Before Heavy Rain you’d struggle to find anyone who knew about Quantic Dream and the types of games they create. They were a little ahead of themselves with the concept when they released Fahrenheit back in 2005 being largely ignored by the gamer populace even though it received wide critical acclaim. Since then however they have developed a solid reputation for developing games that dispense with game play in favour of creating a deep, rich story whilst also teasing everyone endlessly with their technology demonstrations. Beyond: Two Souls is their latest release which goes back to their roots in paranormal thrillers done in their signature cinematic style.
On the surface Jodie appears to be just like anyone else but ever since she was born she has been tied to another entity that she only knows as Aiden. For a long time that’s all he was, just a presence that was always there watching over her. However over time he developed the ability to interact with the real world and, like the caged animal he was, he began to lash out at every opportunity. This had caught the attention of the CIA who, of course, were looking to exploit this potential power for their own ends. Like anyone else all Jodie wanted was to be part of the regular world but her attachment to Aiden made sure that would never happen.
Quantic Dream have really outdone themselves with Beyond: Two Souls as it aptly demonstrates what the PlayStation3 is capable of. The graphics are simply phenomenal showing that the 3 years since their previous release have been spent pushing the hardware to its limits. The biggest improvements come from the small things that add on exceptional bits of realism like the way skin looks and moves or the way tears roll down the character’s face. It all runs smoothly as well although that’s mostly due to the restricted nature of most of the environments. It allows for a lot of detail but you’re not going to be play in wide expansive environments that are teaming with NPCs.
Beyond: Two Souls retains Quantic Dream’s signature interactive film style with you spending quite a lot of time being in the back seat to the action that’s happening on screen. The dialogue choice system hasn’t changed dramatically, offering up a variety of options which you can choose from and that will influence how the story progresses. The combat sections have been reworked slightly and puts a little more guesswork into completing the interactions successfully. The addition of the Aiden mechanic adds a completely different perspective to the game and also allows for some pretty novel and interesting game play.
From what I can remember of Heavy Rain you, for the most part, got unlimited time in which to make the decision about which dialogue option you chose. Beyond: Two Souls on the other hand will often begin to fade the choices out after a small period of time, leaving you with only a single option which will be automatically selected for you. I will admit that this helps with pacing as you can sometimes be paralysed by choice but you can sometimes end up regretting taking to long to think about what you wanted to say. Of course this also means that subsequent play throughs could be quite rewarding as even when you get to choose the options you want there are still many others that you’d potentially want to see.
The combat/quick time event system has been changed significantly with the the visual cues being almost completely removed. For combat sequences you’re now instructed to follow Jodie’s motion on screen using the right analogue stick. This does eliminate the majority of the rather immersion breaking pop-ups that alert you to what button you need to press however it also adds a layer of ambiguity to what action you need to perform. It’s relatively forgiving as I often found myself getting things right when I was pretty sure I just mashed the stick in a random direction however I just as often found myself getting it wrong when I was sure I got it right.
There are still times when you’ll be pressing buttons, holding down combinations of them or doing things with the controller that the prompts on screen are telling you to do although they’re usually regulated to the non-action sequences. Its also during these sequences that you’ll go hunting around for white dots which detail something you can interact with which also suffer from the not-so-precise detection method of pointing with the right analogue stick. Whilst I don’t have a better system in mind it does feel like it’s somewhat pointless for some sections.
The biggest deviation away from Quantic Dream’s traditional style is the inclusion of the Aiden mechanic, a disembodied spirit that has the ability to go through walls, throw things around and even kill or possess people should the need arise. For the most part he functions as another puzzle mechanic, allowing the developers to create rather intricate puzzles that require some lateral thinking in order to complete. You’re also given a little bit of choice as to how you play Aiden as you can either make him out to be the benevolent watcher or the dick that attempts to screw with every aspect of Jodie’s life. For the most part the game seems to encourage you to be a dick, making abstaining a torturous exercise.
Aiden also functions as the writer’s get out of jail free card as whilst his powers are initially limited to throwing things around it becomes evident that he’s really some kind of all powerful demi-god who can do pretty much anything he wants. Whilst this allows them to put Jodie in a whole host of situations that would otherwise be somewhat unbelievable it does make you question why some things happen to her and some don’t. Thankfully though Aiden isn’t a complete deus ex machina but it remove a good chunk of believability to the game, even for someone like me who’s able suspend disbelief in aid of a good story.
From a story perspective Quantic Dream has done an amazing job of bringing these characters to life; no small part of which is due to the amazing acting by the Ellen Page and William Dafoe. It says a lot that all the emotions I felt whilst playing came rushing back while I was reviewing my footage for screenshots, my heart aching for the pain they endured. Even though I was satisfied with my initial play through I still feel like there’s another side to this game that I’ve yet to experience due to the wide range of dialogue options available. This means that just like Heavy Rain before it Beyond: Two Souls is a game that will reward subsequent playthroughs. even if the overall story is known.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
However I feel like Quantic dream kind of screwed up the relationships in Beyond: Two Souls, specifically with Ryan. Whilst Joide makes it clear that she thinks she might be falling for him initially it appears that he’s not completely interested in her, especially considering how he left after she had a flashback to when she was almost raped. The confession then of how he loves her, and indeed in the final scenes when he continues to say he loves her, seem tacked on and hollow. The other relationships by comparison have deep and rich back stories to them that develop over the course of the game and I actually felt something for them, even if some of them were a little shallow. Its possible that I might have felt more if I had pursued the relationship further and its definitely one of the reasons that I’m considering a second play through.
Beyond: Two Souls reaffirms Quantic Dream’s domination of the cinmeatic game genre, pushing highly interactive gameplay aside in favour of deep and engrossing story that comes alive thanks to the brilliant acting of all the characters. It’s also a return to their roots in fantasy, almost feeling like a spiritual successor to Fahrenheit, and whilst it does suffer a little bit because of this I still find it hard to find fault with it. If you’ve ever played a Quantic Dream game and enjoyed it then you simply can not go past Beyond: Two Souls as it aptly demonstrates just how good they are at building titles like this.
Beyond: Two Souls is available exclusively on PlayStation 3 right now for $78. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
Much to the chagrin of many of my friends I haven’t really got into the whole Walking Dead craze that seemed to sweep the Internet over the past couple years, mostly because my wife went ahead and started watching them without me. Couple that with the fact that I’m a terrible reader (I only seem to find time for it on long haul flights) I have also given the comics on which the whole craze is based a miss. I tell you this because The Walking Dead game seemed to attract just as much fandom as the IP’s other incarnations but that was most certainly not the reason I decided to play it. Instead I had heard that Telltale Games had done well with this particular franchise and since their treatment of Sam & Max was pretty decent I figured the hype was probably well earned.
The Walking Dead takes place in modern day America with you playing as Lee Everett, a university professor who’s been recently convicted of killing his wife’s lover and is on his way to jail. On the way however the police car you’re in hits an unidentified person sending the car tumbling over the embankment and leaving you trapped in the car. After looking around it’s clear that something is amiss with the officer who was driving you rising from the dead and attempting to attack you. Things only seem to get worse from here on out as you struggle to survive and protect the few people you manage to team up with.
Whilst I haven’t played many Telltale games (although I’ve watched someone play through most of the Sam & Max series) I still got the feeling that their titles had a distinctive style and The Walking Dead certainly fits in with that idea. Due to the extreme cross platform nature of The Walking Dead the graphics aren’t particularly great but the heavy use of comic-book stylization (I’ve seen people say its cel-shaded but I’m not entirely sure about that) means that it still works well. The animations and sound effects are somewhat rudimentary but this is made up in spades by the voice acting which I’ll touch on more later.
Whilst The Walking Dead is more like an interactive movie with game elements the core game mechanics are those of an adventure game coupled with a few modern innovations like quick time events to drive some of the more action oriented sections. If you’ve played other titles in the same genre like Heavy Rain then this style will be very familiar to you where the game play elements are there to serve as a break from the usually quite intense story sections. Of course decisions you make during these sections can also have an impact on how the story unfolds, something which The Walking Dead informs you of at the start of every episode.
Even for a modern adventure game the puzzles that are thrown at you are rather simplistic usually consisting of you tracking down a particular item or following the bouncing ball in order to progress to the next area. Some of the puzzles are also completely optional, as far as I could tell, as there were a couple times when I’d do things that didn’t seem to have any impact past the scene in question. For a game that is heavily focused on the story rather than the game play I can’t really fault it for this as hard puzzles usually only serve to break immersion and frustrate the player but if you were expecting The Longest Journey level brain ticklers than you’ll be disappointed.
What I was thankful for was the simplistic inventory system that shied away from having some form of combine or use one item with another item type mechanic that a lot of games like this have. Usually this just ends up in frustration as you try to find the right item combination in order to solve the problem, something that I’m not usually a fan of. Instead if you have an item that can interact with something in the world it’ll show up as an option taking a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. Sure figuring something out can be fun and The Walking Dead certainly has some satisfying challenges but playing inventory item roulette isn’t one of them.
The Walking Dead is, for the most part, bug and glitch free however I had several occasions when the game broke on me in one way or another. Typically this took the form of the keyboard or mouse simply not responding during an interactive section, rendering me unable to progress any further until I reloaded. This wasn’t usually a problem but sometimes it did mean losing a bit of progress, forcing me to replay through a section. By far the worst bug was when a particular cut scene somehow managed to double itself up with all the characters saying their lines twice over the top of each other and the animations attempting to do the same. Personally I’d put this down to the multi-platform release which means that the amount of time that Telltale could spend on QAing each platform was reduced significantly. In all honesty though I thought most of these bugs would be ironed out given the time since the initial release.
Realistically though you wouldn’t be playing this game for the game mechanics, you’ll be playing it for the story. The Walking Dead tells you in no uncertain terms that the choices you make will affect the outcome of the game and that’s 100% true. Depending on the choices you make certain characters may or may not be alive, people might react to you differently or you might end up in a situation that you didn’t expect to find yourself in. At the end of each episode you’ll also be greeted with a statistic screen which shows how your choices lined up with the greater community and the results can be rather surprising at times.
What really got me initially were the small decisions that I’d make in the heat of the moment having drastic repercussions later on, sometimes right after doing so. Traditionally your choices in these kinds of games were almost irrelevant due to the complexity of creating multiple story arcs that have some level of coherency. The Walking Dead still has decisions like that at times during the game but it’s hard to know which one is which before you make it. I can’t tell you the number of times that I found myself wanting to go back and change something because the result wasn’t what I had expected but since there’s no quick save/load function (a deliberate omission) there’s really no way to do it unless you want to play the whole episode over again. Even then you might not be able to shape the story in the way you want.
I also want to give a lot of credit to the voice acting as it’s not easy to make something fully voice acted and have it come out as well as it has in The Walking Dead. Whilst there can be some strange fluctuations in tone should you choose different types of responses (Lee usually has passive, neutral and aggressive options) the sound bites themselves are well spoken and full of emotion which is probably one of the reasons I found it so easy to sympathize with the characters. There’s been quite a few games I’ve played recently that have been ruined by sub-par voice actors so The Walking Dead was a welcome change and one that I hope more game developers take note of.
The story was one of the great examples where I could hate everything that was happening but still felt a deep emotional connection to most of the characters. The relationship between Lee and Clem is a beautiful one and whilst I won’t spoil the ending anyone who’s been through it will tell you that it’s utterly heart breaking, to the point where I was just staring at the monitor, not wanting to accept what was happening. From what I can gather though this is what The Walking Dead franchise is all about and it does a damn good job of making you care for a lot of people before putting them through all sorts of hell, taking you along with them.
The Walking Dead is a great example of an episodic game done right as each of the sections stands well on its own but together they form something that is very much greater than the sum of its parts. The graphics are simple yet well executed, the voice acting superb and the story so engrossing that you’re likely to be thinking “what if” for a long time to come after you finish it. If you’re a fan of adventure games or The Walking Dead itself then there’s going to be a lot to love in this cinematic adventure game and I can recommend it enough.
The Walking Dead is available on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and iOS right now for $24.99, $29.99, $29.99 and $14.99. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours played and 100% of the achievements unlocked.
The number of games that find success on one platform and then spread to others has trended upwards significantly over the past couple years. If I was to hazard a guess as to why this is I’d have to say that the tooling available is probably the primary reason as many of the games that make the transition are Xbox Live Arcade titles. For that we can thank the Microsoft XNA framework which does a lot of the heavy lifting for the developers meaning that the only thing holding back a cross platform release is reworking the UI/controls for a different platform. That’s still a challenge which is why you don’t see every single XBLA game instantly on the PC but even a modicum of success will usually mean a PC release not long after. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is one such title having found wild success late last year and then debuting on the PC this year.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (I’m going to abbreviate this to ITSP from now on) takes place in a far off galaxy in a solar system inhabited with a highly advanced race of aliens. Everything seems peachy until a tangled black mass rockets through their home system, eventually crashing into their sun. Instead of being instantly vaporized however it appears to take over the sun itself, forming a kind of Dyson Sphere around it. Then it launches several other replicants of itself at all the planets in the system that perform much the same function as the original asteroid did. You then take it upon yourself to rid your solar system of this menace, jumping in your hilariously stereotypical UFO and heading out with nothing much more than a scanner and a vendetta.
Right off the bat ITSP sets itself apart from all the other 2D puzzlers I’ve played recently by having some incredible cinematic direction. Whilst games like Unmechanical did the majority of their story telling through the game itself ITSP does quite a bit in some incredibly well directed cutscenes. Indeed the initial plot summary I gave you above all takes place within one such scene and everything about it, from the choice of artwork to the awesomely epic soundtrack, just made it feel like it was ripped directly from a high budget animated movie. That artistic style continues on throughout the game and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable things about ITSP.
ITSP brands itself as a “multi-directional shooter” however I feel like it’s far more appropriately classified as a 2D puzzler with shooter aspects. While you will spend a good amount of time firing at all the various enemies that will try to get you in all sorts of random ways the majority of your time will be spent solving some kind of puzzle. They’re not mutually exclusive things either as quite often you’ll be force to try and solve some kind of puzzle whilst under fire from all directions making what would be a simple encounter much more challenging. The two core game mechanics blend well together making for both exciting and challenging game play.
Initially you start off with just a few simple tools with which to complete your tasks. The first tool you’re given is a scanner which allows you to investigate objects in ITSP and then get a visual cue as to what you need to do in order to interact with it. This is extremely helpful as if you get stuck on at a particular stage you’re usually only a couple scans from working out what the intended solution is. Of course there are still some puzzles that are non-obvious even with those little clues but suffice to say that it serves well as a built in hint system that doesn’t feel like the answers are being handed to you on a plate.
As you progress on the tools you have at your disposal increase with every passing section leading to more and more complicated puzzles. In all I believe there were a grand total of 8 different tools at your disposal each of them with a unique ability that unlocks another section of the ITSP map. You’ll often find yourself flying past obstacles that you can scan but don’t yet have the tool to access it giving you a kind of foreboding as to what is to come later on.
The puzzles are, for the most part, quite well done as there’s a good balance between challenge and progression. Indeed if you’re struggling with a particular puzzle or boss fight then its usually because you’re not understanding the mechanics properly or you’re going about it in a really odd way. There are some challenges that are far less fun than others (I’m looking at you, rocket in a maze where you can’t hit the walls) but I didn’t often find myself stuck on a particular section for long which made the game feel a lot better paced than some other games in similar genres.
ITSP does have a few glitches that I believe are worth mentioning however. So to the developer’s credit they included a map that helps you navigate your way around ITSP, which is good. However should you go into said map whilst you’re holding something in the claw tool or holding a key down you will drop said object or that key you were holding down will stop working. It’s not game breaking but it is rather annoying when you’re in the later stages of the game where you’re required to drag an item along with you all the time and there’s not a lot of light so you have to keep checking your map to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Yes I know that you can use the power wheel thing to get a direction queue but that has the unfortunate side effect of changing whatever tool you had equipped at the time which can be deadly if you do it at the wrong time.
The physics are also a little wonky for some of the challenges, the most notable being the one above. Again it’s not game breaking but trying to get those damn crystals into the holes (or indeed anything that requires a little precision) is fraught with difficulties. ITSP does have a rudimentary snap-to system which works for something but not others and the crystals in the ice stage appear to be one of the things it doesn’t work for. It might make sense when you’re using a controller however I don’t know anyone who’s played this on the Xbox so I’m not completely sure of that.
The boss fights are equal parts fun and challenging with each of the bosses being unique in their own weird way. The one above was probably the most challenging boss fight of the lot as one mistake or slip up could easily see your ship ruined long before you had enough time to react. They were a very good way to break up the relative monotony of flying around, solving puzzles and looking for hidden stashes and it’s something that a lot of similar games forego because they simply can’t be worked in well. ITSP however does a very good job with them and they were definitely my favourite combat challenge.
ITSP’s story is a simple affair when taken on face value and really I’m not sure if there’s much more depth intended by the developers. Sure there are many themes that you could say are explored (invasion, uprising, etc.) however since there’s no real backstory or explanation behind the vast majority of things that happen within ITSP I can’t say that I was playing it for the plot. Thankfully it doesn’t matter that much as the game play and cinematic quality of ITSP carries it without the need for an in depth storyline.
ITSP was one of those unexpected gems that I came across by chance when I was in a hurried state looking for the next week’s game review. It’s cinematic cut scenes are a joy to watch, it’s game play is fun and varied and there are only a few issues that detract from it overall. Its short length also make for a good Sunday afternoon distraction that doesn’t drag on unnecessarily. If you’re a fan of 2D puzzlers or shooters or just enjoy a well crafted game then I can’t recommend ITSP enough as it really is just damn good fun.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $14.99 and 800 Microsoft points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.6 hours of total game time.
I’m not exactly known for going against the main stream view of a game but for what its worth my opinion is (mostly) formed based on the merits of the game itself rather than the popular opinion of the time. This became painfully apparent after my Dear Esther review and despite my assurances that I was able to put game play aside for a good story (like I’ve done several times before) I feel that many people who read that review don’t believe I’m capable of identifying a good story. Then I came across Journey, yet another game that tentatively pushed at the boundaries of the “game” definition and I thought this could be my redeeming grace. Of course Journey is nothing like Dear Esther as there’s no question as to its status as a game and what a game it is.
Journey opens up with you, a nameless and near faceless individual, standing in front of a vast desert. Apart from some vague imagery of what appears to be a star falling to the ground there’s not much more of an introduction. You’re then given control and shown the basics of movement using the PS3’s motion controls as well as the tried and true dual joysticks. Journey then leverages off your past game experience to drive you to the next goal (a close by hill) upon which the ultimate goal is shown, a giant mountain from which a pillar of light is emanating. You will spend the rest of the game attempting to reach that point.
The art direction of Journey had me first thinking that most of it was cell shaded but it is in fact just heavily stylized. Whilst the characters and scenery are usually quite simple the environment which you play through is quite vibrant and dynamic, especially for a place like a vast desert. At the same time the foley and sound direction is magnificent as they compliment the visuals quite aptly. Indeed one of the best aspects of Journey is the seemingly perfect combination of visuals and sounds, timed perfectly to evoke your emotions in a certain way at specific times.
Whilst the game play of Journey is undeniably there, thus firmly separating it from other experimental titles, it’s quite simplistic yet thoroughly satisfying. If I’m honest I went into this expecting Dear Esther levels of game play: I.E. nothing much more than exploration. You’ll spend a great deal of time in Journey exploring the areas but that’s far from the main game play mechanic which centres heavily around the idea that you main character can fly, albeit for a limited time.
The little tassel on the back of your character is your flight timer. You can jump and then fly to great heights but as you do the symbols on your tail start to burn away. When they’re depleted you’ll fall back to the ground and you’ll have to look for places to recharge it. Thankfully these are plentiful, either taking the the form of stationary points or animated cloth animals that will follow you around, recharging you as you go. You can also increase the length of your flight time by finding glowing orbs that are scattered around the place and the end of each level will let you know how many of the potential orbs you collected before carrying on.
Where Journey really starts to shine however is when other people start accompanying you on your journey. I remember my first encounter clearly: after finishing a level and proceeding to walk through a long hallway to the next I spotted movement off in the distance. I was going to back track to look for more orbs but the way the figure moved seemed… different to everything else. Excited I followed after them and when I got to them it was clear that there was another person behind that controller. Where it really got interesting though was when we tried to communicate to each other, being limited to only short bursts of sound. This meant that cooperating had to be somewhat instinctive, but you’d be surprised how much you can say with only a simple means of communication at your hands.
The multiplayer aspect, whilst not an essential part of the game play, does lend itself to some awesome emergent game play. When your characters are close to each other you slowly recharge each other’s flight time and you can recover it fully with single communication ability you have. This means your flight time can be extended indefinitely if you and your partner work together allowing you to gather many of the glowing orbs thus increasing your flight time again. Towards the end I had an extremely long tassel that allowed me and my partner to reach unfathomably large heights with relative ease. This made many parts of the game much easier and also served as something of a bragging right when I was joined by someone with a shorter tassel.
Journey has not a single line of dialogue, instead relying on cut scenes that tell a story through a series of brilliantly done hieroglyphics. They didn’t make a terrible amount of sense for me at the start but as you progress a grand story of a society that rose from the desert only to fall down again. The pictures start off in retrospective, highlighting things that had happened in the past that lead up to the world as it exists today. About half way through the hieroglyphs start turning prophetic, telling a story that seems to be eerily close to yours as it is happening right now.
Ultimately the story that’s told without a whiff of dialogue or text is amazingly satisfying. Whilst its not a gripping emotional conclusion that I’ve felt for similar story based games in the past it’s definitely fulfilling and thankfully steered clear from any notion that there might be a Journey 2 (and however they’d follow up Journey is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader). Showing you the names of people you shared your journey with along the way is a really nice touch and I was devastated when I found out that my video capture software had crapped out halfway through and those names were lost to the ages.
Realistically the only fault I can level at Journey is the price as at $20 on a game that I can’t share with my friends that only lasts 2 hours seems a tad steep. I’m sure it will eventually come down a bit in price and there’ll be something of a renaissance of people playing Journey again but until then I wonder how many are willing to take the rather steep plunge to play through it.
There’s few games that have made me smile the way Journey did, both at the beginning with a child like wonder at the amazing world that was presented before me to the ultimate conclusion that was a beautiful metaphor for the grand cycle of life and death. Everything about Journey just seems to meld together so well, from the art to the music to the game play. I could go on but realistically Journey is something that you need to experience for yourself.
Journey is available on PS3 exclusively right now for $20. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.