A lot of retro styled games rely on the aesthetic to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for us long time gamers, hoping to link us up with experiences past in the hope that some of it will translate across. Back when that idea was still new I have to admit that it worked quite well although as time has gone on the differences between modern retro titles and their ancestors have become more stark, removing that sense of nostalgia completely. There are few games that manage to capture both the aesthetic and the essence of what made those games so memorable and I’m happy to say that I now count Shovel Knight among them.
You are Shovel Knight, a brave warrior whose weapon of choice isn’t exactly mainstream. You’ve seen many adventures always with your most trusted compatriate, Shield Knight, by your side. However one day, when exploring the Tower of Fate, you both fall under the power of the Dark Amulet. When you awaken Shield Knight is no where to be seen and you give up adventuring while you mourn her loss. However The Enchantress, an evil and powerful witch, has arisen in your absence spreading her evil across your land. When you hear she has unlocked the Tower of Fate once again you resolve to pick up your shovel once again and to rid your land of the darkness that now grips it.
Shovel Knight is visually reminiscent of the action adventure games of old with many of the visual elements being readily recognisable. Indeed the rendition was done so well that I figured there was no way it was using some kind of modern engine as everything really did have a retro feel about it. The end credits revealed it does use Box2D for its physics which has obviously been tuned to give it a much more retro feel. The music and foley also feels like it’s right out of a NES title, retaining that lo-fi quality and signature sound that games of that era had. If I’m honest it feels like the most honest recreation of an old pixelart game to date, eschewing any modern improvements in favour of keeping that nostalgia feeling alive.
In terms of gameplay Shovel Knight again feels awfully familiar, taking the tried and true mechanics from games of ages past and adding in a little of its own flair. The combat feels much like the Zelda games of old where you’ll be jumping, dodging and swinging your weapon wildly in order to defeat your foes. There’s also the tried and true platform sections, many of which rely on you using the various relics you’ve acquired in order to progress past them. You can also upgrade/modify your character in order to suit your playstyle, enabling a multitude of different ways to progress through the game. Lastly, if that isn’t enough for you, there’s dozens of achievements and challenges for you to complete, some of which require a great deal of skill to accomplish.
In the beginning the combat feels a little weird which I can pretty much wholly attribute to my use of the keyboard. You see just like the games which Shovel Knight takes inspiration from it was most certainly designed with a controller in mind as the keyboard setup is most certainly not intuitive. However once I got past that hurdle I actually felt that it was quite forgiving, especially after you got up a couple of the more broken items (the Phase Amulet especially). Indeed after the first couple bosses I found that I could usually cheese my way through them after a single death, something I definitely couldn’t say about say Zelda back in the day.
That being said the platforming, whilst being well thought out and challenging in the right ways most of the time, had more “fuck you player” moments than I’d like. These are things that you can’t plan for (like enemies appearing out of no where) or the introduction of new mechanics without an indication as to what they do. This is somewhat in the spirit of the game as a lot of titles from early nineties didn’t do this either, however that doesn’t stop these things from sucking out some of the fun in an otherwise great game. The rather generous recovery mechanic makes up for this a little bit although that can sometimes lead you into a horrible spiral of dying simply because you’re trying to recover your gold.
What is quite impressive about Shovel Knight is the sheer amount of variety that’s in the game. Every level has its own distinct theme with numerous different types of enemies and mechanics, meaning that no 2 levels feel quite the same. Sure there are some things you’ll learn in early levels that will come in handy later on but for the most part each level will be an experience in learning how to deal with the various challenges at hand. This then feeds into the bosses and the wandering encounters in the overworld, each of which has its own unique mechanics which you’ll need to exploit.
Actually thinking about it more this is probably one of the better examples of how to design to a pick up/put down style platform (the 3DS in Shovel Knight’s case). Each of the levels can be over in 10~20 minutes, even less for the wandering boss encounters or the other loot extravaganza levels, and all of them have their own style. Usually this would be something of a negative however in Shovel Knight’s case it actually made for a rather well paced game, one I invested a lot more time in than I would have otherwise done previously. Sure it wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means but I still far more engaged with it than I have done with many of my previous reviews.
The story of Shovel Knight is fairly simplistic, usually being not much more than something to provide some witty dialogue between you and the boss you’re about to fight, but it’s more than enough to keep the game going. It really only comes to fruition in the last hour or so of gameplay and in that respect it does tie everything together quite well. However Shovel Knight isn’t a game you should be playing for the story as its mechanics are by far the strong point.
Shovel Knight sets the standard for titles that want to capture that feeling of games from ages past, faithfully recreating everything in a wonderful take on the old school action adventure. The graphics, music and sound all feel like they were ripped out of a long abandon title and then given life in a modern game environment. The gameplay, once you get past the initial teething phase, is very well done even if it can feel a little too easy at times. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the whole Shovel Knight experience but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract too heavily from it. If you’re a long time gamer like myself you’ll find a lot to love in Shovel Knight and I’d heartily recommend giving it a play through.
Shovel Knight is available on the PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Wii U right now for $15, $14.99 and $14.99 respectively. Total game time was 6 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie dev scene seems to go through periods of obsession with different genres. In the past it was with platform puzzlers as it seemed that every other week brought to me several new titles attempting to put their own twist on the tried and true genre. More recently it seems to have shifted to survival horror as many seek to replicate the success of DayZ. So when Contrast, a platforming/puzzler from Compulsion games, I felt a distinct twinge of nostalgia, harking back to the indie renaissance that was built on games such as this. Like many from that time it’s taken the puzzler/platformer genre and placed its own unique style on top of it resulting in a game that’s quite interesting, even if it has its faults.
It’s not quite clear who, or more importantly what, you are when the game starts but all you know is that only a small girl, Didi, can see you. In fact this bond seems to be somewhat mutual as you can’t see anyone else but her and the shadows of others that are in the room with you. You and Didi seem to share a bond however as she’s always getting into mischief, usually with your assistance, much to the chagrin of her mother. Still, Didi’s mother tries hard to support her, hoping to rise to fame as a wonderful singer and actress. Everything starts to change when Didi’s deadbeat father comes back into the picture, promising to make everything right.
The art style of Contrast feels like you’re in the mind of a child with many typical elements, such as houses, having a very whimsical nature to them. It’s all heavily inspired by the art deco movement of the 1930s and 40s with many of the environments having a really distinct BioShock-esque feel to them. They do feel a little dead and empty however which I do believe was done deliberately however it means you feel compelled to not stay in one area for too long, even though the game tries to encourage you to explore. Potentially this could have been solved by adding in more light sources that had shadows walking past it which wouldn’t seem out of place and would make everything feel a little more alive.
As I alluded to earlier Contrast is a platform/puzzler that has an unique mechanic to spice things up a bit. The puzzles are all fairly basic in nature, usually consisting of getting yourself from one place to another or moving an item into another spot that’s not exactly obvious when you first start out. Contrast’s twist however is that when a wall is lit up you can “shift” into it, becoming a 2D shadow on the wall that allows you to move in ways that would be impossible otherwise. This leads to some rather intriguing puzzles where you’re always looking for where the source of light is and how the shadows you can create will help or hinder you in your goal.
There’s also a set of collectables called “Luminaries” which are hidden in various locations throughout the game. They function as an exploration mechanic as well as a kind of in-game currency to progress past certain obstacles. Their presence isn’t fully explained however, although Didi is aware of them for some reason, so the motivation to collect them really only comes about if you’re a natural explorer or you happen to see one that isn’t far out of your reach. Indeed there was only once when I didn’t have the required luminaries on me to immediately continue a puzzle and then it took me less than a couple minutes to find the requisite number.
Unfortunately whilst this mechanic is indeed novel it suffers heavily from glitchy behaviour. True flat surfaces with light projected onto them appear to work quite well however anything with a ridge or a bump in it, like the numerous columns that dot the landscape, have a tendency to shift you back out of the shadow plane. It’s hard to tell if this is expected behaviour or not as you can walk through them, some times, and you can also blast past them again only randomly. The shadow detection itself can also get a bit buggy as Dawn’s hitbox appears to be significantly bigger than the character model, leading to some puzzles either being more complicated than they need to be or being trivialized.
Indeed there were quite a few puzzles where I figured I’d be restarting from the checkpoint again only to find myself standing on air next to the ledge I was trying to jump onto. Whilst I was somewhat appreciative of this at the time it does mean that the game doesn’t function as you’d expect leading to some rather undesirable behaviour. Worst still there are many places where you can find yourself caught in the environment for some inexplicable reason and while I never had to reload to get unstuck it certainly didn’t endear the game to me when it happened.
Contrast’s story, whilst clichéd, does help to smooth over some of the more rough edges of the game. The majority of the voice actors are great with the notable exception of Didi who’s lines seem to be heavily disjointed between sentences. The music is quite good, suiting the art deco environment aptly. Whilst it might not have the depth of other indie titles it certainly has a little bit of charm to it with everyone being able to identify with the idea of giving someone a second chance.
Contrast is a unique concept, filled with brilliant ideas that are unfortunately hindered by a less than ideal execution. The story, music and scenery are all above average, crafting a whimsical art deco world that’s incredibly delightful. However the core game mechanics suffer from inconsistent behaviour and glitchy collision detection turning the otherwise novel idea of moving through shadows into a laborious experience. Lovers of indie puzzlers will find a lot to enjoy in Contrast however I think that’s the limit of its appeal, at least in its current state.
Contrast is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $14.99, $14.99, $21.49 and $14.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 68% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since my rather devastating experience with Super Meat Boy I’ve been pretty adverse to twitch based platformers, mostly because I don’t want to give myself RSI or an aneurysm. Whilst I may have made a brief foray back into the genre with They Bleed Pixels there have been numerous others I’ve left by the wayside because of the sense of dread I get when I play them. However I am a sucker for minimalistic takes on game ideas and 140, spawned by the man who was the gameplay director for Limbo, strips away much of the typical platforming experience and then amplifies it with its own brand of unique mechanics.
You’re a square, but only when you stand still. You’re a circle, but only when you’re moving. You’re a triangle, but only when you’re flying. The only instinct you have is to move from the left side of the screen to the right, backed by an eerie and haunting sound. Things start to change as you pick up these strange little baubles that dot the landscape, reshaping that sound into a pulsating beat which the entire world reacts to in time. This world isn’t completely safe though as there are many things that would seek to stop your journey forward, but even they are slaves to the rhythm that weaves through everything around you.
The art style of 140 is probably the most ferocious example of minimalism that I’ve seen to date. Things that you’d usually expect to see in even minimalistically styled games like gradients, shadows or shading simply don’t exist here with everything being solid colours. This is not to say that it’s a visually dull game however, far from it, more that when something is done to this level of simplicity it’s anything but random, it’s a carefully calculated experience that’s designed to get you focused on the game play. In that respect it does well as you’ll do little more in the short time this game will keep you.
The main game mechanic of 140 is 2D platforming, seeing you leap from section to section and often failing, seeing you transported back to your last checkpoint. However the twist with 140 is that the entire world reacts to the background music which you build up by collecting the little orbs and then bringing them back to a platform. Every time you do this the world around you will change, either wholesale by transporting you to another place or by bringing another part of the environment to life. This opens up new opportunities for you to progress but also ramps up the difficultly level, forcing you to reconsider how you’ve been playing up until that point in order to incorporate this new mechanic.
The enemies and boss fights are also pretty intriguing, taking the same music driven idea and incorporating it into battles that have the signature trademarks of other genres (like bullet hell, for example). They’re a fun distraction from the rudimentary platforming, often forcing you to think radically differently in order to complete them. The final challenge felt like something of a cock block though and whilst I got close to completing the game the somewhat random nature of it (yes I know there’s a pattern but since it doesn’t repeat from the start on death it’s a real pain to figure out) seem to catch me out every time I got close to the final puzzle.
Unfortunately there’s not much more I can say about 140 as it’s an experience that you have to play for yourself to really appreciate. At the beginning it feels a little too simple, lacking pretty much anything to keep you interested, however that quickly changes as the music ramps up and the world starts reacting to it. It’s also a very short experience too, clocking in at just over an hour, which makes it well worth a look in if you’re seeking something radically different from the gaming norm.
140 is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total game time was approximately 1 hour.
Prior to the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d heard of Rocksteady Studios. Primarily this would be because they only had one title to their name before that, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, which wasn’t badly received but at the same time you’d struggle to find anyone who’d played it. Their following two instalments using the Batman IP however catapulted them to fame and their success led to them being acquired by Time-Warner shortly before the release of Arkham City. However the most recent instalment in this series, Batman: Arkham Origins comes to us not from the venerable Rocksteady but instead Warner Bros Games Montreal, a development house that’s familiar with the series (as they worked on the Wii-U port Arkham City). Combine that with the Joker no longer being voiced by Mark Hamill and fans of the series were decidedly nervous as there was no telling how this game would pan out.
Arkham Origins takes place long before the world that was established in the previous two games, going back to the beginnings where Bruce Wayne is just beginning his journey as the caped crusader of Gotham City. He’s been at it long enough to attract the attention of some of the city’s more nefarious criminals and this has resulted in Black Mask, a notorious underworld dealer who’s eluded conviction due to the numerous businesses he runs, putting a bounty on Batman’s head. He has also invited 8 different assassins to go after the bounty including many of Batman’s long time rivals. Of course Bruce can’t sit idly by and potentially let others be put in danger for his sake and so begins a long Christmas eve spent putting the beat down on Gotham’s worst.
Visually Arkham Origins is a small step up from its predecessor with the primary limitation of them progressing any further being the fact that it’s still being released on the current console generation. In all honesty though it still looks fantastic with all of the environments having an incredible amount of detail in them. I’m also somewhat thankful for this as my PC hardware is starting to get a little long in the tooth and whilst Arkham Origins looked great there were times when it began to noticeably slow down. However that wasn’t a frequent occurrence, even in the outdoor scenes where you could see far off into the distance.
Just like the 2 Arkham titles before it Origins keeps the core game play and style the same whilst adding in additional challenges, enemies and tactics to keep it feeling fresh. You’ll still spend most of your time beating the every loving crap out of various different types of enemies, the challenge ratcheting up every so often with the introduction of new types of enemies requiring different techniques to take them down. However you still have the option of being a silent predator at times, swooping through an area and taking out multiple enemies without being seen. Finally the core puzzle mechanics make a come back, albeit with a new mode to make things a little more interesting.
Combat, as always, is fast paced and meaty with every hit you land having a really satisfying feel to it. I always seem to start off feeling rather uncoordinated, getting my combos interrupted all the time by just not noticing the incoming attacks, but it doesn’t take long before I’m hitting huge multipliers and laying waste to everyone. One thing that has always irritated me is the initial lack of a way to take out large groups once you’ve knocked them all down as whilst you can do a ground take down on them all too often that results in you losing your combo string as it seems you can’t counter whilst in the middle of one. Later on of course you’ll unlock some better ways of dealing with them and after that combat starts to feel a lot more fluid.
However one criticism that I’ll level at it, and this has been true of all of the series, is that as you progress through the story the number of different things you can do during combat start to become a little overwhelming. Pretty often you’ll find yourself facing a knife wielder, a guy with a riot shield and probably a tough enemy that needs to be stunned before you can do anything. These require no less than 3 different methods of taking them out and when combined with the dozen or so quick fire gadgets you end up having to remember so many things that you’ll eventually just settle on a couple. They all become somewhat moot however with the introduction of the shock gloves and then all you have to focus on is getting enough charge in them so then you can lay the smack down on everything around you.
The stealth sections feel like they have remained largely unchanged although this could be primarily due to the fact that I didn’t invest many points in that skill tree until very late in the game. They’re still fun and somewhat challenging, especially the ones that have unique mechanics like the Deadshot encounter, but if you were looking for a markedly different or revamped experience you’re not going to find it. There’s also the possibility that I just wasn’t paying attention to some of the prompts and missed some new opportunities but I didn’t really have any problems accomplishing anything (unlike say in the Mr Freeze battle in Arkham City).
The detective mode/puzzles remain largely the same albeit making use of some of the new mechanics granted to you by the various gadgets that weren’t present in the previous titles. There’s also the addition of the crime scene mode which you use to reconstruct crimes to figure out details about how they happened and to track down the people responsible. For the most part it works well however it’s not made entirely clear when you have to move to a new section to continue the investigation, or what the expected behaviour is, so at first it was a little confusing. Still since it’s largely the same mechanic it still functions well even if it doesn’t feel as fresh or different as other aspects of the game are.
However the real problem with Arkham Origins is that whilst it retains the essence of what made the Arkham series so good it’s also marred by numerous bugs and glitches, many of them that are completely game breaking. The screenshot above depicts one of them where upon using certain abilities with knock back you can cement enemies in a wall or other object. They then become unreachable and whilst I was able to dislodge them after trying every gadget I had (I eventually found I needed to get them on an edge and then attempt to stun them so they’d fall backwards out of the box) it was an incredibly frustrating experience. This is not to mention one part in the Penguin’s ship where all the external doors just simply refused to work, making the opening noise but not allowing me through. This broke my trust with all the game mechanics so I spent the vast majority of the game wondering if I had completed a challenge successfully or if I had just encountered another game breaking issue. I’m not alone in thinking this either as my searches into the issue revealed the list of bugs is scarily long and even after it’s been out for this length of time there’s no patch in sight.
This, combined with the fact that Arkham Origins isn’t too much different from City in terms of overall play style, is probably the reason why there’s been such an abysmal reaction to it. I did my best to avoid any reviews prior to playing it however I unwittingly found out that Destructoid gave it 3.5 out of 10 and whilst I don’t agree with that score overall I understand the reasoning that went into it. Whilst I feel that Arkham Origins isn’t a bad game overall it is certainly the weakest of the series, showing very clearly that Warner Bros Montreal has a lot to learn before they can deliver a title that can be considered on par with the rest of the Arkham series. Whether or not they’ll get the chance to do so in light of the current reaction to Arkham Origins though remains to be seen.
As for the story I felt like it was a great introduction into the relationship between Batman and the Joker as whilst their relationship has been explored in depth in other mediums it was great to see how the rivalry began. The bucket list of other characters thrown in as assassins was unfortunately less well done as it just felt like a convenient way to throw them in without needing a coherent reason for them to be there. This was only exacerbated by the fact that they either had long, drawn out encounters (like Enigma) which just weren’t that fun to pursue or they were so short (like Anarchy) that you really didn’t have time for them to develop.
Should we judge Batman: Arkham Origins without the knowledge of the titles that followed it previously it would be easy to heap praise on it. The combat is engaging and satisfying, the exploration into the relationship between the Joker and Batman is intriguing and the world is filled with detail that few games manage to achieve. However it’s lineage set a high bar for it to live up to and the fact that it’s not different enough from Arkham City, combined with the numerous game breaking bugs, means that Arkham Origins is the weakest of all of the titles. I certainly enjoyed my time in it but there’s no mistaking that the developers behind it have their work cut out for them if they want to live up to the Rocksteady brand.
Rating: 7..0 / 10
Batman: Arkham Origins is available on PC, Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and WiiU right now for $59.99, $78, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 13 hours of play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.
I think what attracts me most to the indie game scene is the refinement of game ideas down to their core. It’s far too typical for games to include elements from disparate genres (how many AAA games now include some form of levelling or skill tree based progression) and whilst the end result might be playable those extraneous elements usually don’t do much for the game as a whole. Independent game son the other hand, with their much more limited resources behind them, have to focus on those ideas lest the scope get out of control. Gunpoint is an indie platform puzzler that does a few things and does them well making for an enjoyable, if somewhat short, experience.
You are Richard Conway, freelance spy who’s just received his shipment of Bullfrog hypertrousers and has decided to test them out from his 3rd floor apartment. Of course since you’ve never used them before this sends to you flying out of your apartment and into the nearby corporate offices. Unfortunately for you a murder is committed nearby and the video footage places you at the scene of the crime. So begins your adventure into covering your ass and, hopefully, discovering who the real killer is.
Gunpoint is a pixel art game and does well to invoke feelings of the times when games like it were common. The story behind its creation is quite interesting as the main developer, Tom Francis previously of PC Gamer fame, put out a call on his blog for artists. He eventually settled on John Roberts as the lead artist and Fabian van Dommelen for the backgrounds and the end result is quite good. Francis also went through the same process for the background music and has achieved a similar level of success even though it’s a decidedly more modern affair.
As I alluded to before Gunpoint is a puzzler platformer with a heavy emphasis on using the environment to accomplish your objectives whilst remaining out of sight of potential enemies. Initially this is just a game of timing your moves right, ensuring that guards don’t see you and that you have enough time to accomplish your goal before they turn around. However that all changes when you’re given access to the crosslink tool, a game mechanic which allows you to rewire circuits within the building you’re attempting to infiltrate. This allows you to do all sorts of crazy and whacky things, many of which are emergent thanks to the rather free form nature of Gunpoint’s play.
In the beginning you’re given unfettered access to the entire building, allowing you to rewire anything to anything. Of course if the whole game was like this it would be a little too easy so eventually it’s broken down into different circuits which you need to unlock in order to be able to control devices on it. This necessitates using a little strategy in order to get guards to open doors for you or just to set them in motion so you’ll be able to sneak past them or take them out without risking being shot. This is probably one of the few games where I find one-shot kills acceptable although that’s probably more due to the great auto-save system more than anything else.
The upgrade system in Gunpoint takes on a dual focus with each successful mission granting one point to upgrade your innate abilities as well as a stack of cash which you can spend on upgrades. However like most games which incorporate upgrades which have potentially game changing consequences Gunpoint’s levels don’t strictly rely on you having anything of them, meaning the game can be completed without them. Indeed I didn’t spend much money at all on upgrades initially and only when I was granted a ludicrous $8000 bounty did I bother spending my cash. Even then at the end I barely used any of the additional abilities I had been granted although the upgrades to the jump charge speed and height were somewhat useful.
The story is a light-hearted affair as it doesn’t take itself too seriously (even if you choose the less silly dialogue options) and doesn’t really deal with a serious subject matter. For the style of game it fits quite well and the story sequences, which are told through walls of text, don’t distract from the main game. If you’re feeling adventurous you can also find extra bits and pieces of the story scattered around the levels in optional objectives which aren’t completely necessary but do add a little more flavour and back story. Overall it’s good but lacks any kind of depth so don’t expect a heavily story driven experience.
Gunpoint is a great puzzler experience that focuses heavily on the game play, allowing the player a degree of freedom that is rare in today’s titles. It’s quite likely that no two playthroughs of Gunpoint will be the same as the amount of emergent behaviour that is possible within each small level is quite extraordinary. It’s let down somewhat by the not-so-useful upgrade system and light on story but the heavy investment in the game play more than makes up for these shortcomings. It’s an intriguing title, one made even more interesting by the fact that it was made by a former game critic, and should you be looking for a good distraction between longer games then you really couldn’t go past Gunpoint.
Gunpoint is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
There were a lot of games I wanted to check out after doing several tours of the indie area at PAX. Unfortunately most of them aren’t available yet, at least the ones I wanted to play anyway, and so after I got home I did the usual scroll through Steam looking for something that caught my interest for this week’s review. Thankfully the Steam Summer Sale was in full effect and many titles that I had passed over (mostly due to price) were on sale and so I quickly filled my library with several games I had been meaning to play. Dust: An Elysian Tale was one of these titles and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
You, playing as Dust, awaken in a meadow in the middle of a forest. You’re then approached by a strange floating sword who calls itself Ahrah, followed closely by a small flying creature called Fidget who claims to be the sword’s guardian. Whilst they don’t provide you any clue as to who you are or how you got to here they direct you to the local town of Aurora in the search for answers. The town is overrun with monsters however and after dealing with them the town’s mayor asks that you track down their leader in order to get the attacks to stop. This begins your journey to find out who you are and what your real purpose is.
The art style of Dust is quite spectacular as it manages to feel like you’re playing inside an epic Disney animated movie. I’ll admit that it was a little off-putting at first, mostly because I felt like it was going to be skewed towards being a kids game, however I found myself becoming more and more impressed with it as I progressed through the game. Mostly this was due to the added environmental effects like snowstorms on high peaks but there were also very atmospheric set pieces like the haunted mansions. Overall though being able to capture that Disney like feeling, both in terms of visual style and storytelling, is something the developer behind Dust should be commended for.
Dust is a 2D hack ‘n’ slash platformer where you’ll be put up against massive hordes of enemies which you’ll be able to dispatch readily. I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of games, I usually get bored with them as the combat starts to feel repetitive, but Dust manages to keep things fresh by gradually introducing new abilities to you as the game progresses. There’s also some rudimentary RPG elements included as you’ll gain experience and levels by defeating enemies and completing quests. There’s also an inventory system, which thankfully needs no management whatsoever, and a crafting system that will allow you to create some of the most powerful gear in the game. All of these elements bind together quite well providing a game experience that’s very different from anything else I’ve played in recent times.
The combat frustrated me at first since the tools I had at my disposal were quite limited. However after the introduction of the Dust Storm ability, essentially projectile based attacks that your companion Fidget shoots which you then amplify, made it far more enjoyable. At the same time though it felt like it trivialized the encounters somewhat, even playing on the Tough difficulty level, although this is countered by the fact that anything can drop your health to almost zero (but not zero if you’re above say 40HP, giving you a chance to heal). In fact you can play Dust as a button masher for the majority of the game, it’s only later when enemies start requiring certain abilities, like parrying or using special abilities to kill them, that some form of strategy starts to enter in the equation.
Although this seems to go to the extreme towards the end of the game where (seemingly) every enemy gets the ability to parry you making continuing combos and using your special abilities (which has an energy bar) very frustrating. Indeed it gets even worse when I started to notice that they could parry whilst seemingly incapacitated and, randomly, my attacks would simply fail to connect with them for no reason in particular. It’s a drastic uptick in challenge, I’ll give them that, however it feels more like a hacked in solution to ramping up the difficulty than anything else. Perhaps utilizing some of the non-combat platforming abilities as augments to the combat would’ve been a better way to do it as there are several of those introduced after you get all your combat abilities.
The platforming is relatively easy as all the jumps you’ll be required to make can be done without the use of your Dust Storm (which allows you to move a little further in the air than you would be able to otherwise) and the use of randomly moving/disappearing platforms is kept at a minimum until towards the end. It’s to your advantage to explore everywhere you possibly can as well since there’s treasure chests and keys scattered everywhere which usually contain a bunch of gold and health items. You’ll be struggling for keys initially as they’re just as hard to find as the chests themselves but I found that towards the end I had more than enough to open every chest I came across, even without purchasing them.
One thing that did irritate me about the platforming in Dust was the fact that early on you’ll be shown areas that look like there’s a route to get to them but you have no way of getting to them. Of course later on in the game you’ll unlock the required ability to traverse the obstacle and, should you want to return to that area, you’ll be able to make your way through there. I really don’t like it when games do this as I’m not someone who likes going back to retrace their steps every time I get a new ability. It just doesn’t feel like progress to me and instead makes me feel like I’m missing out on something whenever I see an obstacle I can’t yet tackle. It might increase the play time for some but, honestly, I don’t believe that most gamers are judging games by the number of hours it takes to complete anymore.
The RPG elements serve their purpose, giving you that lovely thrill of leveling up every so often that brings with it new levels of power. Since you only have control over 4 of your stats, and can only level up one of them at a time, the progress granted to you through levels doesn’t feel anywhere near as impactful as the upgrades you get from gear. I can remember getting a really good piece of armor before I was probably supposed to have it which made me near invincible against the enemies I was facing but up until that point I still felt like a glass cannon in battle. In fact the only upgrades that feel like they’re making any difference are the ones to defense. Even the 2x attack ring I got towards the end seemed to make little difference to the time it took ti dispatch enemies which was a little disappointing.
The crafting however feels rather well done as instead of forcing you to constantly reload sections to farm up the required materials you can instead sell one of them to a vendor who will then proceed to sell them back to you and restock them periodically. This means its advantageous to sell one of your materials to them whenever you pick it up as the vendor will stock up on it over time so when you need it, to craft that amazing item blueprint you just picked up, it’ll be there for you. This was my primary source of items as whilst I got a couple good drops most of them came from crafting and whilst I didn’t manage to catalog all the materials (some of the earlier ones just didn’t drop for me at all) I had more than enough to craft most of the things I wanted to.
I was honestly surprised by the story of Dust as whilst it’s rated at E (Everyone 10+) and starts off with some rather shaky premises the characters undergo some serious development, to the point where you really start to care for them. Dust also pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with real topics like death and betrayal, something that I did not expect given its very Disney like qualities. Dust does lose a little sheen by doing the cliched screaming for a sequel at the end but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to another installment of this game and the stories it contains.
Dust: An Elysian Tale goes down as one of the bigger surprises for me of this year, seamlessly combining beautifully evocative artwork with a hack ‘n; slash 2D RPG. It has its flaws, although they’re surprisingly few for a first time game developer, and could deal with difficulty ramping better. That being said however the issues melt into the background as you blast your way through hordes of enemies and revel in the deep story line. I’d highly recommend a playthrough, especially for those who love the Disney art style.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is available on Xbox and PC right now for $15. Game was played on the PC on the Tough difficulty with 8.6 hours played and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Here’s a quick test: does the phrase “Nintendo Hard” mean anything to you? If you’re a gamer that hails from the golden age of gaming then even if you’ve never heard the term before you can probably figure out what it means. The term refers to a time when game designers deliberately made games hard in order to extend the time you spent playing them as budgets were far more limited back then and creating content is never a cheap endeavor. For me whenever I hear those words the first game that comes to mind is Battletoads, a game so difficult that I don’t think I found anyone who had finished it, despite many of us owning it. This extended into many other games and it wasn’t until recently, within the last 15 years or so, that this trend started to abate with games seemingly becoming progressively easier.
Indeed the sentiment seems shared by nearly all gamers who began their playing careers within the past decade or so. This isn’t to say we can’t find games that challenge us, more that the average skill level required to complete most games is well below that than what we used to expect. This is almost universally seen as a bad thing as it feels like the games industry is being dumbed down in favor of a wider audience. Whilst most of the evidence that is used to back this is up is purely anecdotal there has been some evidence from third party sources that has helped to fuel this fire:
“It may come as a shock to some of you that most gamers today cannot finish the original Super Mario Brothers game on the Famicom,” he said. “We have conducted this test over the past few years to see how difficult we should make our games and have found that the number of people unable to finish the first level is steadily increasing.”
At this point, a whopping 90% of participants couldn’t finish the level. (We presume that means they used up their few available lives before having to restart the game.)
He also noted that most didn’t understand basic game mechanics such as the run button, or that coins are to be collected and aren’t enemies, or the concept of a bottomless pit. About 70% died at the first enemy, and half of those died at that same spot twice.
At first glance this seems to be pretty damning as Mario is a game that is as fundamental as it gets, even when compared to current day indie titles that are incredibly stripped back. Probably the most interesting piece of information there was the upward trend in those who couldn’t complete it which falls in line with the gaming is getting easier narrative. Initially I took this information at face value but after thinking about it more I think there’s a lot more at play here than games simply getting easier.
If you take the past 5 years of games and compare them to the same games from a decade previous there’d be a distinct difference in the makeup of the genres, styles and mechanics that made them up. Indeed one of the games that’s seen the most innovation is the platformer and back when Mario was first around they were by far the most common type of game. Today it’s far more likely that a new gamer has grown up on a steady diet of AAA FPS games like Call of Duty or 3rd person action adventure games like Tomb Raider. Not being able to complete Mario 1-1 means doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on today’s gamers, more it highlights a lack of domain knowledge that your run of the mill gamer just won’t have today. You can see that by some of the comments that those gamers made in the article I quoted, namely them wanting Mario to be armed.
It does highlight one particular aspect of gaming that wasn’t necessarily considered fundamental until recently: the tutorial. Now it’s easy to argue that Mario 1-1 contains all the necessary visual clues to teach you how to play it, and I’d agree with you to a point, however tutorials like those are far more effective when your game utilizes the current gaming norms. Due to the wide breadth of game genres now available to gamers today tutorials are almost a necessity as it’s nigh on impossible to rely on current game norms to carry players through it. This is especially true when most of today’s games will try to include some form of unique mechanic to distinguish themselves from the crowd, something which you probably wouldn’t be able to just figure out on your own.
So instead of using Mario 1-1 as a benchmark I’d argue that we’d probably need some kind of game mechanic simulator, one that incorporates all the fundamental ideas from the past 2 decades. With this you could see where their domain knowledge lies and then compare them against others who are similarly classified. I can imagine that someone who plays mostly indie platformers would do pretty well with Mario 1-1, but your FPS player would struggle. Over time you could then see if new gamers struggle with these fundamental mechanics instead of just testing their domain knowledge for a specific genre.
As for me, someone who’s played hundreds of games over the past 2.8 decades, the trend has most certainly been towards a more friendly experience for players should they choose it. Nearly all games come varying difficulty levels of which the easiest is usually aimed at those who’ve never played that kind of game before. The hardest however still provides a challenge to most gamers and there’s been a resurgence in Nintendo Hard games and difficulty levels for those who seek that next level of challenge. Essentially we’re seeing a much more diverse range of games and difficulty levels that accommodates a larger audience, something that the games industry should be praised for doing. Some might not like this, seeing it as the commoditization of the games industry (parts of which I agree with), but as someone who revels in sharing gaming with as many people as I can I can’t help but embrace it.
It’s nigh on impossible to miss the hype that’s been surrounding The Last of Us, the latest game to come out of Naughty Dog studios who’s been responsible for other PlayStation 3 exclusive hits like the Uncharted series. I tried my best but it the sentiment among the reviewer crowd was hard to miss: this game was shaping up to be everyone’s game of the year. However the interesting part about it was that it wasn’t something like revolutionary game play or top end graphics that was sending the review scores northward, it was the confronting story. I had been sold on the game since I saw the short gameplay demo that was released last year and had already lined myself up to play it despite it being a survival horror so all that was left was to fire it up and see if my impressions of it lined up with the hype that surrounded it.
You play as Joel, a single father who’s been working hard to provide for his daughter Sarah. Everything seems to be good in your world, heck she even manages to scrounge up enough cash to buy you a watch for your birthday, but soon an epidemic starts to sweep the nation, one that enrages people and turns them into vicious beings that attack anything when sighted. Tragedy befalls Joel, turning him into a bitter person and he then spends the next 20 years in a quarantine camp, finding work as a smuggler who gets things into and out of his camp. His world is shaken up after he seeks revenge against someone who’s wronged him only to find himself tangled up with a rebel group who’s only request is that he smuggle a girl to one of their camps.
Her name is Ellie.
With this current console generation coming to the end of its life the games are taking full advantage of the hardware platform that’s available to them and Naughty Dog’s expertise on the PlayStation 3 shines through in The Last of Us. All the environments you’ll explore are incredibly detailed, showing the world in glorious ruins. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s skill that all of this runs without a hitch as well with the game remaining buttery smooth even during intense action scenes. What I did like though was the distinct lack of environment porn, I.E. scenes that were deliberately designed to make you gawk at the rendering engine. Sure there were a lot of impressive moments but I never felt like any of them were created specifically as screenshot bait, they were just emergent based on the great level design and detailed environments.
The Last of Us is a survival horror game where resources are scarce and death almost certain should you not play your cards right. Now traditionally I’m not a big fan of these titles as they tend to do things that violate my rules for being a good (but also challenging game) and The Last of Us is no exception to this. It’s made up for somewhat by the inclusion of other mechanics that allow you to negate some of the more annoying aspects of survival horror game play through the use of skill and simple curiosity but there are still some issues that remain unresolved that I will take the game to task for. However I do understand that this is part of the survival horror schtick and is probably considered a great example of the genre so I’m more just trying to make my biases known so you don’t feel the need to lambast me in the comments.
There’s 3 main mechanics that drive the game play of The Last of Us. The first is good old fashioned 3rd person combat which has been tweaked with a stealth mechanic that you’ll make good use of if you don’t want to be reloading the game every 5 seconds. The second is a form of simplistic puzzler/platformer where you’ll have to solve a puzzle in order to progress to the next stage. Lastly there’s a customized RPG like system of crafting, upgrades and upgrades that allows you to improve your character and create consumables that you’ll undoubtedly being making heavy use of throughout your play through. None of these are particularly unique, and indeed I’d argue that the the gameplay isn’t the strongest characteristic of The Last of Us, but they do make for a challenging game.
You’ll spend the vast majority of your time exploring the environments that you’re in for bits and pieces that you can use to craft items to help you along. You don’t have to do this but the less you do it the harder the game will get for you as, no joke, that piece of rag you picked up 2 hours ago could be the very thing that saves your ass. It can get a little laborious though as pretty much every section you go through has to be inspected with a fine tooth comb to make sure you didn’t miss everything and, once you get past a certain point, you might stop doing it because you’ve managed to max out your inventory. However even if you do manage that there’s still another reason for you to keep searching: for the other upgrades.
There’s 2 ways to upgrade your character with the first being through “supplements” that affect Joel. For the most part they just make the game easier, giving you more health or decreasing the time it takes to heal for instance, but some of them can make the difference between life or death like the ability to save yourself from a clicker attack with a shiv. If I’m honest most of them apart from the Shiv Master one didn’t really impact on the game that much, usually just giving you a little more leeway with which to accomplish the same things. I also found that the supplements were scarce enough that I could just drop them into skills to max them out so the choice is usually based around your play style and what seems to be hampering your progress the most.
There’s also the upgrades to your weapons which can improve things like reload speed, clip size and fire rate. There’s unfortunately no way to upgrade the damage of any particular weapon which means they’re just as effective when you first get them as when you last fire them which, honestly, gave me the shits. The awful aiming coupled with the relative ineffectiveness of shots that hit anywhere but the head means that most of your weapons feel like they’re having no impact whatsoever with the exception of the shotgun and shorty (which are only close range, not so great for things that want to bite you). The upgrades make up for this somewhat by allowing you to fire and reload more rapidly but when you don’t have a lot of ammo (and you can’t carry that much even if you save every bullet) it’s kind of a moot point. Even upgrading the bow, something which is typically super bad ass in any survival game, doesn’t increase its usefulness that much, especially against moving targets.
Which brings me to the combat of The Last of Us which is quite typical of the survival horror genre. There’s 2 modes that you’ll be playing in: stealth and out and out firefights. Now the former is actually quite well done as the environments are strewn with little nooks for you to hide in and wait patiently for your prey to walk by so you can snag them and choke them out silently. You also have the rather awesome ability to “concentrate your hearing” which essentially enables a wall hack that allows you to see where enemies are. They have to be walking or talking for it to work, which becomes something of an issue later on, but it’s enough so that you can get a feeling for where they all are before you strike. Of course one mistake means that your prey will alert everyone else and then you’ve got two choices: run or start shooting.
This is where I feel The Last of Us starts to fall down a bit as the guns don’t feel effective at all unless you get a headshot and lining one of those up while under fire is nigh on impossible. The human AI is smart enough to not run blindly around corners where it knows you’re hiding (and it will try to flank you) so you can’t do the usual rounding up and then gunning them all down sort of thing that’s possible in other 1st/3rd person shooters. With the wonky controls of the PlayStation3 the only effective guns I found were the two I mentioned earlier although they still suffer if not aimed somewhere near the head. Of course the stealth aspect of The Last of Us means that there’s opportunity to flank people out although the AI has a rather terrible habit of suddenly figuring out where you are when you pop your head out to start shooting at them.
The same applies to the infected as the AI behaves very differently when you’re near them, to the point where sometimes they’ll make a beeline straight for you even when they’re not supposed to be aware of your position. There’s ways to counteract this, of course, but I don’t like the feeling that I’m making up for the shortcomings of the AI by bugging it out with other game mechanics. I remember one particular challenge (starting the generator in the basement so you can use the card reader door) where after causing a ruckus I’d run to a dark area to hide so I could then plan my escape. Should I not place a bomb somewhere else that then gets triggered by an infected a bloater would then, inexplicably, find me even though I was nowhere near that particular spot. The bloaters also appear to have eyes despite them apparently not being able to see and don’t get me started on the one-hit-kill nature of the clickers which requires 75 supplements to avoid.
The Last of Us is also not bug free either as I had several times when triggers simply failed to load, locking me in the current section being unable to progress until I reloaded from the checkpoint. Additionally the checkpoint behaviour isn’t reliable as manually restarting it often means restarting from a point faaaaaaaaaar behind your current checkpoint, meaning it’s better to just die rather than try to reload it. There’s also the rather irritating feature of spawning enemies in rooms that you’ve already looked in and cleared, ones that don’t have any entrance path to them (like on the second story of a house). For the most part they’re manageable but when you’re dealing with the 100 other stressful things the game throws at you this can be enough to stop you playing.
But the thing that Last of Us is receiving so much praise for isn’t it’s gameplay it’s the detailed and very confronting story that drives you through it. Credit where it’s due for the voice and motion capture actors for portraying it so well as I’m quite intolerant of bad performances in either aspect but the people behind The Last of Us do a top notch job. Whilst I won’t put a plot analysis here (that’s something for the spoiler section below) suffice to say that the story evokes heavy feelings of empathy, sorrow and strong cognitive dissonance over how your characters play out. The Last of Us is one of the few modern games where you have absolutely no control over how the story plays out, something that I enjoy but may frustrate some players.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
I felt a deep sense of empathy for Joel, despite his obvious character flaw of not wanting to care about anyone (from fear of getting hurt). With that in mind the ending felt like the one that I wanted to happen, because fuck anyone trying to hurt Ellie, however in doing so I had to bear the costs associated with doing that. The final scene between Joel and Ellie was probably one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to watch as it’s clear that Ellie knows Joel is lying, as evidenced by her simple reply that echoes her initial character before it’s developed over the course of the game, but she’s accepted he has his reasons for doing so. Whether he’ll ever reveal them to her is something that’ll be left up for discussion (or possibly a sequel, although bonus points to Naughty Dog for not leaving us dangling) but it’s almost at the point where it doesn’t matter.
Whilst Ellie’s fate was somewhat expected (although I question its validity, it’s not like we can’t do brain surgery without killing people) I had more expected Joel to be the tragic hero, especially considering the origin story of the first couple hours. His survival was somewhat counter to what I expected which I was glad for and ultimately it enabled the hollow hollywood ending which is what The Last of Us is being widely acclaimed for. With that in mind the lack of a choice system, one with a lot of games shoehorn in at the end to give the player some sense of control over the ultimate ending, is a smart move by Naughty Dog and something I commend them for.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
The Last of Us is an exhausting experience physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s one that will test your limits of what you think is right and wrong, making you question what ideals you would compromise when faced with the same situation. Whilst I might not enjoy some of the gameplay mechanics due to their survival horror roots I can’t deny the gripping story that’s well portrayed by the actors involved. Whilst there are many that would recommend getting a PS3 just to play it I won’t count myself among them however should you already have one it’s certainly one of the exclusives that shouldn’t be missed, no matter what kind of gamer you are.
Rating: 9.5/10 (includes +1.0 reviewer’s bias to counteract for the fact that I routinely rate survival horror badly)
The Last of Us is available right now on PlayStation 3 for $78. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with around 17 hours of total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.
With indie games there’s usually a tradeoff to be made between game mechanics and story telling. This is not to say you can’t have both, indeed there have been many good indie games that have demonstrated exactly that, more that a game with a limit amount of resources needs to pick one to focus on lest both aspects suffer from a lack of attention. I tend to prefer those that focus on story first, mostly because developing new game mechanics is fraught with risk, but I’ve begun to enjoy those that bring new and innovative game mechanics to their chosen genre and The Swapper does just that.
The Swapper takes place in the furthest reaches of space aboard the space station Theseus. It begins oddly for you, the unnamed protagonist, seemingly trapped inside an escape pod that’s then launched to the surface of the planet you were orbiting. Thankfully you land at one of the ground bases that were established earlier and are able to make your way down to one of the teleporters to get yourself back up there. Before you do that however you discover an incredible device, one capable of producing clones of yourself and, should you desire, swap your consciousness into them. Why such a device exists and why you were sent to the surface still remain a mystery to you but upon returning to Theseus it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to this story than you might first think.
In terms of graphics and art style The Swapper is unique in that much of the assets and textures are actually hand crafted from clay rather than created digitally. This gives everything a rather strange level of stylized realism that’s not disconcerting but definitely gives it an unique vibe. Some of the areas have a distinct Trine feel to them (most notably the garden areas) although the whimsy was replaced with a sense of foreboding loneliness, even after I had made contact with others. The soundtrack is also quite amazing with sounds ranging from a quiet space ambiance to sorrowful tracks that seem to rise and fall at the perfect moments. They also get bonus points for muting all the sounds when you’re in the vacuum of space something far too many game developers forget to do.
The Swapper is a puzzler at heart, one that introduces an unique (as far as I can tell) mechanic to make some decidedly challenging puzzles. They all center around “The Swapper”, a device that allows you to create up to 4 clones of yourself and, should they be in line of sight, swap to them. The clones mirror your movements perfectly unless they’re blocked by terrain or other obstacles which means that many of the puzzles will be spent figuring out where to place them perfectly so that when you move towards your final goal everything falls into place. That’s how it starts initially at least and it doesn’t take long for them to start throwing more obstacles in your way that make the challenges so much more intriguing.
The first spanner in the works is the addition of blue and red lights. Blue lights block your ability to create clones in the region that they illuminate but you can still swap to them should you be in line of sight. Red light stops you from swapping with clones you’ve created but you can still create them. Initially they’re just put in locations that means you’ll have to maneuver yourself around in order to do the swaps you need but eventually they’re positioned so that even just getting all your clones in the right spot requires some lateral thinking. They even start overlapping lights creating lovely purple areas where you can’t do anything which makes for some really annoying puzzles.
Things start to get all sorts of whacky when they introduce gravity reversal into it. These are in the form of little floor panels that allow you to swap the direction of gravity for your character or the clone that’s on them. Since it’s not global this means you can have clones in differing forms of gravity and should they run over another gravity changing panel it will swap for them as well. When I first encountered this I didn’t think much of it, the earlier puzzles certainly weren’t very challenging, but the last few were really quite challenging. Of course once you get into the right mindset they start to become a bit easier as you recognise the tricks they want you to use but the first one of them had me second guessing myself for a good 20 minutes.
Facepalm Games also gets a lot of brownie points for including a map and teleport system that allows you to traverse the ship quickly. This is good because The Swapper is one of those games where progress is determined by how many puzzles you’ve solved and, should you miss a few, you could find yourself needing to backtrack to find them so you can get enough orbs to continue. They also cheerfully highlight any areas with unsolved puzzles something which is an absolute godsend that I hope I see replicated in other indie puzzlers. Needless to say they’ve put a lot of effort into taking out the crap in order to focus better on the story and mechanics which I’m sure we can all appreciate.
Surprisingly there were no game breaking bugs to report, nor any minor quibbles that I took issue with. Due to the style of game there is a bit of room for emergent game play to occur which can lead to puzzle solutions that probably weren’t intended and that could lead to some frustration for players. I know that when I found a couple ways of doing things my thought process was locked into solving them in that way and the actual solution didn’t rely on those quirks at all. This becomes less of an issue as the game progresses as the latter puzzles really only have one way of doing them but should you find yourself caught in a thought loop remembering this fact could save you a lot of time.
The story of The Swapper is incredibly engaging being told through snippets that you find on consoles, via communicating with the Watchers and through the crazed ramblings of the only other person you come into contact with. Usually this kind of fragmented telling gets to me but this had a definite structure to it, guiding you through the various pieces of information to form a story that’s really quite incredible. The fact that it all ties together neatly at the end also deserves praise as it would be far too easy to leave this open ended, begging for a sequel.
The Swapper is an intriguingly curious game, one that combines a unique puzzle mechanic with an engrossing story to form an experience that is truly like no other. Everything about it, from the art to the soundtrack to the gameplay, all have their own distinct feel about them and the fact that they all merge together in one seamless package makes the result so much greater than the sum of its individual components. It’s one of those games that really demands to be played rather than explained, even if you’re not a fan of the puzzler/indie genre.
The Swapper is available right now on PC for $14.99. Total game time was 4.5 hours with 0% of the achievements unlocked.
My previous post on games and female protagonists sparked an interesting conversation among my friends as we tried to recall all the games we’d played that had either a female lead character or at least one that played a major role in the game’s story. Even though we play a fairly broad range of titles the number of strong female characters we could name was dwarfed by their male counterparts, something that seems particularly odd now that 45% of all gamers are women. Thankfully that seems to be changing (albeit slowly) as games like Remember Me are becoming more frequent, even if they have to fight for their very existence.
You awake in an all white cell, your memory being wiped clean as part of the intake process for the prison you’re being kept in. A doctor approaches you and starts asking you rudimentary questions, trying to figure out just how much of yourself remains after your treatment. It seems that you’re somewhat resistant to the Sensen’s memory wiping ability and need to be sent elsewhere for further treatments. However whilst you’re on your way to what appears to be your final doom you’re contacted by a man called Edge who helps you escape. The world you’re then thrust into however is a dark and terrifying one that’s under the control of the Memorize corporation. Not directly however, but simply because their technology allows anyone to forget the most painful moments of their life turning them into memory junkies. Edge wants you to fight them and you can’t fight the compulsion to do so.
Remember Me is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from current generation console titles as it’s able to make full use of all the hardware power that’s available to it. The game incorporates all the modern effects: high amounts of motion blur, high resolution textures and it’s own glitchy overlay whilst also keeping its frame rate at a solid 60 fps. I will take slight issue with the lip synching as, outside the cutscenes, it’s either done extremely poorly or just not at all. It’s really the only let down in the whole audio/visual experience as pretty much everything else is spot on.
The game play of Remember Me is a mix of beat em up style combat, logic puzzles and an unique mechanic whereby you remix someone’s memories in order for them to do what you want them to. Whilst the fundamentals of each of these core mechanics will be familiar to most long time gamers they all have their own twist to them that makes them unique to the Remember Me world. By far the most intricate of them all is the combat system which you can heavily customize to suit your style of play. The logic puzzles and memory remixing are somewhat simplistic by comparison but are still an enjoyable part of the overall game play.
Combat follows the Arkham Asylum/Arkham City model of beat em up where you spend the majority of your time attempting to land combos whilst enemies throw themselves at you. It’s a little more nuanced and is reminiscent of fighter game combos where you must hit every button at the right time and in the right order to pull it off. However the combo aid at the bottom of the screen helps a lot and it’s also far more forgiving than any fighter game I’ve ever played. The really cool thing about the combat system though is the customization allowing you to change how the combo works and what benefits landing it will give you.
You have 4 types of “pressens” which are mapped to the buttons on the controller. The first is the damage one which, as its name implies, will increase the damage dealt by that particular strike. Regeneration ones will give you health upon landing a hit and cooldown pressens reduce the time between the use of your special abilities (more on those later). The final one is the chain pressen which inherits all the pressens that came before it making it a powerful tool for creating combos that are truly crazy. There’s also the twist of pressens having more effect the further along in the combo they are which, when you’re dealing with an 8 hit combo, can make a pressen that felt useless suddenly become really viable. You can also chop and change between the pressens during combat, allowing you to adjust your fighting style to the challenges at hand.
You’ll be doing this more often than you think as whilst towards the end you’ll have enough pressens and combos available to you to cover any situation initially you’ll either be short of either of them at any given time. My original 8 hit combo felt like the perfect fit for pretty much any situation but when you’re surrounded by 8 enemies at a time it became incredibly hard to land and thus needed to be reworked into a 5 and 3 hit combo respectively. There’s also certain types of enemies that will require you to build a combo just to take them down especially if their death relies on using one of your special abilities.
Augmenting your regular punches and kicks are s-pressens, special abilities that allow you to deal with the varying challenges much easier and quicker than you could do otherwise. They’re unlocked gradually, always as part of the game throwing a new type of enemy at you that basically requires that s-pressen to take them down, and how you use them is really up to you. They also rely on focus, shown as the white/blue bar above, which is generated whenever you hit or are hit by someone. In the beginning they’re quite cool and feel like the ultimate get out of jail free card but eventually their effectiveness starts to drop off and their use becomes something of a necessity.
This is probably where Remember Me starts to struggle as ramping up the difficulty involves nullifying the abilities that have been granted to you whilst throwing ever increasing numbers of enemies at you. It’s something that the whole games industry is struggling with at the moment, the idea of providing challenge whilst keeping the player engaged, but simply throwing more bodies or removing player options is most certainly more towards the anti-fun part of the spectrum and should honestly be avoided. Of course you could argue that due to its hack ‘n’slash nature Remember Me implies that this is how the challenge will be ramped up but I find that a poor excuse for a game that incorporates such a nuanced combat system in the first place. I don’t pretend to have a solution to this, indeed even the game designers I know say that this is something that the best struggle to achieve, but it’s definitely one of those things that will count against a game in my view.
The memory remixing puzzles are quite awesome as they play on the idea of small changes having big impacts on how something would play out. Whilst the outcomes are relatively fixed, I.E. there’s no emergent behaviour possible in any of them, the different outcomes are quite varied and the difference between a successful remix and a failure can be something as simple as doing something too early, or too late. There’s also a ton of red herrings in all of them, things that when modified won’t do anything at all, which keeps you second guessing your decisions right up until everything falls into place. I can’t really talk about it much more without spoiling the crap out of some of the puzzles but suffice to say it’s really good despite the fact it didn’t feature as prominently as I thought it would.
Outside of the memory remixing there’s a bunch of puzzles that make use of Remembranes, fragments of memory that you purloin from other people in order to move forward. They start off as being easy timing puzzles, usually involving you avoiding detection from robots that move in a predictable pattern, but they eventually graduate into riddles that unlock codes forcing you to decipher the ramblings of a man who was driven insane. They’re a small part of the game however and you could usually stumble through them without thinking about it too hard although I will admit I got caught on the second to last puzzle involving the hominus/m3morize/evolutio words.
One point that bears mentioning is the strange, strange world that Remember Me exists in. Now I’m not talking about the major plot points that drive the story that revolve around the Memorize memory technology, more that whilst the developers have strived to create a world that feels alive they’ve in fact created one that’s just simply weird. There are robots everywhere, and I mean everywhere, but apart from the patrol robots not a single one will react to you, not even ones that are in places where you’re not supposed to be (despite being a wanted criminal). They’ve obviously been put there to make it feel like the city is alive in some way without them having to code in a lot of people (which do exist, but are few and far between) but instead it creates this weird atmosphere where you’d expect them to react to you but they don’t. You’d probably be better just leaving them out because having them there just creates this extremely odd atmosphere.
Remember Me’s story is quite gripping once you get over the stumbling block of Nilin implicitly trusting Edge and doing everything he asks. They touch on this very point with the inter-chapter monologues that help to bridge over some of the more glaring plot issues, but it essentially leaves Nilin without any particular motivation for a good chunk of the game. It does morph into a much more rich and detailed story towards the end however, even though quite a lot of things are still left unclear, and the last couple hours were intense enough for everyone in my house to stop what they were doing in order to watch everything to the end. It’s definitely far above what I’ve come to expect from these kinds of games and Dotnod Entertainment should be commended for making a strong female lead, even if there’s a few rough edges.
For a new IP Remember Me does incredibly well, showcasing some incredibly refined game mechanics with a top notch story that combine to produce a well rounded and highly polished game experience. It still has some teething issues, something which is not uncommon to games trying out new ideas, but it manages to pull the majority of them off without sacrificing other aspects of the game. A strong female lead is also a welcome addition something which hopefully won’t be considered a controversial choice for too much longer. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Remember Me and would recommend it for anyone seeking out a fresh experience that’s unlike anything else that’s come before it.
Remember Me is available on PlayStation3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $79, $79 and $49.99 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 on the Errorist Agent difficulty with around 8 hours of total play time and 39% of the achievements unlocked.