Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
When I reviewed Inside last year I remarked that Playdead had modernised the formula they pioneered with Limbo many years prior. With Limbo it took many years before other games seeking to emulate the style would come out and I had expected similar with Inside. However here we are barely a year later and we have a game that, on first glance, seems to be heavily influenced by Inside both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Indeed even digging into the game’s development history you see how heavily Playdead’s games influence Black the Fall, with the original bearing an uncanny resemblance to Limbo and the subsequent versions looking a lot more like Inside. Of course emulating greatness doesn’t mean that you’ll attain it and whilst Black the Fall is good simulacrum of a Playdead game it fails to attain the same heights as that developer’s titles do.
Black the Fall transports you back to an alt-history communist Romania, putting you in charge of an old machinist who’s lived in the oppressive regime for decades. However today he decides that enough is enough and it is time to make his escape. Along the way he discovers an unlikely companion: a small robot who was caged up and left behind to rust. Will their quest to escape their oppressive leaders be successful? Or will the world devour them before they ever get the chance.
Black the Fall has the unmistakable Unity game feel, lacking the finesse that other titles have in hiding the telltale signs that the default engine configuration leaves behind. The low poly/cartoony look is very reminiscent of Inside, as is the use of a fixed camera that pans around the environment for cinematic effect. Truth be told the Inside-esque visuals were what drew me to the game in the first place and whilst they might not be up to the same standard they are most certainly a step above similar Unity based titles. What could really use some love is the animations, especially the main character. Looking at them closely they all have the signs of hand-animation, something which is honestly a rarity to see these days. Considering that all you need is a Kinect to get decent motion capture data I’m not sure why you’d go the manual route these days.
Unsurprisingly the game play of Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer. Pretty much all the puzzles are single rooms with everything required to solve them available in the one spot. None of them are very complex and thankfully the time limited puzzles are limited. The tutorial for mechanics are cleverly hidden in various signs and artefacts that make up the game’s background, meaning that every time a new mechanic is introduced you should have a general idea of how it functions. For myself there were a few instances where the developer’s logic didn’t gel with mine however most of those could be put down to me misinterpreting various visual cues. There’s really not much more to Black the Fall than that and for the most part it’s executed well.
There is some issues with the hit detection however which can cause an incredible amount of frustration. One section in particular, the one in the factory where you have to avoid being cut into strips by big spinning blades, stands out in my mind. At the end it’s obvious you have to jump onto an overhanging bar to proceed. However just jumping straight up isn’t sufficient, you have to do a running jump. “That’s obvious!” I hear you say, well it’s not when your character’s jump height doesn’t appear to visually change between a running and standing jump, but it does in the code behind. Other sections had similar issues with my character not latching onto ledges, refusing to interact with objects and other slight annoyances which made otherwise simple sections horrendously irritating. I’d like to say that a little more dev time could have polished over these rough edges but Black the Fall was already released 2 years after their original Kickstarter promised delivery date.
The story likely has more of an impact for those who lived under such regimes but for someone like me there wasn’t much to appreciate. Sure, I can understand the oppression that these regimes imposed on their people but Black the Fall doesn’t provide a new perspective on the matter. Instead it’s your run of the mill escape the oppressive regime story, one that doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. In this case the addition of a narrator or something else to give a deeper insight into what was happening on screen could have done much to improve player immersion and the emotional impact of the story. As it stands Black the Fall doesn’t do much of anything, at least not for this writer.
Black the Fall pays homage to Playdead’s masterful side-scrollers but does little to push that genre forward itself. The graphics, whilst retaining some of the default Unity engine’s branding, are a solid emulation of the Playdead style although the animations could use some work. The mechanics are simple, and, for the most part well implemented save for some hit detection issues that plague certain sections. The story may resonate for some but does little to show an unique perspective on well trodden ground. Overall Black the Fall is an adequate game but one that stays firmly in the shadows of the games it seeks to emulate.
Black the Fall is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.2 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.
Once your average game development house find some success they tend to stay on the same track. Even in the indie scene, which is ripe with games that explore every niche possible in the gaming medium, you’ll see developers stick to a formula once they know they have an audience for it. However there are a few developers which, for better or for worse, branch out with every new release. Tequila Works, who previously brought us the survival horror game Deadlight, is very much in the latter category as their latest game RiME is nothing like anything they’ve released before. Whilst it might not be the most original idea (indeed I think we’ve had enough games in the “young child lost in ancient ruins” genre that it’s something of a stereotype) it is exceptionally well executed.
You wash ashore, the waves lapping at your feet and the sounds of a tropical island echoing in the distance. What lays before you is an island of ruins, the marks of a civilisation that has long since fallen dotting the landscape. In the distance stands a great tower, looming over the picturesque landscape below. Your memories of how you came to be here at hazy and there’s an ever present feeling that someone is watching you from a distance. This island and its mysterious tower hold the secrets to your past and, eventually, your future.
RiME’s cartoon-esque style comes from its cel-shading which typically goes hand in hand with low-poly work. RiME is most certainly not a low-poly piece however as after I cranked everything up to its maximum my system turned into a slideshow. As the screenshots will attest to though you can see that RiME is making good use of all the grunt you can throw at it with its large, expansive environments that are all lavished with details and modern effects. There were a couple sections where performance dropped through the floor although I’m not 100% sure if that was due to me alt-tabbing out or not. Also worth mentioning is the absolutely amazing soundtrack and foley work that coincides with RiME’s impressive visuals, something that is often overlooked in similar games.
RiME is a 3D platformer/puzzler, pitting you against a variety of challenges that you’ll need to beat to progress to the next section. It’s a linear game in terms of progression, meaning that there’s no backtracking through previous puzzles with new abilities in order to unlock something that was previously unavailable. Mechanically all the puzzles are straightforward and self-contained, rarely requiring you to go far away from the current area in order to solve them. However exploration is still very much encouraged as there are various things to collect scattered all over the place, the purposes of which aren’t made clear to you until the very end. Overall RiME is a very simplistic game, one that would have you focus more on the overall experience rather than any one aspect of the game itself.
As there are no real progression mechanics to speak of all of the puzzles in RiME build up in difficulty based on your understanding of the mechanics it presents to you. Initially the puzzles are simple, putting this block there or getting a NPC to do something for you, but over time you’ll be introduced to different mechanics which you’ll need to understand fully as the game goes on. RiME makes clever use of mechanics like perspective, day/night cycles and sound, all of which can be combined together in a variety of different ways. RiME shies away from making anything too complex or deliberately challenging although there are some sections (like the one where everything gets non-euclidean for a spell) which I can see some players getting stuck on.
For the most part the puzzles are intuitive although the game does have some issues when it comes to visual signalling. As an example not all surfaces are climbable and, whilst climbable ones are marked, there are some you can climb that aren’t marked (which are required to solve the puzzle). This becomes more apparent when you start exploring to find secrets and other hidden things as there’s numerous (unintentional, I believe) false flags scattered around. Now I’m not usually one to go object hunting in these kinds of games so I may be a bit more critical of these kinds of things than other reviewers may be but it was enough that I gave up on it after only an hour or so into my play through.
RiME tells its story visually with no dialogue to speak of. Whilst you get the general gist of what brought you to the island early on the nuances of the story are left until much later in the game. The ultimate reveal of RiME, whilst a powerful statement in its own right, probably required a bit more development of certain story aspects for it to have the impact it was aspiring to. Don’t get me wrong, RiME certainly had its heart wrenching moments for me, however I feel like the conclusion (which came together in the last 30 mins or so) needed a bit more time to develop to ensure that I was fully invested. Still the journey to that end was an enjoyable one.
RiME is a beautiful, well executed puzzle game from a game developer that continues to demonstrate their ability to innovate. The cel-shaded environments belie the incredible amount of detail throughout the game which, if you’re not careful, can bring even the most beastly of gaming PCs to its knees. Mechanically RiME is simple, putting the focus on the overall experience rather than challenging puzzles. The story, told visually without dialogue, is done well although its ultimate conclusion needed more development to have the impact it desired. If for nothing else RiME is worth playing just for how well everything is put together as the music, mechanics and visuals all work together beautifully.
RiME is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.
The question of “Are games art?” has been asked long before the indie renaissance. However it comes up more frequently now that more games attempt to explore the idea. Indeed there are many games that take their inspiration from various other forms of artistic expression, reinforcing the idea that at least some games could be considered art. Bound draws inspiration from the abstract art movement and modern dance, combining them into a kind of surreal platformer. I have to admit to putting this one on the back burner for quite some time due to its release being so close to many AAA titles. Whilst I don’t think this needs to be on everyone’s must-play lists I am glad I went back and played it as it is one of the more interesting experiences of last year.
You play as the unnamed princess of a blocky, abstract world. There is a monster that is destroying you mother’s kingdom, wrecking havoc on everything. Your mother charges you with finding the saviour, the only one who can save your world from this monster. All of this however is just a retrospective view of the real world, a surreal reflection of the events that happened in your childhood. The metaphors used throughout this game are your way of dealing with those events and what that means for your future is up to you to decide.
Bound is visually stunning; its utilisation of simple geometry and low-poly modelling at a grand scale giving it a style that’s not like any other. The environment reacts to your every move with your footing shifting uneasily at your feet and a sea of cubes undulating around you. It takes some getting used to as the twitchy environment is reminiscent of other games where that would form part of the challenge. Bound instead takes a much more relaxed approached to platforming and so the jittery terrain is simply a visual aspect, nothing more. Surprisingly even with the extremely busy visuals Bound manages to stay at a near constant 60fps even on my last gen PlayStation 4 hardware. As someone who has the hardware to see the difference I can say it’s most certainly appreciated.
At a game play level Bound is a relatively simple platformer with generous edge detection that will stop you from falling off the edge (most of the time). Initially most of the challenge comes from figuring out what you can interact with and what you can’t. This stems primarily from the busy visuals which make it hard to discern one thing from the other. There’s rudimentary combat, insofar as you having to perform certain dance actions to protect yourself from various threats in the world. Other than that Bound focuses heavily on the audio-visual experience, reminiscent of similar titles like Journey or ABZU.
The platforming is pretty straight forward once you’ve figured out the basics. The edge/hit detection is pretty generous, often saving you from an otherwise fatal fall. However it’s not complete foolproof and the princess will fall to her doom if you do mess up badly enough. There are, of course, the standard set of issues that come with 3D platforming such as it being really hard to judge distances. It also doesn’t help that the camera controls get taken away from you every so often, sometimes locking them in a position that’s not at all conducive to playing properly. There’s also some secrets to be found around the various worlds of Bound however with the jittery terrain it can be a little hard to find the clues to get at them. I only found one in my play through and I was pretty sure I was looking in all the right spots.
Bound’s short length mean that it’s biggest flaw, it’s repetitiveness, isn’t too much of an issue. After 2 levels or so you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer mechanically and all that’s left is the audio visual experience. Don’t get me wrong, that was enough to carry me through to the end of the game, however it does mean that the developers idea of playing this all the way through in one sitting is probably a little ambitious. Sure you could do it, but I don’t think it would improve your overall experience of the game.
The story of Bound is one of reflection, an abstract representation of a woman’s childhood. In the beginning it’s not completely clear what’s going on, mostly due to the heavy use of metaphors and surreal visual imagery. However it starts to make a lot more sense as more real world scenes are revealed to you. Since the majority of this story is told abstractly though it’s hard to empathise with the characters beyond a rudimentary level. This means that the ending, which is driven by a single choice by you, is somewhat hollow in its execution. Compared to the audio and visual aspects of the game it’s a little bit of let down honestly and a well executed story could have taken this game from good to great, no question.
Bound is an interesting foray into the ever blurring lines between games and art. The combination of surreal, abstract art with modern dance makes for an experience that very few games even come close to providing. It is however very rudimentary at a game play level, the platforming providing little challenge apart from the usual tribulations that come from 3D platformers. The repetition and hollow story mean that Bound fails to achieve the same greatness that similar titles have making it a good, but not great, game. If these kinds of games appeal to you the Bound is certainly worth playing however, for your run of the mill gamer, it’s probably best left to the Let’s Play crowd.
Bound is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours.
With the holiday season rapidly approaching there’s no shortage of AAA titles to sink your teeth into. It’s at this time of year that people’s allegiances to franchises, developers or publishers becomes clear as they will likely be the deciding factor in what you play, less so the game’s review scores or objective quality. For smaller developers it’s a tough time of year with few even daring to attempt a release within the few months before the holiday rush begins. Comcept and Armarture Studio, both established but small time developers, seem to have no such qualms and recently released ReCore out to the public. Much of the fanfare surrounding this game comes from the designers who brought us Metroid Prime series being involved in the ReCore’s creation and, I believe, the hope for a similar experience.
ReCore is set some 200 years in the future where a disease called the Dust Devil Plague has ravaged humanity. Earth is fast becoming unfit to sustain human life and so an ark project was commenced to resettle humanity elsewhere. Before the first colonists were to arrive however an army of Corebots, autonomous machines that are capable of doing the necessary work to make the new planet habitable, were sent ahead of them. The planet, dubbed New Eden, would then be terraformed over the course of 200 years before the first batch of colonists would arrive. You play as Joule, a kind of care taker sent ahead of the first colonists to ensure that everything is running as expected and New Eden is ready to accept the fleets of colonists that are about to arrive. However you’re awoken from your cryosleep far too early and discover that the world is nothing like you expected it to be.
The dystopian setting of ReCore would lend itself to a drab, muted colour palette but instead you’ll find yourself in a vivid, Borderland-esque world of colour. The style is obviously influenced by the underlying engine (Unity) having that same kind of feel that many games developed on the platform share. It’s certainly one of the better done Unity games out there but the graphics are certainly a few notches below what I’ve come to expect from current generation games. Indeed the engine choice is worth mentioning due to the fact that it’s only available on 2 platforms (Xbox One and PC) with Unity usually being the top choice if you’re targeting 3 or more. Regardless it’s still a decently pretty game, even when you’re in the depths of cave or enjoying the numerous vistas it presents to you.
Where ReCore comes a little unstuck though is in the lack of focus in the mechanics that it throws in front of you. ReCore bills itself as a third person platformer and most of the puzzles and challenges are built around that idea. It also incorporates RPG elements in the form of a levelling system for both you and your companion, loot that drops freely from mobs, chests and bosses and gear upgrades created through a rudimentary crafting system. Combat is a rudimentary 3rd person shooter, lacking any kind of cover mechanics but retaining the now traditional infinitely regenerating health system. The best way to describe it would be as a 3rd person, single player version of Borderlands with platforming thrown in the mix. For some that’s likely to be a draw card however the game quickly runs out of steam as you plough through it with many of the initially interesting mechanics becoming tedious and repetitive after a while.
Combat is a great example of this. Your enemies will be one of 4 different colours and you’ll have to change your weapon’s colour in order to do the most amount of damage to them. Then once you’ve done enough damage to them you can extract their cores through a quick time event, netting you some materials you can use to boost up your companion. However if you do choose to do that you won’t get any of the other type of crafting material, so you have to know what you need before you go venturing out. The problem with the combat system is that none of the fights really play out any differently, most of them consisting of you running away while you get pot shots in and your companion does a good deal of the heavy lifting. Combine that with the core extract mechanic which does not change at all over the course of the game and you’ve got a recipe for very repetitive combat that is not engaging at all. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could clear areas out but all enemies will respawn anew if you leave the area. Suffice to say combat isn’t ReCore’s strong suit.
ReCore does commit what I deem to be the unforgivable sin of showing you things you can’t get to yet, forcing you to re-explore places you’ve already been to once you unlock that particular upgrade. Indeed the worst aspect about this is that you can’t bring all those upgrades with you, ReCore limiting you to 2 bots you can bring with you at any one time. This, again, necessitates you going back and forth to your home base to make sure you’ve got the tools you need to complete a particular section. At the very least the actual platforming is done relatively well, allowing you to explore vast swaths of the world if you know how to exploit the mechanics well enough. For some this might be enough to save the game since so much is built around it but for me it just wasn’t enough, the numerous jumping puzzles just feeling tedious more than anything.
The upgrade system is a little hit and miss as whilst you and your companion level up the main character’s level doesn’t really seem to affect much of anything. The game informs you that Joule’s gun has levelled up but there’s no abilities or upgrades unlocked because of it. Crafted upgrades for your companions will require them to be a certain level however which does provide a modicum of progression but I feel like it should’ve been extended to Joule as well. As it stands the only way to really feel like you’re getting anywhere is to seek out the blueprints for you companions upgrades and that will mean grinding dungeons repeatedly to unlock all the chests since most of them can’t be acquired in a single hop through.
ReCore can only be had through the Windows Store currently and thus it’s a Windows Universal App, bringing with it all the challenges that the platform currently has. Purchasing the game was a bit of a nightmare requiring me to dig through regional settings and other internals Windows settings so that the store would actually let me buy the damn game. I also had a few occasions where the game started up without sound and would only restore it if I alt-tabbed and the switch-to back to it. That’s not to mention the numerous issues it had with being alt-tabbed in the first place, something which I think all gamers feel is a based requirement for any modern game. Thankfully the game itself ran error-free once I got in but the initial experience didn’t endear itself to me.
The story is ReCore’s redeeming feature however the core game just never gives it enough opportunity to shine. Even though I only managed a meagre 5.5 hours in the game I still felt like I’d been playing for far too long, the little snippets of story here and there just not enough to sustain me through the drudgery of the core game. The characters are believable and voice acted well, your companions each have their own distinct personalities and the larger world that’s built up is intriguing, begging you to find out more. It’s a shame really as I’ve played many games to conclusion just because of their story but unfortunately for ReCore it simply wasn’t enough.
ReCore captivated me initially on concept alone, the fact that Metroid Prime people were working on it wasn’t even factored into my decision to buy it. Initially it was a great experience, the various mechanics and progression systems giving me a lot to sink my teeth into. However that rapidly descended into a repetitive experience, the core things that made it great done over and over again until they sucked all the fun out of them. Overall I’d say ReCore was a competent but confused game, one that could have been a lot better if it focused on a few core aspects rather than the smattering it ended up with. I wanted to like Recore, I wanted to play more than I did, but I just couldn’t be bothered to spend anymore time with it when there were so many more promising games on the horizon.
ReCore is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 5.5 hours of total play time and 64% of the achievements unlocked.
Playdead’s Limbo inspired an entire sub-genre of atmospheric puzzler platformers. It’s one of the few games that many will finish in a single sitting; its succinct and engaging game play cementing you to your seat until it’s finished. It’s been quite a while since Limbo was released however and many have been eager for Playdead’s sophomore release. Inside was teased 2 years ago and, like all good hotly anticipated releases, was met with numerous delays before being released this year. Of course the release brings with it the question of whether or not Playdead can live up to their previous accomplishments and, perhaps, even exceed them.
On first blush it would seem that Playdead was hoping to ride out much of the nostalgia and hype that they generated with their seminal title. Once again you find yourself in control of a lone, young boy making his way through a dark and dangerous wilderness. However where Limbo’s world was allegorical Inside’s is more literal, everything seeming fare more real than its predecessors did. You’re given just about as much instruction as you were in Limbo, leaving you to figure out what the controls are and how to interact with your environment. Once you’ve got that down you’re then left to explore this dark world and all the dangers that it contains.
Inside utilises a muted colour palette with a highly stylized aesthetic reminiscent of games like Team Fortress 2. Where Limbo used their own custom engine to produce the trademark monochromatic visuals Inside instead uses Unity with a specially developed temporal anti-aliasing filter. This is what gives Inside it’s smoothed, cinematic quality that eliminates most of the jaggies that would otherwise be present. It also, as the developers point out, has a nice side-effect of giving everything a stochastic effect which adds that slight dreamlike quality. The resulting experience is quite honestly exceptional, bringing that Limbo-like effect to the modern day.
Like its predecessor Inside is a puzzle platformer, pitting the young boy against a myriad of challenges which will require you to figure out how best to tackle them. None of the mechanics it uses are new or inventive however they’re all tied into the theme of Inside in some way. There will be much dying, retrying and going down dead ends to try and find the various secrets scattered throughout the game. Inside is very much of the ethos of “Show, don’t tell” with the game giving you clues and hints about what it wants you to do next. It’s also a linear experience with there being one and only way to progress to the next section. It’s simple and unoriginal but Playdead made their name in defining this sub-genre and the quality of craftsmanship in all aspects of the game belies its mechanical simplicity.
What Limbo and Inside both do exceptionally well is inspire feelings in the player. There are numerous moments in Inside that inspire sheer terror or that horrible sense of foreboding should you step one foot out of place. As someone who’s typically not a fan of horror or its sub-genres it was genuinely refreshing to see this done right. This, coupled with the drip feed of information about the world that’s given to you, gives you a driving sense that this is all building to something but you can’t be sure what it is. Then comes what I think is the game’s pinnacle moment and what cements it as another brilliant title from Playdead.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The moment is, of course, when you transition from the scared boy to the blob. The entire premise of the game up until that point is you existing in a world that is hunting you, one that you should be afraid of. That all changes when you become the blob, the world now fears you, and what you might do to it. Instead of the world and its people fighting you they assist you (for the most part), trying to ensure their own survival just like you were before. The fear and tension is gone, replaced by a kind of excitement. You are now in control, even if that means you’re a strange amalgam of body parts that moan in the most horrendous way whenever you move.
Which leads us to the story. I’m firmly in the camp of the boy being controlled directly by the blob, sent on a direct mission to free it from its prison. Of course how you interpret either ending is up to you, that’s the beauty of how the story is told, but that’s the only explanation I’ve seen thus far that fits well with the events as they unfolded. Regardless of what explanation you take as true it’s hard not to appreciate the final ironic climax, the purpose of Inside being only to get outside. Inside’s story is definitely an intellectual rather than an emotional one.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Inside has done what many would think would be impossible: improve on the formula set by a classic and bring it into the modern age. The aesthetic retains that same Limbo-esque feeling whilst modernising it significantly, likely setting the precedent that many games will follow for years to come. The gameplay, whilst standard affair for the genre, is well polished and all done in aid of telling the story. The overall narrative, shown to you rather than told, is certain to keep people talking about it for years to come, the ultimate meaning hidden behind many clues, red herrings and good old fashioned speculation. Inside is a game that is thoroughly worth the time to play and, if you can manage it, in a single session on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Inside is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2.9 hours of total play time with 29% of the achievements unlocked.
Mirror’s Edge came at a pivotal time in gaming history. The industry was leaping forward in ever greater strides with game budgets soaring and consumers ever more willing to shell out for the latest and greatest titles. However it was the time when the yearly game cycles began to take hold, the same titles regurgitated year after year and original IPs were few and far between. The Indie Renaissance was still some years away and so gamers were hungry for titles that were a break away from the norm. It wasn’t a breakout success however, generating good but not great reviews. Still the success it had led many to believe a sequel was inevitable but DICE was tight lipped on the franchise for a long time.
It wasn’t until 5 years later that we’d find out that Mirror’s Edge would be returning and it would still be another 3 after that before we’d be able to play it. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was initially envisioned as a prequel title however it’s current incarnation sees it as a reboot of the franchise. It’s a much broader scope game, expanding on the free running concept by dramatically increasing the area you’re able to move about in and adding in some additional mechanics to keep it interesting along the way. Whilst rebooting the franchise at this point makes some sense, not many will go back to play an 8 year old game, it does lay waste to the narrative that many fell in love with.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst retains that same stark white base and vivid colour scheme that was popularised by the original title. This is then amplified by the significant improvements in lighting and environmental effects that the current generation of consoles allows, highlighting the contrast even further. The environments are quite lacking in detail however with flat textures covering nearly every surface. It’s an aesthetic that does its best to get out of the way however it can be visually confusing at times (more on that a little later). Still there are many great screenshot worthy moments, some of which I’ve included here.
Catalyst retains the base characteristics that drew many of us to its predecessor: the free running through large, open environments with numerous obstacles in your way. Layered on top of this is the usual open-world smattering of side quests, collectables and hidden areas that can be unlocked for various bonuses and whatnot. There’s also a levelling system now, meaning some abilities are locked behind level gates and talent trees requiring you to do some additional work to unlock them. Gone for good though is the ability to use weapons something that was awkwardly implemented previously (some would say for good reason). At a structural level Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels like a bolder, more ambitious version of what the original was but it’s difficult to say that a lot of these things are outright improvements.
The core mechanics are still solid so getting from point A to B, especially if you do it flawlessly, gives you that same exhilaration that its predecessor did. There were numerous times when I found myself gliding elegantly past all obstacles, enjoying the continuous momentum and slight wind noise in my ears. The additional mechanics open up the world a bit more, however since they’re gated to specific campaign missions it can be a bit of a let down to find out that you need them to get to a certain area. The much more open world does make it a bit more interesting, especially when you’re trying to run and hide, however the actual area you can explore is far smaller than the game would have you think. You can test this by simply trying to run in one direction and you’ll often find yourself hitting a wall in under a minute or two.
I don’t remember combat being particularly enjoyable in the original and Catalyst doesn’t do much to improve on the system. The addition of the focus meter, filled when you run and depleted as you get shot, encourage you to move around more than straight up fighting. However when it comes time to fight you’ll often find yourself with basically no where to go. So then you have to engage in the unfortunately awkward and repetitive combat, using specific moves to take down each of the different types of enemies. Until you unlock some of the higher finishing moves and extra damage bonuses this can take quite some time. In the original this tedium could be broken up a bit by snagging a weapon or two but without that option you’re unfortunately locked into the monotony of grapples, kicks and punches.
I’m sure open world fanatics will find a lot to love in the ample side missions and collectables that are strewn around Glass (the city in Catalyst) but for me they became an exercise in frustration. The time trails and courier missions can almost never be done in the first half dozen tries as any mistake costs you the valuable seconds you need to make it to the end. This means a 1 minute running mission will probably take you at least 10, especially if you don’t have all the upgrades that unlock the game’s various short cut routes. I’ll admit that some of this stems from my dislike of being shown things that I can’t get and having to go back to them later on, but I do feel like there’d be a better way to craft these kinds of missions to make them more attractive.
The stark colour scheme of the original Mirror’s Edge enabled the developers to use red as an indicator of where you should go. That’s still used in Catalyst, however the objects aren’t permanently red, they’re highlighted so by your “Runner’s Vision”. This works fine about 80% of the time however sometimes if you take a wrong turn, change your mind halfway climbing up something or even just randomly you’ll lose that highlighting completely. When you’re in the middle of escaping from something this usually means your death or it can mean many seconds of frustration as you rapidly click R3 to try and get it to come back. This is definitely one case where its predecessor did a far better job with visual cues and is my biggest gripe with Catalyst.
The story is very middle of the road, not terribly bad but so forgettable that 6 weeks on from playing it I’m struggling to come up with any memorable moments. Sure it provides the backdrop for some awesome things to happen (like the below screenshot) but it doesn’t do much more than that. I’m not pining for the previous story to make a return, there wasn’t much to write about home there either, however a stronger narrative could have made some of the more glaring issues fade into the background.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a moderately successful reboot of the classic title, broadening the scope of the game significantly whilst keeping much of the core in tact. The same stark colour scheme which has since been used in numerous other titles returns successfully, draped in current generation flair. The open world vision might not be entirely to my liking but the extra space to free roam is a welcome addition. The parkour mechanics remain solid, however the progression and combat systems are questionable additions. The story does little to tie everything together but at least does nothing to break it apart. Overall Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a good-but-not-great title, one that can be enjoyed and then lent out to other curious friends.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.99, $99.99 and $99.99 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with 12 hours of total game time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.
Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.
You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.
Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.
Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.
The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.
Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.
At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.
Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.
Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.
Tomb Raider’s reboot of 3 years ago was a successful one, reinvigorating a franchise that had been sidelined by newer IPs in the same genre. Indeed it was the first Tomb Raider game I had played in many years as the bug ridden Underworld was simply unplayable. The reboot was enough to spark my interest in the IP again and since the sequel was announced about a year later I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The (thankfully short) timed exclusivity to the XboxOne was a little annoying, since I had to dodge more reviews and articles than I usually do, but finally last week I spent a good chunk of time playing through the latest Tomb Raider.
Rise of the Tomb Raider begins about a year after the events in the preceding instalment. Lara, after witnessing many supernatural occurrences on the island of Yamatai, seeks out answers in her father’s research notes. There she finds his white whale: the lost city of Kitezh which supposedly holds the key to immortality. Her quest sends her to Syria where she seeks out the lost tomb of an ancient prophet linked to the legend of Kitezh. It’s there however that she comes face to face with an organisation called Trinity: an ancient order dedicated to seeking out the supernatural and taking it for themselves. Lara is undeterred however and travels to Siberia where she believes the lost city of Kitezh resides.
The production values of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally high with every aspect of the game above the standard I’ve come to expect for AAA titles. Visually it is incredibly impressive with the environments being rich and detailed, ranging from wide open valleys to deep cave systems. There’s no one thing I can point to that really makes it so well crafted, more it’s the numerous small details like the trails you leave in snow or the way Lara’s gait changes after she’s had a fall. Unlike the previous instalment (which suffered from inflated expectations due to it following Crysis 3) Rise of the Tomb Raider felt impressive from the very start, a rare achievement in today’s torrent of AAA titles.
Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the same core game play that its predecessor did, being a combination of 3D platformer, 3rd person shooter and semi-open world exploration. The platforming functions pretty much the same as the last one did, giving you the same leeway when it comes to grabbing ledges or landing that jump perfectly. The 3rd person shooter mechanic functions largely the same although the upgrade system allows you to unlock some rather cool abilities that can change it dramatically. The semi-open world stylings mean that there’s much more to the world than just the campaign missions and, should you go exploring, you’re quite likely to be rewarded for your efforts. Overall it’s not a massive change from the previous Tomb Raider game and honestly, with the extra layer of polish this game has, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
The puzzles and platforming sections are frequent but are, for the most part, easy enough to understand and complete without being too frustrating. In the beginning, with a limited number of mechanics at your disposal, it’s pretty easy to see how things need to be done. The difficulty starts to ramp up when you’ve got several other potential mechanics at hand, some of which aren’t explained as well as they could be. Still there was only one time when I find myself reaching for a walkthrough guide as all the other puzzles could be solved in a manageable amount of time. The platforming was a little less satisfying however as, whilst you have some leeway, it can be a little finicky about when it will pull you right or just let you fall to your death. Once you’ve worked out the quirks though (like not hitting jump if Lara is still shimmying across something) you can make up for those little quirks.
Combat, again, feels largely the same with the game favouring head shots and thus any weapon that allows you to make them rapidly. The bow once again is the stand out weapon especially once you get the skill which does automatic head shots on up to 3 targets at once. Similar to its predecessor though there comes a time when the enemies start wearing helmets and you’ll have to land several consecutive head shots to take them down. This time around however it doesn’t feel as cheap as it did before as the increased number of stealth options provides much more opportunity to take out the heavy hitters before dealing with the rest of them. Overall the combat feels a little more streamlined with a little bit more variety on the side, should you wish to make use of it.
The skills, upgrades and crafting system is back with a few improvements to keep the pace of the game up. You can now craft arrows, other special ammo and healing on the fly if you have the required materials to do so. The mechanic of finding parts for major upgrades is still around and if you want those weapons you really will need to go exploring to complete them. The skills are interesting as early on I went for the additional XP traits something which meant that I was levelling up maybe every 20 minutes or so. Probably about halfway through the game I had all the skills I could ever want and so from there I was just unlocking things that were mildly interesting. It certainly helped to keep driving me forward as there was always a sense of progression but it did seem like I was maybe completing things a little faster than was probably intended.
Like its predecessor there are few rough edges on Rise of the Tomb Raider although none of them are particularly game breaking. You can quite easily glitch yourself through terrain if you roll, jump or sprint near say a set of stairs or similar. I had more than one occasion where I found myself stuck in between trees or falling forever when I jumped into a particularly cramped area. There’s also the aforementioned finicky-ness of the platforming system but once you know its limitations it’s a little easier to work around. Thankfully though many of the combat related issues are long gone although some of the enemies do seem to do wildly different amounts of damage during the same encounter.
Rise of the Tomb raider brings a much more developed and polished plot, one that dives further into the backstory of Lara and the Croft family. Thankfully the torture porn has been dialled back somewhat, instead focusing more on the trials and tribulations of Lara trying to come to grips with her father’s past and the impact it’s having on her current situation. The introduction of a big bad “thing” in the form of Trinity is a not-so-subtle hint there’s going to be several sequels to come but they at least function decently as an antagonist. Indeed they’ll likely be the focus point of the next instalment as they go after the next supernatural artefact that they’ll use to take over the world. The supernatural themes are better done this time around be less wrought and more subtly woven in the larger narrative. Indeed it seems that the writers behind this instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise have matured significantly since they wrote the last plot.
Rise of the Tomb raider accomplishes what many sequels don’t: improving on their predecessor whilst still retaining the core aspects which made it great. The production value is extremely high with attention paid to every little detail. The game play is as solid as ever with several streamlining changes that keep the pace of the game up for its entire duration. It might not be the picture of perfection with a few rough edges still poking through but overall the experience is so well polished that it’s easy to write off those few moments. For both fans of the Tomb Raider IP and those who just love a good action game Rise of the Tomb Raider is well worth the asking price.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, XboxOne, Xbox360 and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
The Trine series has captured many people’s attention over the years, mostly thanks to the incredibly inventive physics based game play. It’s been a long time between drinks for the series what with the previous installment, Trine 2, being released almost 4 years ago. This can be partly attributed to Frozenbyte focusing some of its efforts on their iOS platform Splot, however most of the long development time has been spent on Trine 3 itself. Indeed when you hear that Trine 3 incorporates 3D into the mix, after the last 2 being 2D platformers, you can get a feel for why it stayed in development for so long. However Frozenbyte’s ambition may have been its undoing as it’s clear that Trine 3 fell short of its ultimate goal.
Once again our heroes: Amadeus, Pontius and Zoya, are trying to live their lives as they were before the Trine started interfering with them. Amadeus was finally spending time with his family, taking them to see the giant turtle migration. Pontius continued to be a hero of the people, ensuring that no thief or neerdowell went unpunished. Zoya continued her quest for treasure, tracking down a giant emerald. However, just like always, the Trine showed up at the most inopportune time to whisk them away on an adventure. Little did they know that this one would take them to the heart of the Trine itself and the darkness which lied within.
Trine 3 makes use of Frozenbyte’s own custom engine and, whilst I’d warn most indie developers about doing that, what they’ve managed to create is, put simply, absolutely stunning. Trine 2 managed to have some great vistas however, due to the 2D nature, they were always somewhere off in the background. With the inclusion of 3D in Trine 3, and the addition of the vastly improved artwork, Trine 3 is yet again another step up from its predecessor. The art style and direction is retained, with vibrant colours and effects everywhere, along with the great soundtrack and voice acting. Indeed Trine 3 feels like a AAA title in almost all respects as there are few indies who can produce such quality work.
The core of Trine remains largely the same with the platforming, puzzle solving and emergent, physics based game play all making an appearance. The abilities of the three heroes are largely the same as well although the game has been radically simplified when compared to its predecessors. Amadeus can summon just one box, Pontious’ abilities have been reduced to a charge and slam and Zoya’s arrows are merely garden variety now, although she can now attach things together through the use of her grappling hook. The talent system is completely gone and progression now comes in the form of collecting shiny triangles which you’ll use to unlock further story and side missions. All in all Trine 3 feels like a far more streamlined game, one that would be far more welcoming to newcomers to the series.
The introduction of 3D changes the core platforming and puzzle mechanics significantly as now you have a whole extra dimension to contend to when attempting to solve the puzzles. It’s not true full 3D in all aspects however as it seems, for simplicity’s sake, that there are some constraints on your movement. If you jump off a wall in one direction you’ll essentially be locked to moving in that direction. For things parts of the environment that spin or move this can lead to some unpredictable behaviour as mistiming your jump means you move in a completely different direction to the one you intended. The same rules seem to apply to using the grappling hook as well, locking you into one direction to swing across (I.E. you can’t say, swing around in a loop). I’m sure I’m not explaining this well enough but once you play Trine 3 you’ll see what I’m getting at.
Combat feels largely the same, being one of the few times that you’ll use Pontius for something. You’ll be able to complete most combat sections by just mashing buttons and jumping around randomly however some of the later fights do require a bit more finesse. The only really challenging combat encounters are the boss fights (of which there are 2 from memory) and the various side quests which lock you into a single character requiring you to figure out how to best use them in combat. For long time fans of the series this will feel largely in step with previous games in the series as combat was always something of an also-ran, a curious distraction to break up the platforming and puzzle solving.
The emergent gameplay is as rampant as ever with most puzzles having numerous unintended solutions. Most of these are born out of their basis on physics, allowing you to exploit various things in order to make the puzzle think it’s solved. One of the most egregious things you can exploit is, yet again, the wizard’s ability to move boxes and other objects around. Whilst you can’t box surf like you once could you can, say, jump off a box and then lift it up with blazing speed, launching you far above whatever obstacle was in front of you. It’s certainly not as crazy as previous Trine games were but you can still pull off some rather crazy feats if you put your mind to it.
Emergent gameplay does have a dark side however, coming in the form of glitches and unintended behaviour. You’ll more than likely come across your fair share of glitchy enemies, puzzles that don’t work for whatever reason or deaths that don’t feel like they’re entirely your fault. There’s nothing in there that I’d consider game breaking, indeed most of the time you can work your way around whatever glitch you’re stuck on, however it does mean that some of the puzzles are far more frustrating than they need to be. Some of the glitches are hilarious too, like when enemies clip through the floor and then rocket back out. I guess when you think in terms of the overall Trine series Trine 3 is the least glitchy of the lot, which is saying something.
The story is where Trine 3 falls down, not for the content mostly, that at the very least retains it’s mostly passable qualities, the real issue comes with its length. You see Trine 3 was Frozenbyte’s most ambitious game getting triple the budget of its predecessor. Whilst this is most certainly reflected in the quality of the game it still wasn’t enough for them to finish the game in the way they wanted to. Thus the game ends at what feels like the first third of the story, leaving you on a cliffhanger that feels like it should’ve been somewhere in the middle of the game rather than at the end of it. This is what has led to much frustration from the wider gamer community, something which Frozenbyte has acknowledged and provided some insight on. In my mind the quality of the game they’ve created isn’t in question however it’s obvious that Trine 3 has fallen far short of their vision.
Trine 3 is an absolutely stunning game, one that keeps true to the Trine roots but unfortunately fell prey to the sin of ambition. The artwork, soundtrack and cinematography are still top notch, showcasing production values that I’ve come to expect from the series. The core mechanics and gameplay are still there, just streamlined a bit in order to reduce friction. However the game is clearly only a third of the creator’s original vision, with numerous levels and story left undeveloped, never to be explored by us gamers. It’s really quite unfortunate as parts of Trine 3 we’ve got are just incredible but that quality has obviously come at a cost. Hopefully this isn’t the death of the series as it would be a real shame to see it go just as Frozenbyte was reaching its peak.
Trine 3 is available on PC right now for $21.99. Total playtime was 4 hours with 64% of the achievements unlocked.