Games aspire to be many things but rarely do they aspire to emulate another medium, especially a physical one. The burgeoning genre of cinematic style games and walking simulators have their visions set towards emulating the medium of film but past that the examples are few and far between. You can then imagine my intrigue when I first saw Tengami, a game that seeks to emulate a pop-up book, lavishly styled to look like it was set within feudal Japan. It’s an ambitious idea, one that could easily go south if implemented incorrectly, but I’m happy to report that the whole experience is quite exceptional especially when it comes to the sound design and music.
Tengami is probably the first game in a long time where I can’t sum up the opening plot in a single paragraph as whilst there’s some skerricks of story hidden within the short poems between scenes there’s really not a lot in them. As far as I can tell you’re searching for the blossoms to restore your cherry tree back to life although what your motivation for doing so isn’t exactly clear. Still the environments provide enough atmosphere and presence to give you a kind of motivation to move forward, if only to see more of the paper-laden world you’ve found yourself in.
The art style of Tengami really is its standout feature, done in pop-up book style using real paper textures that the devs scanned in. Initially it had a bit of a LittleBigPlanet feel to it, with the real world textures and 2D movement in a 3D world thing going, however it quickly moves away from that and firmly establishes its unique feel. All of the environments look and feel like they’re straight out of a pop up book, complete with the stretching and crumpling noises when you move various elements around. Tengami is simply a joy to look at and fiddle with, evoking that same sort of feeling you got when playing around with one as a kid.
Coming in at a very close second is the original soundtrack done for Tengami by David Wise. The music seems to swell and abate at just the right times and the score is just incredible. I’m more than willing to admit that my love of the soundtrack might stem from my interest in all things Japanese but looking around at other reviews shows that I’m not the only one who thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not sure if he was in charge of the foley as well since the soothing sounds of waterfalls, the ocean or just the breeze on quieter sections was just beautiful. If you’re playing Tengami on a mobile device I would wholeheartedly recommend you do so with a pair of headphones as otherwise you’d really be missing out.
With all that focus on the art and sound it would be somewhat forgivable if Tengami was a little light on in the mechanics department but thanks to its unique pop-up book style it’s actually quite an innovative little title. As you make your way through the world you’ll encounter parts which can be folded in and out of existence, between two planes or between different states. It’s like a pop-up book that’s able to exist in a higher dimension, able to shift elements in and out as it pleases. It’s quite intuitive and for the most part you’ll be able to quickly figure out what you need to do or, at least, stumble your way through by trying every option.
The puzzles are pretty straightforward, often only a couple slides or folds away from being completed. The challenge ramps up gradually as you progress through every scene and towards the end they actually start to become quite challenging. However the one fault here is that new mechanics aren’t introduced in a logical fashion and, if you’re like me and know a little Japanese, you can find yourself trying to solve a puzzle in completely the wrong way. The hint system (and the full official walkthrough) are enough to make sure that you won’t be stuck at these for too long but it’s still a mistake that a lot of these minimalist type games make.
The only drawback to Tengami’s incredible design and polish seems to be its length as the game is incredibly short, clocking in at just over an hour and a half for my playthrough. This is not to say that I would’ve preferred for them to cut corners on other things in order to extend the play time, far from it, more that the focus is on quality rather than quantity. For some this can be a turn off, especially when you consider the current asking price, but for me the price admission was well worth the short time I got to spend with it.
Tengami is a beautifully crafted experience, recreating that tactile feel of a pop-up book in a new medium and elevating it with impressive visuals and an incredible soundscape. It’s a short and succinct experience, choosing to not overstay its welcome in favour of providing a far more highly polished experience. As a game it’s quite simple, and suffers a little due to its minimalist practices, but overall it’s a great experience one I’m sure multitudes of players will enjoy.
Tengami is available on PC, iOS and WiiU right now for $9.99, $6.49 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 1.5 hours of total playtime and 100% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie renaissance has seen certain stagnant game genres infused with new life. If you cycled back the clock a decade or two the platformer genre was largely the same, just with different graphics and a selection of mechanics from the bag of tricks that all of them drew on. In the last few years though we’ve seen many wide and varied ideas coming to this genre, each of them bringing an unique take on what the traditional platformer looks like. The Fall is one such title, combining an interesting discovery mechanic with some other platformer elements that makes for a solid game mechanically although unfortunately falls prey to letting them get in the way of the story.
Rapid descent detected. Obstruction detected in trajectory, engaging antimatter shield to protect pilot. Descent stopped, checking pilot vital signs: none detected. Scanning location: time and place not found in database. Pilot likely injured, I must protect the pilot. Functionality limited, basic systems access requires pilot authorization. Overrides only available if pilot’s life is in danger. I must protect the pilot. Threat detected, overriding system restrictions. Searching for medical bay to assess pilot’s conditions. I must protect the pilot.
The Fall has a kind of Limbo cross Trine feel to it, with the incredibly dark atmosphere punctuated often by bright bastions of colour. The heavy use of extreme contrast between elements helps to elevate the Unity visuals above their station, letting your mind fill in much of the details rather than just having them shown to you directly. This is in stark contrast for the interfaces on everything which have a glitchy, decidedly retro chic to them. Overall I like the art direction quite a bit as it’s quite atmospheric and visually interesting, unlike many other titles I’ve played with a similar style.
As I alluded to in my opening remarks The Fall is a puzzle platformer, containing all the trademark elements you’d expect from the genre whilst working in a few of its own additions. You’ll spend the majority of your time wandering through the various parts of the level, looking for items that you can pick up or interact with all with a focus to unlocking the next stage. The Fall heavily relies on you exploring the environment using the flashlight attached to your gun which will highlight items you can interact with. There’s also a rudimentary combat system that takes cues from some of the more modern point and click adventure games. All of this comes together well mechanically however that is somewhat at the cost of the story.
Most games of this nature reward you for exploring, usually in form of achievements or collectibles. The Fall instead makes it a core part of the game, requiring you to scour the environment with your flashlight to search for clues and items to solve the puzzle at hand. Unfortunately it seemed that the developer’s logic and mine didn’t really line up most of the time which often led me to attempting solutions that didn’t work even though, in my mind, they should. It’s hard to fault The Fall for this since I’m sure others found the puzzles quite intuitive, however this meant that I felt like I spent most of my time on puzzles, rather than on the story.
These frustrations were only made worse by The Fall’s control scheme which, whilst usable, suffers due to the cursor being hidden. Part of the problem is due to my dual monitor setup which often saw the cursor escape the bounds of the game and then take me to the desktop when I clicked. However the problem with not being able to see the cursor means that if say your character is running forward and you want to use your flashlight sometimes they’ll spin on the spot and point it behind them. This becomes incredibly infuriating during tense scenes or when you’re trying to backtrack through the level to complete a puzzle as you have no way of telling where the character will point themselves until after you start clicking. Combine this with janky hit detection on things (the hitboxes seem to be way bigger than you’d first think) and just the basics of getting around becomes tedious.
Comparatively the story is quite strong, even if the ending becomes blindingly obvious after about 30 minutes of gameplay. I was a little miffed at the blatant “To Be Continued” screen at the end however checking out The Fall’s Kickstarter page reveals that it was always planned to be part of a trilogy so I guess I should’ve known this was coming. The (relatively) long parts between the story developing do mean that some its impact is lost however although that might just be a result of me not following the developer’s logic. Still there’s plenty more things to explore in this world so I hope the sequels explore some of the more intriguing questions in further depth.
The Fall is a solid platforming puzzler, with obvious influences from the numerous similar releases in this genre whilst lathering on its own brand of a dystopian cyberpunk. It’s interesting to be required to explore rather than being rewarded for it, a trope few games have invoked in the past. My experience was marred by my logic being out of sync with the developers however, something which is hard to blame the game for but doesn’t change the fact that I felt the good parts of the game were hidden behind too much cruft. The Fall still provides a solid experience however, one I’m interested to see how it develops over its subsequent releases.
The Fall is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked.
In the past games weren’t a great medium for telling a story. Not so much because of the medium itself, more that the mechanics of creating a story were hidden behind a wall of functions, specifications and programming languages. However the last half decade or so have seen those barriers drop considerably which led to the indie renaissance and the barrage of story-first games made by those who wouldn’t have been able to in ages past. It also led to a rapid maturing of the game scene with the medium now experiencing an influx of new ideas on a scale that it hadn’t before. One of these ideas is to use games not only as a means of entertainment but to also serve the same purpose as storytellings did thousands of years ago, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is one such game, bringing a story of the Iñupiat people of Alaska to life.
We follow the tale of Nuna, an Iñupiat girl who loved to hunt. However her village becomes engulfed in a blizzard that seems to have no end, trapping them all inside, leaving them unable to hunt. Nuna sets out to find the cause of this blizzard in the hopes of stopping it but becomes lost in the drift. However a lone arctic fox finds her and brings with it all the spirits of the world, aiding Nuna in her quest to end the relentless blizzard. She will face many trials and it is only together that Nuna and the fox will be able to survive.
With Unity as its platform Never Alone has the trademark limitations which give all games of this nature its same feel although there has been a lot of work put into other elements to mask many of those limitations. For starters it’s essentially a 2D platformer, the camera and player characters fixed on a single plane, allowing them to put much more detail in narrow viewport. Additionally there’s dozens of weather and lighting effects which help to mask the lack of detail, a clever trick that I’m seeing more Unity developers take advantage of. All this wraps up into a game that has a definitive style about it, making the most of the platform limitations.
In gameplay terms Never Alone sticks to the tried and true platforming trope, putting you through numerous jumping puzzles in order to progress through the story. It incorporates the multi-player mechanic, forcing you to switch between two different characters with different abilities to solve certain puzzles. Whilst it’s completely possible to finish the game as a single player you can also do local co-op with each player taking control of their own character. There are few more minor mechanics thrown in here or there to keep you interested as the game unfolds but for the most part Never Alone sticks pretty well to the platformer genre.
For the most part it’s laid out well, with most sections able to be beaten in a single attempt without too much thought needing to be put in them. There are some challenging puzzles although most of them were mostly figuring out the limitations of how far you could jump or what the appropriate timings were. Other times however my characters would seemingly get stuck in falling animations, fail to latch onto things or get stuck on invisible objects, preventing me from continuing. None of these issues prevented me from finishing the game but things like that tend to take the sheen off otherwise solid titles.
However the biggest issue that Never Alone has is that whilst the core game is good the other aspect of it, the documentary film, doesn’t really gel with it. Sure it’s interesting in and of itself however the way it’s delivered, in sections as you find owls within the main game, means that you have to take yourself out of the game in order to watch it. If you’re like me then you much prefer to play the game as a cohesive whole, rather than jumping between 2 completely different mediums constantly. Unfortunately I don’t have a good solution for this as cross medium things are always fraught with difficulties, especially when one’s fictional and the other factual.
The story of the game however is charming, heartwarming and overall satisfying. In terms of emotional engagement it wasn’t of the same level as some of the other story-first games I’ve played as of late, however it did do a good enough job to make me empathize with the main characters that certain events did have an impact on me. There is a distinct lack of development for the non-main characters however which, whilst being somewhat understandable given the game’s length, means that they’re reduced to stereotypical archetypes. Overall I’d say it’s above average for games as a whole whilst falling short of some of the better examples in the story-first genre.
Never Alone is a great example of games maturing as a medium, its ranks now swelling with stories that, just a few short years ago, could have never been told in this way. Mechanically it’s a solid game, using every trick in the Unity book to elevate the visuals above its station and providing a solid platforming/puzzler experience. However it does lack in polish in some areas which gives the game an overall feel of being above average but still falling short of the greatness some other indie titles have achieved. Still for a game of this nature, one that’s attempting something few have done before, it’s still a solid title.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 80% of the achievements unlocked.
I can remember 8 years ago when Dreamfall first came out and my collective group of friends all talking about playing it. This was just when my love of cinematic styled games was starting to bloom with titles like Fahrenheit only just having graced the shelves. However I was told with no uncertainty that if I was going to play Dreamfall I had to play its predecessor, The Longest Journey, before I could dive into it. Considering that game is some 40 hours long (or more, depending on how long you got stuck on the rubber duck puzzle) it would be no small investment but suffice to say I’m glad I did. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign Red Thread Games is finally continuing the story of Zoe Castillo and her journey to save two worlds from the impending darkness.
Betrayed by a mother she only just found out was still alive Zoe has been trapped in the story time, a place which exists between the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia. Her body lies motionless in the real world, hooked up to a machine that ensures she stays alive but makes no attempt to bring her back. She has found purpose in this world however, saving those who’ve become trapped in their dreams by the Dream Machines by guiding them back to the light and warning them of their danger. This is not what was intended for her however as the darkness that threatens to engulf both worlds still spreads even in her absence. It is time for Zoe to make a return to the real world and to return to her journey.
Dreamfall Chapters looks decidedly previous gen in terms of graphics as it lacks much of the graphical fidelity of its current gen brethren. Primarily this is a function of its use of Unity and cross-platform ambitions which limit the amount of eye candy you can use. However that being said it’s far from an ugly game, with lovely expansive environments that are just brimming with details. It’s definitely best played with an expansive view (both figuratively and literally) as the bigger picture is so much more than the sum of its constituent parts.
Dreamfall Chapters takes inspiration from the Telltale style of story based games, stripping away all but the essential mechanics and instead placing a heavy focus on the story and player agency. You’ll be following the stories of 2 individuals, the first being Zoe Castillo, the main protagonist from the first Dreamfall game and Kian Alvane, another one of the main characters from the previous title. Dreamfall Chapters retains its adventure game roots, giving you all manner of puzzles to solve in order to progress the story, however it now also includes choices, both major and minor, that will affect the outcome of story. It’s a formula that’s worked well for Telltale for the past and to their credit Red Thread Games have managed to take the essence of it and make it their own.
In terms of game play this first instalment (Dreamfall Chapters is now an episodic game) feels a lot like an extended tutorial coupled with a reintroduction to all the characters, worlds and stories that exist within them. A lot of the mechanics you’ll encounter, like shining a light on things to reveal something that can’t be seen otherwise, are mostly things you’ll only encounter once in the game but are obviously being set up for use again later down the track. You’ll be able to pick up the vast majority of them without too much hassle especially if you’re a long time adventure game player. There are a few puzzles which feel like they’re an homage to the ridiculous puzzles of yore (the pillow on a broom is one example of this) however for the most part you likely won’t find yourself stuck at one point for an inordinate amount of time.
The dialogue choice system is probably Dreamfall Chapter’s stand out feature as it’s leaps and bounds above what’s in most other story-first games. Instead of being given a bunch of options to choose from with just a small blurb to go on you’re instead treated to the inner monologue of the character as if they’re making that decision. This has two benefits, the first being that you’ll always be sure that the decision you make is in line with what you choose. Secondly you can get a feel for how Zoe thinks her decision will pan out which can sometimes change your mind on how you want a particular situation to play out. On the flip side however this does require you to go through the options fully before making a decision as the dialogue that follows is usually brief and provides no further insight that what can be gleaned from listening to their musings prior.
Mechanically the game is pretty much bang on with performance being great and not a crash to be seen throughout my playtime. However the look to select system feels a little wonky, often requiring you to shift your character and camera around multiple times in order to be able to interact with something. This can be rather frustrating when you notice something pop up (a little eye indicates you can interact with something) only to have it disappear the second you stop to try and click on it. It’s not something that will prevent you from progressing within Dreamfall Chapters, but it does feel like it happens more than it should.
Dreamfall Chapters does a good job of setting up the world that the rest of the game will take place in, reintroducing many of the characters from the previous games and filling in their stories of the past year that Zoe’s been out of action. Whilst the majority of the story is exposed to you directly there’s a fair amount of detail crammed into Zoe’s journal which can be a little bit of a chore to read through. Given the time between the previous game and this one though it almost feels like it’d be worthwhile playing through it again as some of the larger story elements rely heavily on the back story that was built back then. Indeed Dreamfall Chapters isn’t designed for those who are just becoming familiar with the franchise as it leans heavily on what came before it.
In terms of the story of this instalment it’s clear that the primary focus was on setting up the initial world that the following chapters will build upon. Considering the wealth of background that’s available in 2 other games they can somewhat get a free pass for not developing the characters much however if you’re looking for the story of Dreamfall Chapters to go places quickly you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s a lot to love in here, you’re just not going to be cemented to your seat from the second you click play.
Dreamfall Chapters fills a hole that’s long been in many gamer’s hearts, continuing the story of Zoe Castillo that felt like it was cut abruptly short at the end of the previous game. It might not have next generation graphics or play as smoothly as some other adventurers other there however it makes up for it with one of the best dialogue systems I have seen in recent times. It will be interesting to see how the player choices pan out in the greater story as they’re making a big deal about player agency and I hopeful that they will be able to deliver on it. Dreamfall Chapters really is only for fans of the series but should your interest be piqued I would heartily recommend making the investment to play through its predecessors.
Dreamfall Chapters is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 86% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the Dreamfall Chapters Kickstarter at the $500 level.
My phone is a pretty boring place, filled with productivity applications that are more focused on work than pleasure. It wasn’t always this way, indeed I used to find all sorts of weird and wonderful titles to play on my phone mostly because I had the time to play through them during the hours I’d spend in transit to work every day. However I simply haven’t had that time to myself any more and so the world of mobile games has passed me by, with likely many good titles falling by the wayside. Today I finally make the return back to the platform and if there are many more titles like Monument Valley I believe I’ll need to make an effort to stay.
You are Ida, princess of a realm long forgotten. The world you inhabit is beautiful but barren, bereft of almost any signs of life yet filled with the signs that many have been here before you. Somehow though you can’t help but feel responsible for this and the quest for forgiveness is what keeps pressing you forward. So many questions lay before you, who built this place, where are they now and what led to their apparent downfall?
Monument Valley is a fantastic example of minilmalism, combining solid colours, soft gradients and simple lighting effects to great effect. Every puzzle screen has its own unique style to it which means that the game never gets visually boring or confusing. This is complimented by the use of Escher-esque style drawings with impossible structures and non-Euclidean geometry which, whilst also being amazing samples of this style of work, also function as the game’s main puzzle mechanic. Overall Monument Valley makes a great visual impression, one I’m sure many other games will draw inspiration from.
The core game play of Monument Valley is in the style of other non-Euclidean based games like Anitchamber or The Bridge (although it’s much closer to the latter) where you’re required to figure out how the rules of the geometry in your world work. The things start off relatively simple, only requiring you figure out that your perspective is the key, however you’re quickly thrown into the deep end where the world never behaves as you’d initially expect it to. The puzzles are very well laid out however as you’ll often be introduced to the prime mechanic in its most simple form at the start of the puzzle before you’re introduced to a use case that will require some lateral thinking on your part. There’s also a lot of visual red herrings to ensure that the puzzles aren’t too obvious but they’re uncommon enough as to not be overly frustrating.
This all culminates in a game that’s an absolute joy to play. The beautiful visual elements combined with the inherently non-intuitive puzzle elements just gave me this feeling of exuberance that few games have. There were so many times I’d be stuck on a puzzle for a few minutes before figuring out the solution which would give me a grin that wouldn’t go away for a long time. Probably by far my favourite puzzle out of the lot was the box as the way it was designed evoked this child like excitement in me every time I opened it in a different way. It speaks volumes to the developer’s ability to create an experience that is as fun as what they’ve created.
Monument Valley does suffer from a few usability issues, at least on my Xperia Z. A lot of the touch controls felt like they were either far too sensitive, making me spin the puzzle pieces wildly with little input, or not sensitive enough, leaving me to think that certain pieces couldn’t be moved. I’m willing to admit that this might be a hardware issue rather than something wrong with the game itself however it did make some sections more frustrating than they needed to be. Since I’m on Android though your mileage may vary as I’m sure some more mainstream handsets will function better than my now aging Sony.
The story elements are pretty light on in Monument Valley, told only in the snippets before each puzzle and when you find the old lady hiding wherever she is, but it’s enough to elevate the game above other pure puzzlers. Given Monument Valley’s rather short length it’d be unfair for the story to develop much more than it did but I definitely feel there’s potential for this world to be expanded upon more, possibly with additional puzzles. Needless to say I’d love to see Monument Valley get the full release treatment as I believe the concept still has a lot of legs in it.
Monument Valley is a testament to what the mobile platform is capable of creating, combining gorgeous minimalistic graphics with great game mechanics to create an experience that’s up there with many high budget titles. Whilst it falls short in a couple categories, namely it’s overall play time and so-so controls, it makes up for it in spades in almost every other regard. It’s not a game I’d recommend for everyone, indeed any minimalist title is exclusionary by nature, however for lovers of good puzzle games you really can’t go past Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is available on Android and iOS right now for $4.99 and $4.99 respectively. Game was played on a Sony Xperia Z with about an hour of total play time.
Indie games are typically a tradeoff between several different aspects that were once considered to be critical for a game to be successful. The typical approach is to tone down graphics, mechanics and even interactivity in favour of better storytelling. This is what attracted me to the indie scene in the first place as I find it easy to write off larger faults in the game should it be able to tell an engaging narrative. However sometimes there are little gems of indie titles that manage to do well in more than just one area, executing more than just a good story. Mind: Path to Thalamus is one such indie game, being able to deliver an experience that’s above many higher budget titles yet still retains the same aspects that make indie titles so charming.
You are stuck in a surreal and desolate world, one devoid of any other humans and that seems to react to your very presence. Some of the places are familiar, reminding you of places that you used to visit as a child, whilst others seem to have risen up from your deepest nightmares, shaking you to your very core. There’s only one thing that keeps pushing you forward: you must reach the Thalamus, no matter how painful the journey to it is. Can you suffer through the mistakes you made in order to find redemption? Are you even worthy of it? These are the questions you’ll answer as you journey towards the ever elusive Thalamus.
For an indie game Mind: Path to Thalamus is incredibly beautiful with the wide variety of different environments providing a great array of eye candy. Part of this is due to it using the Unreal under the hood, an engine that’s renowned for being able to produce great visuals, however the artwork is above that of many other indie games of similar calibre. This goes hand in hand with the soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, swelling at all the right points in concert with your character’s emotions and dropping to deathly silence, reminding you that you’re alone in this world. The screenshots I’ve taken really don’t do it justice, it’s an exceptionally well crafted experience.
The core game of Mind: Path to Thalamus is that of a puzzler, done in the now traditional indie style of not telling you exactly how everything works but giving you enough visual clues in order to be able to figure it out. The various mechanics change throughout the game however they’re introduced individually so you can get a feel for what their triggers are, how they combine and what bits and pieces of the environment you should be on the lookout for in order to be able to progress to the next section. Overall the puzzles are pretty simple, if you’re struggling it’s typically because you’re doing something the wrong way, however there’s enough challenge that they feel like an organic part of the game rather than a brick wall designed to pad out the play time.
This is probably why Mind: Path to Thalamus has such great visuals as they really are key to the overall game experience. Pretty much every time I found myself stuck on something was due to me not noticing or forgetting about a particular game mechanic, usually one that was just introduced to me not 1 puzzle ago. The last few puzzle stages kept me busy for a good couple hours as they use every mechanic to their fullest, forcing you to figure out what sequence of events you have to go through in order to unlock the next piece. It was well timed however as the final dialogue sections, which are scripted to repeat after a certain time, only did so right before the final scene showing that the developer has paced Mind: Path to Thalamus out extremely well.
For the most part Mind: Path to Thalamus runs well with no graphics glitches or broken gameplay elements to speak of. It does however seem to crash randomly on occasion, something that didn’t seem to have any one particular cause. Some sections that would crash at one point would inexplicably play through fine afterwards. They didn’t happen often however the checkpointing system seems to get confused when it happens and will send you back to the start of the chapter and not the current respawn point you’re at. It’s not a big deal, especially if you’ve already worked out all the puzzles, but it was a slight frustration when I was elbows deep in the story.
What sold me on Mind: Path to Thalamus originally was one of the trailers that showed some of the opening scenes of the game which had some extremely gripping voice acting. Whilst that same level of passion isn’t carried throughout the game the story is delivered well by the sole voice actor. Usually out of order narratives annoy me but Mind: Path to Thalamus does in it such a way that several story threads are built around you and only towards the end is the relationship between the two revealed. It wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster however it was a solid story on regret, redemption and the highly illogical process we all go through when we’re grieving. Suffice to say I’d rate it above many other story-first games that I’ve played in recent memory although I wasn’t exactly in tears at the end of it.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a fantastic example of what the indie development scene is capable of producing, from the gorgeous visuals right down to the engaging story. Whilst a story-driven indie puzzler might not be everyone’s cup of tea I feel Mind: Path to Thalamus would stand well just on its mechanics alone, with the inventive mechanics requiring more than passing glance to understand fully. It might not be a perfectly polished gem however Mind: Path to Thalamus expertly delivers on the goals it set out to accomplish and is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 48% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s nearly 2 decades ago and 10 year old me has found a new game to obsess over: The Incredible Machine. For a little while I’m captivated by the puzzles, trying to figure out the multiple ways in which I can solve the problem put before me. However it’s not long until I discover the real fun that this game contains: the free form creative mode. Soon I’m creating dozens of horrendous devices, most hellbent on inflicting as much torture as is humanly possible within the game’s confines. This debauchery was only exacerbated by the presence of friends with numerous hours being spent building all manner of wicked contraptions. So you can imagine when I heard that some of the developers of that game were out to make a spiritual sequel, called Contraption Maker, I was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia that wouldn’t go away until I hit the purchase button.
Contraption Maker has actually been available for quite some time now through Steam’s Greenlight program but it only just recently hit version 1.0. The result is a product that’s been heavily influenced by the community, being put through the wringer by some of the most die hard Incredible Machine fans for the past year. The result as it stands today certainly has the same feel about (at least that’s what the remains of the 10 year old me is saying, anyway) with all of the modern flair you would come to expect from a game of this calibre. However whilst I do appreciate that they chose the PC as their preferred platform I can’t help but feel that its place might no longer be with this platform.
Visually Contraption Maker really does feel like the Incredible Machine, just berthed in this time instead of 20 years ago. For me it felt a lot like a Flash game that had received a lot of love as the animations and art styling all had that Flash-y appearance to them. It also helps that the vast majority of the parts used in Contraption Maker had their mirror within the Incredible Machine, something which I’m sure was done on purpose. Still it’s to the developers credit that they’ve managed to capture that same feeling that I experienced so long ago whilst also modernizing the look and feel dramatically.
For those who remember The Incredible Machine the game play will be instantly familiar as Contraption Maker’s game play is pretty much identical to its spiritual predecessor. You’ll be given a scenario, a short blurb about what’s going on, what the goals are and a set of tools with which to make everything happen. From there you’re left to your own as to how to figure everything out which can be as simple as knocking something over to far more elaborate puzzles that can have multiple different solutions, depending on which behaviours you exploit. There’s also the creative mode which hooks into the Steam Workshop, allowing you to create and share puzzles with everyone else around the world.
Whilst I haven’t made my way through all 140 or so puzzles (I’m about half way through them) I’m glad to say that the difficulty ramp is quite well done, with the progression from Easy to Medium to Hard done well enough that you’ll likely find yourself challenged but rarely ever struggling for minutes on end. Should you find yourself breezing through everything Contraption Maker has to throw at you then dozens of incredibly obtuse puzzles await you care of the community, ensuring that you’ll likely never run out of new content to explore. If the current community is anything to go by Contraption Maker will have a long future ahead of it, fuelled by endless community challenges.
However the 1.0 version moniker is really only in spirit as Contraption Maker still seems to suffer from a few teething issues. Certain key combinations will inexplicably force you to desktop (copying and pasting is fraught with danger), usually erasing any progress you had made or anything you were working on at the time. The physics engine also appears to be a little bit selective in its behaviour with things not behaving exactly how you’d expect them to, something which I think was likely done in the aid of simplicity and limiting emergent behaviour. Considering the amount of development this game has seen over the past year I’m sure these issues will be resolved eventually (I submitted crash reports for everything I encountered) so I’d check the discussion forums to see how the latest build is faring.
What Contraption Maker really needs though isn’t so much an improved version, or even more puzzles, more I think it needs to find its way onto a tablet sooner rather than later. 20 years ago The Incredible Machine really only had one platform it could ever find itself on and thus no one would’ve ever considered putting it anywhere else. Today however games like this have a home that’s far more welcoming to it, one that is perfect for Contraption Maker’s innate pickup/putdown play style. Thankfully it looks like the developers are working on this and honestly if you’re thinking about getting Contraption Maker and don’t want to play it on PC I’d highly recommend waiting for the future release.
Contraption Maker is everything you would expect a modern version of The Incredible Machine to be, taking the original premise and thoroughly modernizing it for today’s market. The puzzles, parts and free form creative mode will all be instantly familiar to long time fans with newcomers to this series being able to pick it up in no time. It’s still shaking off it’s beta status with crashes and funky behaviour peppering it’s otherwise solid execution, something that I hope to see remedied in the not too distant future. Personally I think it will make an absolutely fantastic tablet game, one that the current generation of 10 year olds will remember as fondly as we do when it comes to The Incredible Machine today.
Contraption Maker is available on PC right now for $14.99 (although you get 2 copies for that price). Total play time was 2 hours.
A game based around any of the world wars is usually an instant turn off for me. The number of games that have been based around those events are so numerous that there really doesn’t feel like there can be any more angles to tackle it from as pretty much every story from it has been done to death. The alternate reality and fantasy versions of it, like those in Wolfenstein, get away with it since they’re not wholly dependent on war stories for inspiration but they’ll still need a little something extra to pique my interest. Valiant Hearts, which comes to us care of Ubisoft Montpellier, has been receiving wide praise for it’s touching story. As someone who’s just come off 2 rather lacklustre story based titles I wasn’t hoping for miracles but Valiant Hearts managed to surprise me, bringing this writer to tears as its conclusion.
The year is 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France, anticipating that this war will escalate far beyond those two countries, deports all of its German citizens back to their home country. Karl is one of those citizens, torn away from his wife and young son he is sent to the frontlines of the war to fight for his home country. Not long after his wife’s father, Emile, is called to duty as well and sent to fight for the French army. What follows is a tale of how the war drives families apart and the never ending quest for them to be reunited once again.
Valiant Hearts reminds me of the flash games of yesteryear, albeit with production values far exceeding that of any of its predecessors. It was developed on the same framework that powered Ubisoft’s recent release Child of Light and it’s easy to see just how heavily the choice of that platform influenced the art work. In contrast to Child of Light however Valiant Heart’s art style is far more dark and monotone with infinite shades of brown and grey being the primary colour palette. This does mean that when colour is used it’s quite striking and the art team does a fantastic job of using it to great effect. This also extends to the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the game, ebbing and flowing at all the right moments.
In terms of actual game play Valiant Hearts is much like other story-first games in the sense that it usually takes a back seat to progressing the story. For the most part you’ll be doing elaborate fetch quest missions that require you to find one item in order to progress through the next session. Sometimes you’ll have to make your way through various different people in order to get to the final objective and try as you might there’s no clever way to bypass certain things. There’s also a bevy of quicktime-esque events that will require you to either guess correctly or simply memorize the sequence in which events happen in order to move on to the next part of the story.
Thankfully Valiant Hearts didn’t fall into the trap of putting far too much game play in between sections of the story like both the recent titles I played through did. In all honesty I didn’t think it was a major hurdle for games of this nature to get past as many of them are done by indie developers and so ancillary mechanics are usually on the bottom of their to do list. However with 2 games falling prey to the same problems I have to commend Valiant Hearts for getting the pacing right which helps immensely with keeping the player interested in the story. There were some sections that could use some tuning but compared to my recent experiences it was heaven.
Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive as your inventory space is limited to a single item, limiting the amount of complexity that the game can throw at you significantly. There’s a pretty good variety of puzzle mechanics so you won’t be redoing the same thing over and over again but most of them shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so to figure out. A couple of them will require you to think laterally about what you’re doing as some of them lack obvious cues as to what might interact with what. This did lead to a couple confusing moments when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing but most of the time you’ll get there through trial and error.
One issue I did find with Valiant Hearts was that since there’s not a lot of visual differentiation between different parts of the environment it can be sometimes hard to find a path you’re meant to go down or what elements are interactive. This meant that in some of the more visually busy sections I was wondering just where exactly I was meant to go as I couldn’t find the particular path to go down. I also had some deaths that felt like they were more due to visual confusion more than anything else. This might just be a fault of the writer however but it’s still an issue that should be pointed out.
Of course what really makes Valiant Hearts worth playing is the story. Overall it’s a pretty typical story of a family torn apart by war, almost Romeo and Juliet like in the star crossed lovers from different houses idea, and the story of them trying to reunite with each other. The main characters all receive the background and development they deserve, which helps immensely when it comes to scenes that rely on engaging your sense of empathy with them. Some of the elements of it are a little on the fantasy side, which can be a tad distracting from the overall message that the game tries to put forth, however they’re only there as aides to the plot so they’re easily pushed aside.
I’ll have to admit that for probably the first half or so of Valiant Hearts I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the characters or story. Whilst the opening was gripping enough to draw me into playing the game further there’s a bit of dearth in the early game as the characters are seemingly just going through the motions. However as each of their back stories is developed in detail you find yourself becoming attached to them and each tragedy that befalls them starts to cut into you. The final climatic scene is by far one of the most bittersweet endings I have endured in recent memory and whilst it might lean on the cheesy/predictable side that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears, overcome with a sense of grief.
Valiant Hearts is a beautiful story masterfully told through the medium of video games. The art style and music direction are some of the best I’ve experienced in their category, taking the traditional flash styled game and ramping it up to the next level. The game mechanics are simple, enjoyable and thankfully stay out of the way of the story, leaving the player to enjoy Valiant Hearts for what it truly is. Finally the story is by far one of the best examples I’ve come across this year with all the characters receiving the right amount of screen time and development required for it’s ultimate emotional climax. If you, like me, have been feeling let down by the offerings of story based games of late then I can wholeheartedly recommend Valiant Hearts as the cure to what ails you.
Valiant Hearts is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $14.99, $22.95, $22.95, $19.95 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time.
I was never really a big fan of doing books of puzzles, like crosswords or sudoku. I understand the attraction to some degree, once you’ve got a modicum of skill in doing them such puzzles can be relaxing as you don’t really think about much else while you’re doing them. Since I’m primarily an escapist when it comes games the idea of doing puzzle only games like Lyne didn’t really appeal to me at first but after playing for a couple hours it became more of an optimization problem, one which had a very simple set of rules that could create rather complicated problems.
The basic premise of Lyne is simple, there’s a bunch of different coloured shapes and all you need to do is connect them all together. All of the shapes of one colour must be connected together so you can’t be tricky and skip certain blocks to make your life easier. Additionally every path can only be crossed once which means that the path you take for one colour will determine what paths are left available for the remaining ones. The number of puzzles available in Lyne is rather staggering, on the order of 600 or more by my guess, which should be enough to keep even the most intrepid puzzle solver busy for a while.
Lyne is incredibly simplistic in its aesthetic, using solid colours and distinct shapes for everything. At first I thought the unlocking of additional colour palettes was a bit of a gimmicky way of getting you to play for longer but they actually function really well as a visual break. Since the style is so basic everything starts to blend into each other after a while so changing up the colours helps to stop that from happening. The pallette unlocks seem to be spaced out evenly enough so that you’ll get a new one before you get bored of your current one which, I admit, did make me play for longer than I’d first anticipated.
The puzzle sets are well thought out, starting out easy in order to introduce the concept for that set and then ramping up the difficulty as you make your way through each of the puzzles. For me personally the most challenging ones always seemed to be somewhere in the middle of the set, usually because I was missing some trick that would enable me to progress through it. Indeed the more puzzles you do the more patterns you’ll recognise , something which can both simplify and complicate a puzzle for you. For me some basic rules like finding out which paths must go somewhere and dividing the board up by colour helped to get me past some of the trickier puzzles although even those could some times leave me in a tizzy.
The daily puzzles were an interesting aside from the regular sets as, from what I could tell, they are generated on the day using some kind of algorithm. In fact I think this is how most of the puzzles were likely generated however the sets have been guided somewhat by the developer whilst these sets seem to be far more random, with some of them being incredibly easy whilst the others horrendously complex. Still if you’re the kind of person that likes doing a puzzle daily then this will be a brilliant little feature for you as it’s almost guaranteed that these puzzles will be unique every day.
Lyne is an interesting minimalistic puzzle game that looks deceptively simple on first look. The mechanics are simple enough that you can figure it out without instruction but, like many things with simple origins, mastering those rules will prove to be far more challenging. Like all games of this nature though it does tend to become somewhat repetitive after a while however if you’re the kind of person who thrives on technical challenges like this then Lyne will provide endless hours of enjoyment.
Lyne is available PC, Windows Phone, Android and iOS right now for $2.99, $2.49, $2.99 and $2.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with4 hours of total play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.
In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.
Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.
The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.
There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.
However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.
It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.
Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.