have to respect lest you want to feel like you’re repeating the same content endlessly. One caveat about it though is that you’d better be clear on what each of your functions do as whilst Turn() might tell you that enemy will be dead you might end up doing something that puts them out of reach of your abilities. This is especially true with Cull() as enemies are effectively invulnerable after the first hit.
The levelling system maintains a good pace throughout the game, meaning that should you really want to level up (for whatever reason) you can likely do so by spending some time in the various tests in the back door area (similar to the challenges in Bastion). Whilst you won’t be penalized for choosing one upgrade path over the other, they will all be made available to you eventually, the choice is most certainly meaningful. Sometimes it can feel like you’re getting yourself into a chicken and egg scenario however the game appears to adjust itself to your current level and skillset. Early on this seems to be a bit hit and miss, as some of my more broken builds can attest to, but after that the pacing is quite smooth with the difficulty ramping up nicely.
However where Transistor really shines through is in the deep narrative and character development which stands out as one of the better titles of this year so far. Transistor, like its predecessor, starts out a little confusing due to the lack of information given but it does a good job of filling in the games, keeping the player informed and fleshing out all the ancillary character’s backstory. The return of Logan Cunningham as The Transistor for the running narration in the background is also very welcome and Supergiant did a great job of incorporating him into the game whilst also not relying on him to carry the game through as the other voice actors are just as exceptional.
What I liked most about Transistor’s story was the organic way in which story background elements were revealed to you. Whilst the bulk of it is delivered by the rather unimaginative walls of text buried in the levelling system it’s at least consistent and bite sized, meaning that you’ll never feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading Transistor wants you to do. The way in which Red’s relationship with the mysterious man develops is by far one of the better aspects of the story. The ending left me with some mixed feelings as it really is quite bittersweet but that does mean it’s by far one of the more memorable endings of recent times.
Transistor is another exceptional title from Supergiant games, taking all the elements that made Bastion successful and molding them into another game that stands on its own. The combat is engaging, deep and fluid, encouraging the player to experiment with all sorts of wild combinations that only get more complex as the game progresses. Level progression is smooth, providing a challenge at all stages of the game, even when you think you’ve unlocked the broken combo. Transistor’s story, along with it’s brilliant voice acting and gorgeous presentation, Truly Supergiant games are going from strength to strength with their releases and I simply can not wait to see what they produce next.
Transistor is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.95 and $19.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 6 hours of total play time and 36% of the achievements unlocked.
The evolution of open world style games has been pretty interesting to watch. The gold standard has (and likely will be for a long time) the Grand Theft Auto series which grew from a humble 2D car stealing simulator to the vibrant organised crime simulator today. Indeed this is how most open world games progress, starting out with a core idea that then has a bigger and better world built around it as the successive titles roll on. Watch_Dogs is no exception to this, with its core idea focusing heavily on hacking, enabling your character almost superpower like qualities. Whilst the execution of this idea has drawn ire from those who bought heavily into the hype Watch_Dogs is one of the better first entries into the open world genre, something which should be expected from the veteran open world developer Ubisoft Montreal.
Aiden Pearce is a man tormented by his past, the guilt of his niece losing her life instead of his in a botched assassination attempt has weighed heavily and he’s spent every one of his waking moments since then looking for answers. He’s not beyond reproach however as the guilt has clouded his sense of right and wrong, instead dealing out his own brand of justice wherever, and to whomever, he deems fit. Inevitably this comes back around to him and he is forced into doing things lest more harm befall those he cares about. The tale of his journey from here on out is one of obsession fueled by a passion to right what’s wrong with the world with no regard to the cost to himself.
If you’ve read anything about Watch_Dogs recently there’s been numerous complaints about how the graphics don’t seem to be up to the same standard as they were in the E3 demo. As someone who’s playing on a 3 year old PC I felt the graphics were around the same standard as what I’ve come to expect from most open world games which is to say that, compared to the video, mine certainly don’t look as good. However I feel we should most likely temper our expectations since that was shown as a demo and was likely running on a hardware system that few would have running. That follows on to why it probably looks sub-par on consoles as whilst they’re powerful machines for the money you’ll spend they just can’t match a PC for raw grunt. That being said my console playing brother said it looked great on the XboxOne and had no graphical issues at all so it seems your mileage may vary considerably.
True to its open world genre Watch_Dogs has a lot of things packed into it, from mechanics to skills to the numerous side missions, mini-games and unlockable content. The star mechanic of Watch_Dogs is, of course, the hacking which is best described as a real world superpower that allows you to do all manner of things that regular people simply can’t. The hacking also extends to your car, something you’ll be making heavy use of since you won’t be able to use your guns whilst driving. The combat is your typical 3rd person shooter affair with your arsenal of weapons being extremely varied and including hacking inspired augments that can give you the edge when you’re grossly outnumbered. Should you find yourself bored with the campaign you can take part in the numerous NPC side missions or, if you’re so inclined, invade another player’s game and battle against them for notoriety points. There’s also dozens of unlockable cars, weapons and even songs for you to listen to in your car, enough that even the most venerable achievement hunter will likely give up before they get them all.
One of the biggest aspects in open world games is how the world feels as early versions of Grand Theft Auto had a very lonely vibe to them, almost post-apocalyptic like given the lack of people and cars that were around. For me Watch_Dogs felt about as alive as Grand Theft Auto did although I’ve heard many say that it feels no where near the same. Whilst the city does have a lot of detail in it the variance of the people is a little on the low side as I can’t tell you how many times I ran into the same group of beatboxers throughout the city. On the flip side the little profile descriptions you get for everyone are extremely varied which is a nice little touch. Indeed I think the lack of detail in some areas is due to the wide variety of detail in others which is a classic symptom of time constraints, something Watch_Dogs was unfortunately plagued with.
You’ll be doing a lot of driving in Watch_Dogs which is a little bit unfortunate as it’s probably one of the lesser aspects of the game. The initial cars you get access to all feel like boats, being incredibly sluggish to respond and even less so when there’s several police cars ramming into the back of you. Thankfully the later cars go a long way to improve this but then it becomes a choice of driving a flimsy, well handling car and something that can take a beating which retains that god awful boat like feeling. In all honesty I’m not that surprised that the driving is sub-par, it’s an incredibly hard thing to get right, however if you’re going to rely on that to be your player’s main way of getting from point A to point B you’d better make sure it’s enjoyable. I’m sure subsequent sequels of Watch_Dogs will improve on this dramatically as this is Ubisoft Montreal’s first game to prominently feature driving as a mechanic.
Combat feels much like any other 3rd person shooter with your typical infinitely regenerating health and aiming systems I’m sure need some assistance when used on a console. Most encounters are done in 2 phases: the first being the part where you stealth around, take out as many enemies as you please and generally cause havoc. Most of the time this will result in you getting detected and a firefight will break out although if you’re careful there are numerous times when that can be avoided altogether. To Ubisoft Montreal’s credit the stealth system is well thought out and the majority of the times I was detected were due to me not being careful enough, rather than the NPCs having eyes where they shouldn’t. For the most part it’s challenging and satisfying, with the short reload times ensuring that you’re not left waiting long to fix your mistakes.
The “hacking” mechanic is essentially a power that your character has, enabling you to do certain things to the city due to it all being interconnected via a giant system called ctOS. Your powers are rather limited to begin with, being able to hack cameras and traffic lights, but as you level up all manner of crazy powers will be bestowed upon you. Some of them are plausible, like the ability to raise/lower road blockers, whilst others, like blowing up steam pipes, are almost enough to be called magic. The hacking mini games are just an elaborate puzzle sequence, one which can usually be figured out rather easily through trial and error. All in all it’s a solid idea to base the game around however having one button to execute everything makes the powers feel a little too easy to use. Maybe a short quicktime event (I can’t believe I’m writing this) would be sufficient to make the powers feel a little more impactful as right now they make you feel like a script kiddie rather than an elite hacker.
The levelling and progression system strikes the right balance of progression and choice, giving you enough points to get something in everything very quickly and then forcing you to make hard decisions about which way you want to build your character. The unlockable system also feels rather well done as should you want to unlock the new abilities typically it will be the first or second one you’ll get, meaning you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time grinding missions to unlock them. Achievement hunters on the other hand will have a lot of work ahead of them as the myriad of guns and cars available to unlock will likely have them clearing out whole city sections before finishing off a chapter in the campaign.
Like most open world games there’s a bunch of emergent behaviour in Watch_Dogs, some of it good and some of it bad. There’s always the hilarious situations you can cause by changing traffic lights (even when you’re not being chased by the police) and the AI sometimes reacts in the strangest ways to your presence, like random NPC cars running each other off the road should you come a little bit too close to one of them. At the same time I’ve had several missions that I had to restart at a checkpoint due to things like destructible terrain blocking my path, my character’s ragdoll physics glitching out causing him to get stuck on the ground or things not spawning (or the wrong things spawning) preventing me from going on. It probably happened about half a dozen times throughout my playthrough so it’s nothing major but I’ve heard the issues are magnified somewhat on older consoles.
The story of Watch_Dogs deals with a lot of very mature themes however some aspects of it do feel like they ring hollow. Thinking back on it there were a lot of characters that the story seemed to assume that I’d have some kind of empathy for but, and I’m not sure if this is a function of me playing mostly campaign missions, I feel like they didn’t have sufficient screentime to justify it. There are some shining moments though with Aiden embracing his anti-hero qualities with gusto however they seem to get undone almost instantly in the scenes that follow. The lack of player choice and influence on the story will also annoy some but that’s not something I’ll fault Watch_Dogs for. All being said it’s passable, especially for a first entry into a new IP and genre for the developer, and hopefully future instalments can build on this in order to make the story much more engrossing.
Watch_Dogs is a great first entry into a new open world IP, building around a solid core mechanic and adding in all the things that we’ve come to expect from games in this genre. The combat, progression systems and hacking mechanics are all well done, providing dozens of hours of challenge and rewards for even the most seasoned achievement hunter. The driving leaves something to be desired and will likely be the biggest let down for open world fans who are still coming down from their GTA high. The story reaches a little far beyond its grasp, lacking the appropriate amount of buildup to elicit the emotional conclusion they were looking for, however it should serve as a decent base for the subsequent releases. All in all Watch_Dogs is a great first entry into this new series, one I feel that’s only going to get stronger as time goes on.
Watch_Dogs is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $89.95, $99.95, $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on PC with approximately 16 hours of total play time with 44% of the achievements unlocked.