Ever since I played Dear Esther I’ve been on a quest to figure out why it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not like I don’t enjoy exploration games, indeed I’ve played numerous since then and typically found them to be quite entertaining, and you don’t have to look far to figure out that I’d favour a good story over game play. Dear Esther then should’ve been right up my alley but something about it just made me hate it in a way that I haven’t felt for many other games. Playing through Journal though revealed where my frustrations came from: the deliberately vague and abstruse way the story was delivered. Where Dear Esther frustrated though Journal used to great effect, although not without some initial frustration.
You wake up one morning to find your journal, the precious record of all your thoughts and experiences, mysteriously blank. Venting your frustrations to your mother seems to lead to no where and as far as you can tell everything else seems to be going on as normal. However it becomes clear that more things are happening outside the world that’s being presented to you, things that are having a big impact on everyone around you. It doesn’t seem to be changing you however something which seems to be equal parts weird and strangely welcoming.
Journal’s art is interesting as it feels like you’re playing through a cartoon of someone’s drawings in their diary. I can’t say that it’s hugely impressive, especially with the rudimentary animation and effects employed, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from a game of this nature. The small circus sections serve as a visual break between sections, a good inclusion that heaps alleviate the fact that Journal heavily reuses nearly all the scenes throughout the entire game.
Mechanically Journal is a puzzler, requiring you to figure out who needs to be talked to, what needs to be said and which outcome you’re looking to achieve. In this respect it’s pretty simple as all you have to do is figure out who you haven’t talked to yet and go through the motions with them. Indeed even if you manage to forget exactly what it is you were supposed to be doing one of the characters will likely turn you around in the right direction which makes the pacing of Journal much more steady than other games in the genre. You’re also given a wide selection of dialog options to choose from which will shape what the story ultimately becomes.
Unfortunately Journal feels a little awkward mechanically as the main ways of interacting with it are always a little off. Things like the inclusion of a jump mechanic, which seems to have no other function but to give you something to do between scenes, make you think there are more puzzle elements than there actually are. Additionally the dialog options are hidden by summaries that are way too short to predict how your character is going to react and you’ll often find yourself wondering how the option you chose lead to the things your character said. This might be intentional (as I’ll talk about in a bit) but it still feels like this is a known anti-pattern in game design, one that needs to avoided at all costs.
From the onset it’s clear that the game isn’t telling you everything as there’s references to things that have happened or are in the process of happening that you don’t see. This is fine when it doesn’t involve your character, you can’t be there for every little plot detail, however since the whole story is centred on you this means the initial parts of the story are thoroughly confusing. Indeed even whilst you’re given control over how all the conversations play out it’s quite clear that one of the options is the “true and correct” one while the others lead to situations that just don’t quite to fit with reality. This also leads to your character being almost completely unrelatable for the majority of the game only coming together right at the end.
POTENTIAL PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
It’s obvious after the first couple days that this is a fantasy world, one that’s being recreated to fit an idealistic world created by the main protagonist, but the lack of critical information means that the majority of the initial story is just plain confusing. Whilst I was able to relate to the character’s struggles after the big reveal I could in no way do that before I knew what could lead someone to act in such random and unpredictable ways. To be fair it does represent the struggle that teenagers face, dealing with adult emotions yet not having the tools to both express and understand them completely, however that doesn’t mean it makes for good story telling. The pay off somewhat makes up for this but that doesn’t stop the majority of the game from feeling like a chore.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Journal is an incredibly personal story that reflects upon life’s greater themes through the eyes of someone who is not yet equipped to deal with them. The concepts are great however the game falls short of delivering a good experience with the main character obliterating any sense of relatability early on and the story remaining utterly confusing until the very end. Journal is a game that I want to like a lot more than I do but it’s incredibly hard to look past the faults even if the story will strike a chord with many of us. I bought Journal on the back that it was made by the man behind Kairo and, honestly, I can only recommend you do the same if you are also a fan.
Journal is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.7 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.
In the past the only genre of game that could get away with being intentionally difficult to play was survival horror. The reasoning there was that it built tension, mimicking the feeling of panic you would feel should you find yourself in the same situation as is on screen. However the past couple years have given rise to a genre of games, all of them from independent developers, that hinge on the idea of being incredibly frustrating to play. It’s hard to understand the comedic effect that this usually has, typically resulting in a whole bunch of emergent game play characteristics that become the game’s main attraction. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one such game, combining incredibly obtuse controls with ragdoll physics that results in much hilarity.
You’re an octopus, one that’s managed to integrate himself into normal society to the point that everyone thinks you’re just a regular guy. Indeed even your wife and kids don’t know your secret, blissfully unaware of the chaos that seems to ensue wherever you go. There is one person though that knows who you are, a chef called Fujimoto, and he’s made it his only goal in life to reveal you for who you are and, most unfortunately, cook you up and serve you. What follows is the tale of you trying to integrate into society whilst attempting to flee Chef Fujimoto’s attempts to turn you into moderately priced sushi rolls.
Octodad reminds me of the educational games I use to play as a kid, having a distinctly cartoony style that uses heavily stylization. Initially I thought it was a Unity game as I’ve seen a couple other games with similar visual styles (kind of like how Flash games tended to look similar) but it’s actually a homegrown solution meaning the visual style is very deliberate. Whilst it’s not going to win awards I definitely like it and feel that it’s very fitting to the game. It also has the added bonus of making Octodad playable on pretty much anything which is great considering what a wide appeal the game itself has.
As I alluded to earlier Octodad relies on the unpredictability of the controls to generate the majority of the challenge. Primarily you’ll be doing things that would be considered trivial in most games, picking up an item, moving an item, walking through a hallway of precariously placed objects, however you’ll likely be unable to do that without knocking something over or accidentally picking something up. This wouldn’t be an issue however anything out of the normal will attract the attention of nearby humans and, should you continue your flailing, the jig will be up and it will be back to the ocean for you.
The controls take a bit of getting used to as you have to constantly switch between modes in order to get things done. The first mode is where you can pick up and move objects about, simple enough you say, however the controls don’t translate like you think they would. Then when you switch to the movement mode all the rules you learnt in the other mode go out the window and now you’re on an eternal quest to put your feet in the right position whilst not knocking anything over. Thankfully the devs included snap points for a lot of the main objectives as otherwise there’d be hours of frustration in order to get things to work just right.
Whilst the unpredictability of the physics engine is a feature, not a bug, there are a some unfortunate glitches which can be a tad annoying. You can get yourself into positions where the camera seems to forget where you are and no amount of movement spamming seems to bring it right (reloading a checkpoint will, however). There’s also no way to tell what surfaces you can and can’t adhere yourself to and even when you can the amount of gripping power you have seems to vary wildly depending on the situation. I will admit that the latter seems intentional to an extent but sometimes it felt like the game was punishing you for no reason in particular.
I was pleasantly surprised by Octodad’s story as whilst it’s lacking in depth it certainly isn’t lacking in heart. The subtitles for your lines are great, making you empathize with a character that, in all honesty, has no business being in the position that he’s in. It’s also acutely self aware of the absurdity of its own situation, thankfully not to the point of overdoing it like a lot of games tend to do. It’s the kind of story that I feel would be great for someone with kids as they’ll love the absurdity of Octodad’s flailing arms whilst learning a few things along the way.
Octodad: Dadliest catch is a charming indie frustration title that breaks away from many of the traditional game norms in favour of its own brand of absurdity. The game mechanics might not be complex, nor the puzzles particularly challenging, but it is a great deal of fun to play. The are some minor technical hiccups that mar the otherwise solid execution but they’re not game breaking and indeed you’d almost consider some of them part of the game itself. There’s a lot to like in Octodad: Dadliest catch and I’d definitely recommend a play through.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $14.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 13% 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.
Often the origin tale of a developer can be just as interesting as the games they develop. Long time readers on here will know that I’ve got a soft spot for Wadjet Eye Games who’ve been responsible for publishing some of the best pixel-art adventure games in the last couple years but they’re also a developer themselves having released numerous titles previously. Their first ever game was called The Shivah, initially done as a entry into a monthly game contest, but quickly became their first commercial title. I unfortunately never even heard of it at the time, most likely because I was deep in the throws of my World of Warcraft addiction at the time, but they’ve since remastered it and released it as The Shivah: Kosher Edition and they provided me with a copy for review.
You play as Russell Stone the lone rabbi of a small synagogue in New York city. It’s not the easiest of times for Rabbi Stone as his congregation has been steadily shrinking and the bills keep piling up. Just when he was about to pack everything in he gets a knock at the door: the police want to see him about something. As it turns out a former member of his congregation left him a large sum of money in his will, more than enough to keep the synagogue open. Puzzled as to why this strange windfall has come his way rabbi Stone sets out to find out the reasons as to why this money was left to him and the circumstances in which came.
Whilst I never played the previous version looking through the various guides and reviews of the previous edition of The Shivah shows that a lot of work has gone into revamping the visuals with every aspect being redone. The difference is quite stark with every scene now having a lot more detail, fidelity and lighting effects. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve come to expect from every game Wadjet Eye publishes and I’m glad that their in house titles are no different.
The Shivah is an adventure game where you’ll spend the majority of your time clicking on things, reading through text and figuring out where to go next in order to progress the story. Whilst I can’t comment on its previous incarnation it does feel like this was the part was left pretty much as is as the mechanics are quite simple and barring a couple of the challenges you’re not likely to get stuck at any one position for long. I think this is telling of its origins as an entry to a game challenge contest as many games done in a similar fashion eschew elaborate puzzles due to the constrained development time.
Whilst there’s an inventory system it’s thankfully kept to the bare minimum, mostly serving as another point of reference for solving the other puzzles. I must admit that playing The Shivah I felt like I’d been spoiled by more recently releases in the genre with many implementing a clue system to record pertinent details. The Shivah has this for a few things but there were a couple times where I found myself forgetting a name and having to scramble around the game looking for it again. The notable lack of feedback for some turning points, like in other games where a clue being added to your journal was a good indicator that you could progress, can also leave you wondering what else you need to do. Thankfully most of the time you can get past that by simply travelling to another location but I did manage to get myself caught up in my own head a couple times.
The story is interesting, running you through the trials and tribulations that religions face in the modern day and how the rigorously devout deal with them. Whilst I was a little sceptical as to it being of any interest to me the way The Shivah deals with people compromising on their ideals and how others react to that is quite intriguing. I might understand the plight of the modern day Jew but I’m very familiar with people holding one stance publicly yet doing something else privately and the way The Shivah deals with such hypocrisy has a very real feeling about it.
With it being a rather short game though it’s hard to deeply empathize with any of the characters and whilst some of the scenes can be confronting on an emotional level it certainly didn’t elicit emotions of the same level as say To The Moon (although to be fair few do). The Shivah does get a lot of bonus points for having a story that changes depending on your actions though as how you resolve the situation will greatly depend on how you conduct yourself. Thankfully getting all of them isn’t too difficult so there’s no need to keep a treasure trove of saves lying around and the auto-save function ensures that you’ll have all the chances you need to get the ending you want.
The Shivah: Kosher Edition is a short but sweet experience from Wadjet Eye games, capturing the essence of what led to the publisher’s creation and showing how remastered games in this genre should be done. It’s a simple title, one that’s aptly suited to the iOS platform that this version is available on, and whilst the replay value isn’t high if you’re a fan of Wadjet Eye style games then you’ll definitely enjoy The Shivah.
The Shivah: Kosher Edition is available on PC and iOS right now for $4.99 and $1.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours total play time and 60% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of this game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.
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 remember sitting in one of my university classes, it was Game Programming Techniques which I was giddy with excitement to be in, and being proposed a simple yet poignant question: how many of you have tried to code a game? The room was filled with students who had spent much of their past few years at university coding but out of the dozens of people there only a few raised their hands. The answer as to why was the same for all of us, we simply did not know how to go about it. Fast forward to today and thanks to tools like GameMaker and Unity it’s possible for anyone, even non-coders, to be able to create a production quality title. Lilly Looking Through is a great example of how these tools enable people to create, without the necessary background in flipping bits.
Lilly is just like any other ordinary kid, letting her curiosity run wild as she ventures around her own little world. One day though something strange catches her eye, a piece of cloth that appears to move with a life of its own. However she can never seem to get close to it, the devious strip of cloth always flitting away at the last possible second. Then suddenly the cloth seemingly takes a dark turn, snatching up Lilly’s brother Ro and whisking him away faster than Lilly can run. What follows is Lilly’s journey to get her brother back, taking her through all sorts of wonderful and whimsical worlds.
Lilly Looking Through has a decidedly Dinsey-esque feeling about it, with the backgrounds all being lovingly hand drawn. It reminded me of the many similar types of games I used to play as a kid like The Magic School Bus and Mario is Missing, albeit with the additional twist of all the animation being done using 3D models. The developers behind Lilly Looking Through should be commended for blending the two elements seamlessly as traditionally it’s usually very obvious where the distinction lies, something that I find quite distracting. The background music is also quite enjoyable, being a great backdrop to the sumptuous visuals.
At its core Lilly Looking Through is a 2.5D point and click adventure game albeit without the usual trimmings of an inventory system and the requisite try this item with every other item to see if you can progress. This is quite typical of the indie scene where general mechanics are left to one side in favour of other things and, in all honesty, it’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t have a cornucopia of things to do in it. Thus the majority of your time in Lilly Looking Through will be spent solving puzzles and drinking in the scenery you find yourself in.
The one twist in Lilly Looking Through’s puzzle mechanics is the use of her goggles you pick up early in the game. These allow you to switch between two different times in the same world, allowing you to accomplish things that would otherwise be impossible. It’s by no means an unique or innovative mechanic but it does do its job well by making you think about how to use the two different worlds effectively. The rest of the puzzles build off this mechanic, playing on the notion of time passing and setting up things accordingly.
For the most part the puzzles are challenging, encouraging you to look at the scenery around you and figure out how everything interacts in order to unlock the next section. Indeed my favourite puzzle of the lot (shown below) required you to initially play around to figure out what everything did and only then could you approach it scientifically. However the puzzles that rely on understanding colour theory are, to be blunt, unintuitive and just frustrating. I have a basic understanding of how colours mix together but I know that there’s a major difference between mixing paint and mixing light and trying to figure it out intuitively just doesn’t work. It would be ok if this was just a single puzzle but the last few all rely on the colour mixing mechanic.
The story is also pretty simplistic and whilst I’m not adverse to an absence of dialogue (indeed games like Kairo are a powerful experience) it did feel somewhat hollow. I think much of this stems from the fact that Lilly Looking Through is heavily focused on the visual aspect of the game, and in that respect it does well, however it’s just not enough to carry the game on its own. Don’t get me wrong I think it’s still a great little story, especially if I’m guessing right in that their target demographic tend towards the younger generation, but it really is the bare minimum to keep it moving forward.
Lilly Looking Through is a gorgeous little game, one that rewards the player for being inquisitive with a visual display that is quite impressive. The early puzzle mechanics are fun and enjoyable however the later stages that assume some knowledge of colour theory unfortunately let it down, leading to a frustrating experience that feels more like luck than anything else. Still I think it’s a great little game, one that is probably best played by your youngest relative while you watch from the sidelines.
Lilly Looking Through is available on PC and iOS right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with around 2 hours total play time.
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.
I’ve often wondered what the world of experimental indie games looks like to someone who doesn’t have a long history with games. Whilst the average age of a gamer is pushing past 35 there’s still got to be a good chunk of people who didn’t grow up in the golden age of gaming which means that many of the conventions relied upon in these games would simply be unfamiliar to them. Usually this is done in aid of getting out of the way of the user’s experience (tutorials are by far the worst immersion breakers, bulldozing through the 4th wall) and it’s something I appreciate although I recognise how this might be of limited appeal to others. MirrorMoon EP is one such game, relying on your sense of curiosity and exploration to uncover the vast world that it encompasses.
I am slowly learning to travel in space.
Time is a meaningless variable that slips through my fingers.
Stopping requires a lot of energy while moving feels almost like staying still.
Breathing is hard inside this machine.
I need to stay calm.
And with only that to go on you’re dropped on a mysterious moon, one that has a strange relationship with another nearby celestial body.
MirrorMoon EP feels visually similar to other minimalistic exploration games like Kairo favouring texture-less environments with solid colours covering every surface. As I alluded to earlier I believe that this is done in order to focus you on the gameplay above everything else and indeed since the control mechanism doesn’t allow you to sight see particularly well (more on that later) it does feel like MirrorMoon EP is doing its best to get out of your way. As a fan of minimalism this works quite well for me, especially when I find myself agape at some of the scenery which is nothing more than a couple light shafts arranged in a particular manner.
MirrorMoon EP is an exploration puzzler and the first world you find yourself upon serves as an introduction into the numerous mechanics that are built into it. Your viewpoint is locked however so whilst you’re in first person mode you can’t look up or down, nor even to your left or right. Instead you have to move yourself around like your entire body is encased in concrete, fixing your vision firmly forward. This, coupled with the incredibly small sizes of the world, means that your sense of location and direction is severely limited however you’re able to unlock a large set of tools that will help you find your way around and some of them are quite novel.
As the name of MirrorMoon EP alludes to you’ll quickly find out that there’s another “moon” nearby that, once you’ve discovered the right tools, you’re able to interact with. Initially it doesnt’ make a whole lot of sense, the first one allows you to rotate it around to see different features, however it becomes apparent that the moon you’re manipulating is in fact a duplicate of your own. Then using the tools you have disovered by randomly bumbling about you can then use it to guide yourself, allowing you to unlock more and more secrets. Eventually you’ll solve the puzzle and be treated to some more vague on screen text but after that you’re given access to the real game and it’s quite something.
This is your console for exploring the vast space that is contained within MirrorMoon EP. Like pretty much everything else in the game details on how it operates is scant but after clicking around you’ll eventually figure out what everything does. The screen with numerous dots all over it is a map of all the other moons you can visit and each of them contains an unique puzzle for you to solve which, once completed, will allow you access to a glowing orb. Should you be the first person to find that orb then you’re granted with a special privilege.
You get to name that moon.
Now with the massive number of planets available I get the feeling that they’re all procedurally generated so some of them are going to be amazing and others are going to be quite dull (I believe I visited one that was completely dark and the orb was right in front of you). The names are also persistent and you’ll be able to tell if someone’s named a planet by the name being something other than THX/89 or something of a similar format. I managed to haphazardly visit another person’s planet without realising it but soon after found myself seeking out all the planets I could in order to solve them before anyone else did.
Whilst is a pretty novel and interesting mechanic it unfortunately gets boring quite quickly as whilst the planets are usually different in some way a lot of the time it’s just a jumble of various mechanics mashed together procedurally. Once you’ve seen a dozen or so planets you’ve likely seen them all and so what initially seems like something with infinite replay value quickly fades into repetition. I do like the idea though and for some people I’m sure this would be infinitely interesting (kind of like Kerbel Space Program in a way) but for me I just couldn’t be bothered after a while.
Now I’ll have to admit some fault here as whilst I managed to complete the first “side” easily (and got the achievement to that effect) I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to finish side B in order to get a complete understanding of the story. It does seem quite interesting, especially with the references to the “anomaly” and how the machine interacts with space and time, however the intentional vagueness of both the game and the story have curtailed my efforts to dig up any substantial meaning from it. I could just Google it, like I did for Kairo, and I probably will if I don’t find out anything more soon.
MirrorMoon EP is an interesting game, one which is heavily shaped by your own experiences with it. The unapologetic, minimalistic nature of it will definitely be a turn off for some however the heavy focus on the game play to the exclusion of nearly everything else is something that MirrorMoon EP pulls off exceptionally. Unfortunately I feel like it’s replay value is somewhat limited due to its procedural nature and the intentional vagueness of both story and gameplay may have lead to me giving up on it prematurely. Still MirrorMoon EP stands out as yet another shining example of the indie exploration/puzzler genre and is definitely worth looking into.
MirrorMoon EP is available on Steam and OUYA right now for $9.99. Total game time was around 2 hours with 40% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ll have to be honest when I say that when a game comes at me out of no where I have a tendency to shoot them down. All those hours spent shuffling through the Steam store looking for games to review has shown me some pretty oddball titles and after a couple not-so-great experiences I’ve come to cast a skeptical eye in their direction. Just because a game tries something new or different doesn’t necessarily make it good and whilst I (and many others) might deride the generic indie 8bit styled platformer puzzler which has become the norm these days developers of such titles do seem to have better hit rates. Still after a boozy night I, along with a close mate, watched a good hour long Let’s Play of Papers, Please and I can say this unique game gets a lot of things right, especially when it comes to forming a compelling narrative.
Congratulations, the screen reads, the October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement report to the Ministry of Admission at the Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin, expect a class 8 dwelling. With that you’re thrown into your new job as an admissions officer for the border to Arstotzka with little more than a handbook to guide you through all the rules, regulations and potential threats that might cross your path. Whilst these rules appear to be easy to apply at first they become increasingly blurry as you learn more about the people coming through the border and the greater geopolitical landscape.
Papers, Please has that familiar pixelart style reminiscent of old adventure games. It makes use of a decidedly dreary color palette done obviously to create that oppressive Soviet-esque feeling that permeates throughout the game. One thing that really stuck with me in the game was some of the foley for the various things you do, just routine things like stamping and moving paper around, I’m not sure exactly why it did although it could be that with everything else being so dark and drab those sounds seemed so much more joyful than they really were. That’s probably the only thing that marks the game as being from this generation as otherwise it wouldn’t be out of place was it released 15~20 years ago.
The basic premise of Papers, Please couldn’t be anymore boring: you’re a border agent charged with verifying documents before granting people access to your country(indeed my wife asked me if I was “Playing DMV” when she first saw me fire this game up), Arstotzka. Essentially this entails taking the documents given to you by immigrants, checking them over for errors and then, based on the evidence you have in front of you, deciding on whether or not to let them in. In the beginning it’s rather simple as you’re only required to verify obvious things like the dates being current and the details on various documents matching each other but as time goes on the rules start to get rather complicated and there’s all manner of things that could be wrong that you probably won’t notice the first time around.
Indeed thanks to watching an hour or so of someone else playing Papers, Please I was able to breeze through the first couple days without much of a hassle. That started to change however as other documents started being added to the mix as any additional document was always a chance for something to be out of line. Worst still is that when you’re introduced to a new mechanic, such as seals potentially being forged, you’ll instinctively scrutinize that aspect very closely in the beginning (and the game will usually throw you an example of the new rule as the first immigrant of the day to test you out) which will lead to you missing things in other areas. I can’t tell you how many times I let someone through only to find out that I’d missed something as obvious as their gender not being correct, giving me a citation.
Of course this would be a rather hollow exercise if you didn’t have some kind of motivator pushing you to cycle through as many of these as you could and Papers, Please gives you one that works beautifully but is also incredibly dark. You’re the sole income provider for your family, tasked with paying the rent and providing them with heat and food. For each applicant you process successfully you’ll receive 5 dollars and in order to keep your family happy you’ll need to process at least 10 of them a day. That sounds easy right? Well you have a time limit and when that clock starts flashing you start wondering if you’ve done enough and that’s when you start making mistakes. Of course there are opportunities for you to supplement this income should your moral compass be flexible enough to accommodate it.
This is where Papers, Please starts to shine as whilst the mechanics are solid enough to carry it on its own (there’s a reason why the developer included an Endless mode) the narrative that drives it is by far some of the most compelling and depressing that I’ve encountered in a long time. Whilst the choices seem arbitrary initially, like whether or not to admit someone based on what another person has said, you’ll quickly find out that your actions have consequences with many of them not being a simple case of if I do X now Y will happen later. Indeed even if you try your hardest to avoid any kind of conflict you’re likely going to find yourself being pushed into a corner where you’ll have to make a choice that you don’t entirely agree with but will have to do if you want to keep on playing.
PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!!!
When I first started playing Papers, Please I decided that I’d be a by the book kind of guy, ruthlessly applying the rules as they were given to me so that there was no conceivable way I could get into trouble with anyone. This works, for a while, until I got into the uneasy position with The Order where they gave me a truckload of cash. Of course being by the book I denied the second agent from getting in and of course a couple days later I find myself in jail. No worries I thought, just let him through and then I can go back to being the guy I wanted to be, and so I did but that was just the beginning of my moral compass turning south as from that point I started to make more and more compromises until I got to the point where I was just doing everything I could to survive and that’s when things started to get really hairy.
I found myself weighing up bribes and how many violations I had remaining for the day to see what I could get away with in order to make the maximum amount of profit. Whilst I tried to keep myself as moral as I could, like hanging onto a watch for a guy when he said he’d be back for it with all the required paperwork, if there was an opportunity for me to make money I’d take it. This reached a fever pitch when I was told I’d be audited soon as I knew that’d be the end of me so suddenly my objective of just surviving turned into a no holds barred approach to get me and as much of my family out of there as soon as I could. Thinking back over it I’m really quite surprised how quickly I changed from being a cold, uncaring border agent to someone who’d do anything as long as the price was right, even though I couldn’t point you to a time when everything changed.
My god, is that how it happens for people doing this in the real world? I don’t even want to think about that…
YARRRR PLOT SPOILERS OVER!!!
Papers, Please is a true gem of a game, one that could have easily been considered a top notch title based on either its core mechanics or its driving narrative. The combination of both produces an intoxicating game that draws you into its dark world and refuses to let go, forcing you to rethink how you’re playing it and to question your moral compass, whichever way it points. I could go on but honestly its a game where your experience with it will be quite unique as you navigate your way through the moral hazards, political traps and unrelenting drudgery that is the world of Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 23% of the achievements unlocked. Glory to Arstotzka.
Since my review of the original The Walking Dead from Telltale games I’ve found myself far more involved in the IP. I’ve watched all the TV episodes and whilst it isn’t my favorite show out there it still ranks up there as one of those shows that I’d say is recommended watching. Of course I understand that while they share the same source material the games are far more true to the originals and whilst I haven’t had the chance to read through them I can definitely attest to the incredible amount of character development that happens in The Walking Dead series. 400 Days is an episodic DLC for The Walking Dead, serving as an introduction for the story that will come with season 2. Now I’m not usually one for DLC but The Walking Dead stands out as one of the best episodic, story focused games out there which made this hard to pass up.
400 Days gives you a brief introduction into 5 different story lines that all within a short time frame of each other. They serve as the character’s origin stories, ostensibly the ones that will be used as a basis for season 2, and since you’re playing through them you have a certain amount of control over how their characters develop. All of them come with baggage, both from before the outbreak and after, and how you deal with that will determine how they play out in the future. This rings true to the rest of the series which was highly reactive the choices you made, even the ones you thought were of no consequence at the time.
Considering this is just a DLC it comes as no surprise that there’s been no dramatic changes to the art style or general game mechanics. It still feels very much like you’re playing a game that’s taking place in a comic book as style that works incredibly well, seemingly taking the idea of authenticity to its utmost conclusion. The voice acting has remained top notch as well with all the lines delivered with the expected emotion and gravity befitting the situation happening on screen. It shouldn’t be surprising really as this is essentially the 5th time they’ve done this and every time Telltale games have shown they can deliver.
Unlike the previous installments which followed Lee and Clementine’s quest to stay alive in a hostile world 400 days instead gives you the option of picking which story arc you’d like to investigate. Whilst I’m sure that many will do pretty much as I did, going from left to right, there’s no right or wrong way to play through them. They do intertwine however which means that it’s up to you to form part of the narrative through deducing the links, however they’re not exactly subtle so I don’t think anyone would miss them. Each of the stories are unique and provide you the opportunity to shape their character in some way and with a few cases you can (I suspect) radically change their behavior.
Mechanically it plays essentially the same as The Walking Dead did with the addition of a couple more mechanics that feel like they are there to test the waters for the next season. You’ve got your usual adventure game mechanics of clickable items which you can then interact with however since this is essentially just a bit of background story for each of the characters there’s really no puzzles to speak of. There’s a few challenges but the NPCs tell you exactly what to do so unless you deviate from that then there’s really nothing to threaten you. You could almost consider the mechanics unnecessary as they are as basic as you can get however I do appreciate them as they help to break up what would otherwise be a monotonous experience.
Thankfully it looks like Telltale has taken some of the lessons learned with previous releases and applied them to this one as my experience with 400 days was completely bug free. The worst thing that can happen in story focused games like this is game issues breaking immersion and The Walking Dead had enough of them that I had a couple occasions where I just stopped playing because of it. Hopefully this trouble free experience translates well onto season 2 as that was probably the only negative thing I can remember about The Walking Dead.
Of course that’s all second to the incredibly confronting stories that 400 Days manages to tell in its short play time. Every single one of the story lines will force you to make a hard decision, some a choice between two that neither of which you can completely agree with. Some of the things you’ll do thinking they were the right thing to do, or were simply the only way you could react given the situation, will put you on a path that you don’t agree with. How you deal with that will impact on how the character reacts later down the track and, if the foreboding is anything to go by, how the story of season 2 shapes itself.
400 days fits right in with the rest of The Walking Dead series, providing a little taste of what’s to come in season 2 and giving you the opportunity to shape the story before it starts. If you enjoyed the previous series then you’re sure to like 400 days as the same game play and story telling is there, it’s just the people you’ll be following is different. If you haven’t played any of them then I’d strongly recommend you do as they’re one of the stand out story first titles in recent memory and if 400 days is anything to go by season 2 will continue on with that tradition.
The Walking Dead: 400 days is available on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and iOS right now for $4.99 on all platforms. Total game time was 2.5 hours with 88% of the achievements unlocked.