Posts Tagged‘puzzler’

Last Day of June: Some Things Can’t be Changed.

When playing games that wouldn’t fit the typical definition of the medium there’s always one question I ask myself: was this the only way this story could be told? Certainly for games where your choices matter there’s a strong argument (although who didn’t love those choose your own adventure books as a kid) but for linear, narrative focused games the choice is less decisive. There’s a lot to be said for interactivity, which can drive immersion in a story, but for some titles this can actually be a distraction. Such is the story of Last Day of June, a story that could have been served just as well, if not better, if presented as a short movie rather than as an interactive title.

Last Day of June follows the story of Carl and June, two people who are so adorably in love that you can be absolutely sure that tragedy is just looming around the corner. The sun is setting on a beautiful autumn day which you’ve spent down at the lake together. However it starts to rain and you both make a beeline to the car before you get soaked. On the trip home however tragedy strikes and you awake as Carl, alone in your house and wheelchair bound. What follows is a story of uncovering the events that led up to that tragedy and, interestingly, giving you the chance to undo the damage that has been wrought on you.

On first look Last Day of June’s visuals appear simple though they are anything but. The aesthetic is a combination of Picasso-esque caricatures and dreamlike visual effects which give it this kind of surreal cartoon feel. The characters big heads and lack of eyes do make them a little disconcerting to start off with but that fades relatively quickly. The amount of detail put into the areas you’ll be wandering around is impressive until you realise that you’ll be retreading it multiple times over throughout the course of your play through (more on that later). If nothing else Last Day of June is a visual marvel, one that manages to escape the Unity look-and-feel trap that many other titles fall into.

Whilst not strictly a walking simulator Last Day of June plays a lot like one. The same day is presented to you through different perspectives and the only way to progress is to figure out the way to change their outcome. Each of the different puzzle perspectives are simple enough but changing actions in one can have effects on another. This is all interspersed with flashbacks to the character’s memories, hidden collectables and a few other things which tilt this more towards a story focused puzzler than a more traditional walking simulator. Last Day of June’s biggest flaw isn’t from the execution of its core mechanics however, it’s from the ungodly amount of retreading a path already taken to progress the story.

Each of the new perspectives brings with them a new puzzle to solve and all of them will require you to undo things that you’ve previously done with another character. This means re-watching the same cut scenes over and over again as you stumble your way through each of the puzzles. Worse still all of them require you to go through the motions of failing the puzzle first before giving you the freedom to fix them, even if you’ve already managed to figure out a solution in the first place. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any skip function, even for cut scenes you’ve already seen multiple times before. I can partly understand this from a game length perspective, with my play through only clocking in at around 3 hours, but padding a game out with repetition isn’t something I’m in the habit of commending.

Last Day of June is also not free of technical issues, one particular one which I couldn’t get a fix to for several days. After playing for an hour or so I decided to call it there for the day but, upon launching it again, the game would crash just before the main menu. I traced the issue down to my save file (renaming it allowed the game to run) but nothing could cajole it to run with that file. After logging a support ticket and getting told to reinstall and verify the cache files (something I had already done but did again anyway) I was able to get back in. I’m not the only one suffering from this issue either as there’s quite a few people reporting the same problem both on Steam and on the official forums. I’m sure issues like this will get ironed out eventually but it did mean that I spent an hour or so on troubleshooting when I could have otherwise been playing.

I’m on the fence with Last Day of June’s story. Sure some parts of it resonate with me but the lack of dialogue does mean that there’s a certain lack of depth to most of the character’s development. Carl, for instance, doesn’t really receive enough development for me to empathise with him and June’s best friend’s crush on him feels like an unnecessary aside. I can identify with the themes of dealing with grief, wanting to change things that you can’t and all that but if I’m not invested in the characters their struggle will just feel hollow. It’s possible that a lot of my feelings are born out of the frustration I felt with having to retread the same path so many times which is why I thought that this story may be better served as watched rather than played. I would be interested to hear what anyone who watched it on Twitch or YouTube has to think as my money’s on the experience being just that much better.

Last Day of June comes out strong with it’s beautiful visuals and wonderful sound track but falls short in most other respects. The constant replay of puzzles you’ve already solved means that a lot of time is burnt on repetitive tasks, something you wouldn’t usually see in a 3 hour game. The short play time also means that most of the characters aren’t given enough time to develop fully, at least not to the point which this writer empathised with them enough. I’m willing to admit that it might be my frustration that was boiling over into other aspects of the game that’s influencing my feelings here, so your mileage may vary.

Rating: 7.0/10

Last Day of June is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 71% of the achievements unlocked.

Black The Fall: Fleeing the Oppression.

When I reviewed Inside last year I remarked that Playdead had modernised the formula they pioneered with Limbo many years prior. With Limbo it took many years before other games seeking to emulate the style would come out and I had expected similar with Inside. However here we are barely a year later and we have a game that, on first glance, seems to be heavily influenced by Inside both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Indeed even digging into the game’s development history you see how heavily Playdead’s games influence Black the Fall, with the original bearing an uncanny resemblance to Limbo and the subsequent versions looking a lot more like Inside. Of course emulating greatness doesn’t mean that you’ll attain it and whilst Black the Fall is good simulacrum of a Playdead game it fails to attain the same heights as that developer’s titles do.

Black the Fall transports you back to an alt-history communist Romania, putting you in charge of an old machinist who’s lived in the oppressive regime for decades. However today he decides that enough is enough and it is time to make his escape. Along the way he discovers an unlikely companion: a small robot who was caged up and left behind to rust. Will their quest to escape their oppressive leaders be successful? Or will the world devour them before they ever get the chance.

Black the Fall has the unmistakable Unity game feel, lacking the finesse that other titles have in hiding the telltale signs that the default engine configuration leaves behind. The low poly/cartoony look is very reminiscent of Inside, as is the use of a fixed camera that pans around the environment for cinematic effect. Truth be told the Inside-esque visuals were what drew me to the game in the first place and whilst they might not be up to the same standard they are most certainly a step above similar Unity based titles. What could really use some love is the animations, especially the main character. Looking at them closely they all have the signs of hand-animation, something which is honestly a rarity to see these days. Considering that all you need is a Kinect to get decent motion capture data I’m not sure why you’d go the manual route these days.

Unsurprisingly the game play of Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer. Pretty much all the puzzles are single rooms with everything required to solve them available in the one spot. None of them are very complex and thankfully the time limited puzzles are limited. The tutorial for mechanics are cleverly hidden in various signs and artefacts that make up the game’s background, meaning that every time a new mechanic is introduced you should have a general idea of how it functions. For myself there were a few instances where the developer’s logic didn’t gel with mine however most of those could be put down to me misinterpreting various visual cues. There’s really not much more to Black the Fall than that and for the most part it’s executed well.

There is some issues with the hit detection however which can cause an incredible amount of frustration. One section in particular, the one in the factory where you have to avoid being cut into strips by big spinning blades, stands out in my mind. At the end it’s obvious you have to jump onto an overhanging bar to proceed. However just jumping straight up isn’t sufficient, you have to do a running jump. “That’s obvious!” I hear you say, well it’s not when your character’s jump height doesn’t appear to visually change between a running and standing jump, but it does in the code behind. Other sections had similar issues with my character not latching onto ledges, refusing to interact with objects and other slight annoyances which made otherwise simple sections horrendously irritating. I’d like to say that a little more dev time could have polished over these rough edges but Black the Fall was already released 2 years after their original Kickstarter promised delivery date.

The story likely has more of an impact for those who lived under such regimes but for someone like me there wasn’t much to appreciate. Sure, I can understand the oppression that these regimes imposed on their people but Black the Fall doesn’t provide a new perspective on the matter. Instead it’s your run of the mill escape the oppressive regime story, one that doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. In this case the addition of a narrator or something else to give a deeper insight into what was happening on screen could have done much to improve player immersion and the emotional impact of the story. As it stands Black the Fall doesn’t do much of anything, at least not for this writer.

Black the Fall pays homage to Playdead’s masterful side-scrollers but does little to push that genre forward itself. The graphics, whilst retaining some of the default Unity engine’s branding, are a solid emulation of the Playdead style although the animations could use some work. The mechanics are simple, and, for the most part well implemented save for some hit detection issues that plague certain sections. The story may resonate for some but does little to show an unique perspective on well trodden ground. Overall Black the Fall is an adequate game but one that stays firmly in the shadows of the games it seeks to emulate.

Rating: 6.5/10

Black the Fall is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.2 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.

RiME: Paradise Lost.

Once your average game development house find some success they tend to stay on the same track. Even in the indie scene, which is ripe with games that explore every niche possible in the gaming medium, you’ll see developers stick to a formula once they know they have an audience for it. However there are a few developers which, for better or for worse, branch out with every new release. Tequila Works, who previously brought us the survival horror game Deadlight, is very much in the latter category as their latest game RiME is nothing like anything they’ve released before. Whilst it might not be the most original idea (indeed I think we’ve had enough games in the “young child lost in ancient ruins” genre that it’s something of a stereotype) it is exceptionally well executed.

You wash ashore, the waves lapping at your feet and the sounds of a tropical island echoing in the distance. What lays before you is an island of ruins, the marks of a civilisation that has long since fallen dotting the landscape. In the distance stands a great tower, looming over the picturesque landscape below. Your memories of how you came to be here at hazy and there’s an ever present feeling that someone is watching you from a distance. This island and its mysterious tower hold the secrets to your past and, eventually, your future.

RiME’s cartoon-esque style comes from its cel-shading which typically goes hand in hand with low-poly work. RiME is most certainly not a low-poly piece however as after I cranked everything up to its maximum my system turned into a slideshow. As the screenshots will attest to though you can see that RiME is making good use of all the grunt you can throw at it with its large, expansive environments that are all lavished with details and modern effects. There were a couple sections where performance dropped through the floor although I’m not 100% sure if that was due to me alt-tabbing out or not. Also worth mentioning is the absolutely amazing soundtrack and foley work that coincides with RiME’s impressive visuals, something that is often overlooked in similar games.

RiME is a 3D platformer/puzzler, pitting you against a variety of challenges that you’ll need to beat to progress to the next section. It’s a linear game in terms of progression, meaning that there’s no backtracking through previous puzzles with new abilities in order to unlock something that was previously unavailable. Mechanically all the puzzles are straightforward and self-contained, rarely requiring you to go far away from the current area in order to solve them. However exploration is still very much encouraged as there are various things to collect scattered all over the place, the purposes of which aren’t made clear to you until the very end. Overall RiME is a very simplistic game, one that would have you focus more on the overall experience rather than any one aspect of the game itself.

As there are no real progression mechanics to speak of all of the puzzles in RiME build up in difficulty based on your understanding of the mechanics it presents to you. Initially the puzzles are simple, putting this block there or getting a NPC to do something for you, but over time you’ll be introduced to different mechanics which you’ll need to understand fully as the game goes on. RiME makes clever use of mechanics like perspective, day/night cycles and sound, all of which can be combined together in a variety of different ways. RiME shies away from making anything too complex or deliberately challenging although there are some sections (like the one where everything gets non-euclidean for a spell) which I can see some players getting stuck on.

For the most part the puzzles are intuitive although the game does have some issues when it comes to visual signalling. As an example not all surfaces are climbable and, whilst climbable ones are marked, there are some you can climb that aren’t marked (which are required to solve the puzzle). This becomes more apparent when you start exploring to find secrets and other hidden things as there’s numerous (unintentional, I believe) false flags scattered around. Now I’m not usually one to go object hunting in these kinds of games so I may be a bit more critical of these kinds of things than other reviewers may be but it was enough that I gave up on it after only an hour or so into my play through.

RiME tells its story visually with no dialogue to speak of. Whilst you get the general gist of what brought you to the island early on the nuances of the story are left until much later in the game. The ultimate reveal of RiME, whilst a powerful statement in its own right, probably required a bit more development of certain story aspects for it to have the impact it was aspiring to. Don’t get me wrong, RiME certainly had its heart wrenching moments for me, however I feel like the conclusion (which came together in the last 30 mins or so) needed a bit more time to develop to ensure that I was fully invested. Still the journey to that end was an enjoyable one.

RiME is a beautiful, well executed puzzle game from a game developer that continues to demonstrate their ability to innovate. The cel-shaded environments belie the incredible amount of detail throughout the game which, if you’re not careful, can bring even the most beastly of gaming PCs to its knees. Mechanically RiME is simple, putting the focus on the overall experience rather than challenging puzzles. The story, told visually without dialogue, is done well although its ultimate conclusion needed more development to have the impact it desired. If for nothing else RiME is worth playing just for how well everything is put together as the music, mechanics and visuals all work together beautifully.

Rating: 8.75/10

RiME is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.

Linelight: I Shall Guide You, Little Light.

Atmospheric puzzlers have typically been bound to the mobile market. The bite sized puzzles lend themselves well to the platform, allowing you to work through a few when you have a moment or two spare. This often means they don’t translate well; it’s rare that you’ll want to boot up your PC or console just to play for a couple minutes. Some do better than others though and Linelight, which is only available on PC and PlayStation 4, manages to be better than most. It is, however, still a step below story based puzzler games, but that’s par for the course in this genre.

The game’s core mechanic is simple: you’re a little green light and you have to collect the yellow stars by following a pre-determined path. At first this is pretty easy, simply follow the route and you’re done. As the puzzles roll on though more and more mechanics will get thrown at you, requiring you to figure out how best to use them. Towards the end of each world you’ll then also be greeted by a sister line that will follow you around, presenting another layer of challenge. There’s also a bevy of secret puzzles laid around for you to find, all of them hiding in plain sight.

Linelight takes an extremely minimalistic approach to visuals, favouring soft colours bathed in neon glows from all the little lines. There’s the odd particle effect here or there for when you pick up something or complete a level, but nothing more beyond that. The backing soundtrack though is decidedly pleasant, providing a lovely ambience that casually reacts to whatever is happening on screen. This makes playing Linelight quite a relaxing and zen-like experience which is probably my favourite thing about atmospheric puzzlers. Well that and their shorter lengths, something this reviewer appreciates when he’s short on time!

The mechanics are relatively straightforward with the “tutorial” for each mechanic built into the puzzles themselves. You’ll be introduced to the mechanic using a simple puzzle and after there it quickly ramps up, requiring a healthy dose of non-linear thinking. Quite a few will also require semi-precise timing in order to pull off, lest you find yourself trapped or dead. Also unless you’re probing every nook and cranny of Linelight’s puzzles you’re not likely going to trip over any of the secrets. Indeed I didn’t know there were any secrets until I accidentally managed to go in a direction that appeared to be impossible.

The puzzles don’t lend themselves well to emergent solutions but I did manage to encounter a few issues when I solved something in particular ways. For instance it appears when you get the “tail” addition that part isn’t capable of progressing you to the next section, only your front line is. Of course this only necessitated a restart to checkpoint to solve so it was no big deal. Other than that there really were no technical issues to report.

However, even though Linelight does a lot better than its peers in terms game play, I still couldn’t do more than about 20 minutes per session with it. Like all games based on a core mechanic with slight variations there’s not much to drive you on once you reach a good stopping point. I mean I still came back 3 times over a few days but past that I didn’t really feel compelled to go back. I’m really not sure what games like this can do to keep people like me coming back though.

Linelight is a great distraction that combines minimal visuals with a great backing soundtrack. The simple mechanics make for frustration free play, the puzzles whizzing on by as your little light speeds from one side of the screen to the other. It is a little lacking in the (re)playability department though with most of my sessions not exceeding 20 minutes or so. That being said I think it’s still worth the price of admission, if only for the lovely piano plinking.

Rating: 7.5/10

Linelight is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with 84 minutes of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.

The Turing Test: Are You Human?

It is rare to find games that manage to blend all of their components together into a cohesive whole. Even the most well resourced project will still suffer from the pains of integrating everything together, often leading to one or more parts just not feeling right. Games that do manage to do this however set the standard for those to come, showing that mechanics, story and sound can all be joined together to become greater than any one component. Such is The Turing Test, a near perfect combination of all its elements that makes for one of the most enthralling gaming experiences of this year.

You play as Eva, a pilot put into hibernation in orbit around Europa to act as a safe guard for the ground team on Earth. You are awoken to find out that your station AI, Tom, has lost contact with the ground team and needs you to re-establish contact with them. Upon landing you find that the entry to the base has been reconfigured in such a way that Tom cannot make his way past it alone. It is now up to you to make your way deep into the base to find out what happened to the crew and, hopefully, bring them back under the watchful eye of Tom.

The Turing Test does quite a lot with very little, the graphics erring towards visual simplicity more than anything else. It’s very reminiscent of Portal with all of the set pieces feeling like they were born out of the same design team. In puzzle based games like this such simplicity is definitely a plus, drawing your focus to the challenge at hand. The game definitely has that Unreal engine feel to it with its trademark visual flairs like its specularity mapping. It should come as no surprise then that The Turing Test ran flawlessly on my current rig and I’d suspect it’d run just fine on run of the mill hardware.

Mechanically The Turing Test is just your typical first person, physics based puzzler. Each room contains within it all the tools for you to progress through to the next challenge which is always just getting to the next room. The puzzles start off simple, requiring you to just find the right combination of what goes where, but quickly ramps up after that. In the end you’ll be facing timing puzzles, non-linear progressions and various other challenges that all seem impossible at first until you look at them from the right angle. The simple mechanics means it’s very quick to pick up and, honestly, not too hard to master either.

Now for some this might be seen as a downside as the satisfaction in puzzlers comes from the challenge in solving them. However in The Turing Test’s case the simple puzzles are part of the game’s overall rhythm. They’re designed to be solved at a certain rate, one that allows the story to progress at a steady rate. Indeed even with perfect knowledge of how to solve them I believe you’d still only just get through one puzzle before the dialogue dried up. Too often developers would include other time-wasting mechanics to extend the game’s play time but The Turing Test doesn’t. This means that both the story and game progress together, ensuring that the neither one gets in the way of the other.

This is then all brilliantly amplified by the sound track which ebbs and flows in sync with the game. Too often game soundtracks are overlooked, left as just something that needs to be there rather than an integral part of the game. Indeed for many of the recent games I’ve played I couldn’t really tell you if I enjoyed the sound track or not, it simply left no impression on me. The Turing Test however does a wonderful job of integrating the background music into the events happening in the game, amplifying all of the game’s pivotal moments.

The story itself, whilst not original nor inventive by any stretch of the imagination, is aptly paced and perfectly in sync with all of The Turing Test’s other elements. That is on the proviso though that you only play through the main areas and don’t go to the sides however. If you do unlock the secret rooms (which aren’t hard to find nor solve) the story has a very weird disconnection between what your character should know and what they appear to know. Whilst I’m sure there are some great theories as to why that could be due to the way the game’s world is set up that’s a conversation for another day.

Each of these elements, simple and concise in their own right, would only make for an average game if simply thrown together. The real beauty of The Turing Test is how well these are all worked together, the various elements integrated so well that they are much more than they are separately. Had this game been released in a world that was bereft of Portal or The Talos Principle it would be a shining star of inventive, thought provoking game play. Even in the shadow of those titles The Turing Test still stands out as an excellent piece of craftsmanship, one that should be lauded for aspiring for greatness that it easily achieves.

The only real niggle I’ll have at this otherwise exceptional game is that, due to the nature of its physically based puzzles, emergent game play can sometimes lead you astray. I’m quite sure there were several puzzles I solved in ways that wasn’t intended, mostly because I ended up at the exit door with more puzzle pieces than were required to solve it. Depending on how you swing though this might be part of the charm as I’m sure there’s numerous ways to break the puzzles. It should say a lot that that’s my only complaint about this otherwise fantastic game.

The Turing Test is a brilliant, well crafted example of what games can accomplish when all of their elements work with each other. Each element on its own is simple, from the visuals to the mechanics to the sound track, however together they form a cohesive whole that’s very much greater than the sum of its parts. The total game time doesn’t run long, maybe 3~5 hours depending on how much of a puzzle nut you are, but that entire time could be easily done in a single sitting. The Turing Test is one of those games that I will wholeheartedly recommend to any gamer as it really is worth the time.

Rating: 9.5/10

The Turing Test is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 93% of the achievements unlocked.

The Last Guardian: Trico…TRICO!

The work of Team ICO is renowned among the PlayStation faithful. Their two titles, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, have attained the status of cult classics and this meant that anticipation was high for their next release. However an entire console generation came and went without a peep from them and the studio shut down in 2011. For many this was thought to be the end of their next title however work was then transferred to genDESIGN, a new studio which was filled to the brim with Team ICO staff. Development then continued on The Last Guardian and hope was renewed that we would eventually see it. Here we are, some 9 years after initial development began, and it has finally been released to us, the unwashed masses. Has the near decade of development time resulted in a game that’s worthy of the Team ICO pedigree? Or is this another Duke Nukem Forever moment?

You are a boy; an unnamed boy who finds himself trapped in a towering city of ruins. How you got there is not known but when you awoke your body was covered in markings that were not there before. Beside you lay a great beast, a Trico, chained down and in great pain. It becomes clear at that point that if you are to return to your village you will need to work together as the challenges this place poses are not to be faced alone. This realisation begins your journey, one that will see you scaling the incredible heights of these ruins, navigating the trials and tribulations that it will place on you both.

The Last Guardian’s long development cycle are obvious in the graphics which are rooted in the previous console generation. To be sure there are some impressive elements, the beast’s flowing feathers being one of them, but all the environments feel decidedly dated. There’s also some distinct performance issues in certain areas, indicating that the environments haven’t been fully optimised for the platform, an indication of issues in porting code and assets across. All this being said though The Last Guardian does manage to impress with its diverse scenery ranging from towering vistas to cramped caves and ruins. Had this been developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 I’d imagine it’d be vastly more impressive but such are the costs of long development cycles.

In terms of how The Last Guardian plays it’s essentially your run of the mill puzzler. The main mechanic comes from the difference in abilities between Trico and the boy, the former able to reach and leap to great heights whilst the latter able to fit into small areas. The game plays off this dichotomy, forcing you to think about who you need to use to complete a task. However you don’t have direct control over Trico’s actions, instead you issue him commands which then get interpreted depending on a number of conditions, some of which aren’t exactly that predictable. Indeed The Last Guardian does a good job of simulating what it would be like to try and wrangle a beast like this but the unfortunate reality of this is that it doesn’t exactly make for what I’d call a fun experience.

So say you need the beast to jump over a particular obstacle. Typically what you’d do is call the beast over and then climb on its back. Then, with the camera pointed in the direction you want to go, you’d do the “Jump” command (which is just the boy jibbering a bit and jumping up and down), and then hope Trico followed it. Sometimes this will work and Trico will leap successfully across. However, most of the time, Trico will either sit there, looking around at nothing in particular, or do something completely different. So what follows is an exercise in troubleshooting: am I actually able to jump that gap with Trico? Is there another location I need to be in to do that jump? Have I not satisfied all the right conditions to make him jump? What this means is you can never be quite sure if you’ve got the right solution and Trico just isn’t co-operating or if you’re barking up the wrong tree.

I can understand the design choices that influenced the creation of the beast AI mechanic and, honestly, I think it’s a brilliant idea for telling a story through mechanics. However the trouble is that with an AI that is so unpredictable the player is left guessing as to whether or not they’re playing the game correctly. Thus, for me, this meant that the moments where Trico and I are meant to be getting ever more in-sync didn’t feel like that at all. Instead it felt like I finally just got lucky enough that the bloody dog finally listened to me. I can’t tell you how many times I got stuck and had to consult YouTube videos to make sure I wasn’t going completely insane only to find out that I was doing it right all along and my AI dog just wasn’t as co-operative as the other ones.

This isn’t an unsolvable problem in my mind. The easiest way to tackle this would be to put say little white dots at places where you could command the beast to do something. Then, if you centre your camera on them, an outline of what the beast could do would appear. This would then give you some certainty over what actions are going to happen, removing the second-guessing which was my main source of frustration when playing. Sure this would reduce the length of the game significantly but honestly we’re long past the point of where play time is a sign of overall quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this will ever happen, especially considering the rather cryptic nature of the patch notes.

Putting the core game mechanic issues aside there’s still some other niggling issues which don’t do anything to help. The camera is a wonky beast at the best of times, often whipping around wildly when it can’t quite figure out where it should be pointing (often when you’re trying to climb Trico). The platforming mechanics are hit and miss with the boy sometimes just straight up failing to grab onto a ledge or Trico, sending you to your death. There are also some triggers which don’t seem to work initially, preventing cut scenes from occurring and blocking your progress until you retreat from the area completely or reload a checkpoint. Suffice to say that you’d think most of these kinds of issues would’ve been straightened out in the game’s long dev cycle but unfortunately that’s just not the case.

Now the story is the part which many say redeems The Last Guardians glaring faults and, personally, I’m in two minds on this. For the vast majority of my play through I didn’t think there was much to it, the various bits of dialogue so brief that they really didn’t add anything to the experience. Combine that with an uncooperative companion and I really couldn’t care what happened to the pair of them. That was until the last 30 minutes which, I admit, managed to tug on the heart strings in just the right way and for a brief moment I forgot all about the frustrations that had led to this point. So whilst I’ll commend genDESIGN for managing to do that I will not (now that I’m clear headed) give them a pass for the incredible missteps they made in designing the core game.

The Last Guardian stays true to the Team ICO formula, seeking to tell stories through game play rather than dialogue. It is, unfortunately, plagued by horrendous game design decisions that force the player to second guess not just themselves, but the game as well. This leads to an incredibly frustrating experience where you can never be sure if you’re anything right, making almost all puzzle challenges an unrewarding chore. When it works it’s brilliant and something I’d like to see more of but those moments are so rare that they’re lost in a wash of frustration and swear words. I will admit that I did a 180 on the game in its final moments, the game able to grab a hold of that tenuous connection I had built up with that dumb beast and squeeze it for all its worth. It’s hard for me to recommend the game solely on that however but if you’ve read all the way through this and are still interested in playing The Last Guardian then it might just be worth it for you.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

ReCore: Far From Eden.

With the holiday season rapidly approaching there’s no shortage of AAA titles to sink your teeth into. It’s at this time of year that people’s allegiances to franchises, developers or publishers becomes clear as they will likely be the deciding factor in what you play, less so the game’s review scores or objective quality. For smaller developers it’s a tough time of year with few even daring to attempt a release within the few months before the holiday rush begins. Comcept and Armarture Studio, both established but small time developers, seem to have no such qualms and recently released ReCore out to the public. Much of the fanfare surrounding this game comes from the designers who brought us Metroid Prime series being involved in the ReCore’s creation and, I believe, the hope for a similar experience.

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ReCore is set some 200 years in the future where a disease called the Dust Devil Plague has ravaged humanity. Earth is fast becoming unfit to sustain human life and so an ark project was commenced to resettle humanity elsewhere. Before the first colonists were to arrive however an army of Corebots, autonomous machines that are capable of doing the necessary work to make the new planet habitable, were sent ahead of them. The planet, dubbed New Eden, would then be terraformed over the course of 200 years before the first batch of colonists would arrive. You play as Joule, a kind of care taker sent ahead of the first colonists to ensure that everything is running as expected and New Eden is ready to accept the fleets of colonists that are about to arrive. However you’re awoken from your cryosleep far too early and discover that the world is nothing like you expected it to be.

The dystopian setting of ReCore would lend itself to a drab, muted colour palette but instead you’ll find yourself in a vivid, Borderland-esque world of colour. The style is obviously influenced by the underlying engine (Unity) having that same kind of feel that many games developed on the platform share. It’s certainly one of the better done Unity games out there but the graphics are certainly a few notches below what I’ve come to expect from current generation games. Indeed the engine choice is worth mentioning due to the fact that it’s only available on 2 platforms (Xbox One and PC) with Unity usually being the top choice if you’re targeting 3 or more. Regardless it’s still a decently pretty game, even when you’re in the depths of cave or enjoying the numerous vistas it presents to you.

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Where ReCore comes a little unstuck though is in the lack of focus in the mechanics that it throws in front of you. ReCore bills itself as a third person platformer and most of the puzzles and challenges are built around that idea. It also incorporates RPG elements in the form of a levelling system for both you and your companion, loot that drops freely from mobs, chests and bosses and gear upgrades created through a rudimentary crafting system. Combat is a rudimentary 3rd person shooter, lacking any kind of cover mechanics but retaining the now traditional infinitely regenerating health system. The best way to describe it would be as a 3rd person, single player version of Borderlands with platforming thrown in the mix. For some that’s likely to be a draw card however the game quickly runs out of steam as you plough through it with many of the initially interesting mechanics becoming tedious and repetitive after a while.

Combat is a great example of this. Your enemies will be one of 4 different colours and you’ll have to change your weapon’s colour in order to do the most amount of damage to them. Then once you’ve done enough damage to them you can extract their cores through a quick time event, netting you some materials you can use to boost up your companion. However if you do choose to do that you won’t get any of the other type of crafting material, so you have to know what you need before you go venturing out. The problem with the combat system is that none of the fights really play out any differently, most of them consisting of you running away while you get pot shots in and your companion does a good deal of the heavy lifting. Combine that with the core extract mechanic which does not change at all over the course of the game and you’ve got a recipe for very repetitive combat that is not engaging at all. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could clear areas out but all enemies will respawn anew if you leave the area. Suffice to say combat isn’t ReCore’s strong suit.

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ReCore does commit what I deem to be the unforgivable sin of showing you things you can’t get to yet, forcing you to re-explore places you’ve already been to once you unlock that particular upgrade. Indeed the worst aspect about this is that you can’t bring all those upgrades with you, ReCore limiting you to 2 bots you can bring with you at any one time. This, again, necessitates you going back and forth to your home base to make sure you’ve got the tools you need to complete a particular section. At the very least the actual platforming is done relatively well, allowing you to explore vast swaths of the world if you know how to exploit the mechanics well enough. For some this might be enough to save the game since so much is built around it but for me it just wasn’t enough, the numerous jumping puzzles just feeling tedious more than anything.

The upgrade system is a little hit and miss as whilst you and your companion level up the main character’s level doesn’t really seem to affect much of anything. The game informs you that Joule’s gun has levelled up but there’s no abilities or upgrades unlocked because of it. Crafted upgrades for your companions will require them to be a certain level however which does provide a modicum of progression but I feel like it should’ve been extended to Joule as well. As it stands the only way to really feel like you’re getting anywhere is to seek out the blueprints for you companions upgrades and that will mean grinding dungeons repeatedly to unlock all the chests since most of them can’t be acquired in a single hop through.

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ReCore can only be had through the Windows Store currently and thus it’s a Windows Universal App, bringing with it all the challenges that the platform currently has. Purchasing the game was a bit of a nightmare requiring me to dig through regional settings and other internals Windows settings so that the store would actually let me buy the damn game. I also had a few occasions where the game started up without sound and would only restore it if I alt-tabbed and the switch-to back to it. That’s not to mention the numerous issues it had with being alt-tabbed in the first place, something which I think all gamers feel is a based requirement for any modern game. Thankfully the game itself ran error-free once I got in but the initial experience didn’t endear itself to me.

The story is ReCore’s redeeming feature however the core game just never gives it enough opportunity to shine. Even though I only managed a meagre 5.5 hours in the game I still felt like I’d been playing for far too long, the little snippets of story here and there just not enough to sustain me through the drudgery of the core game. The characters are believable and voice acted well, your companions each have their own distinct personalities and the larger world that’s built up is intriguing, begging you to find out more. It’s a shame really as I’ve played many games to conclusion just because of their story but unfortunately for ReCore it simply wasn’t enough.

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ReCore captivated me initially on concept alone, the fact that Metroid Prime people were working on it wasn’t even factored into my decision to buy it. Initially it was a great experience, the various mechanics and progression systems giving me a lot to sink my teeth into. However that rapidly descended into a repetitive experience, the core things that made it great done over and over again until they sucked all the fun out of them. Overall I’d say ReCore was a competent but confused game, one that could have been a lot better if it focused on a few core aspects rather than the smattering it ended up with. I wanted to like Recore, I wanted to play more than I did, but I just couldn’t be bothered to spend anymore time with it when there were so many more promising games on the horizon.

Rating: 6.5/10

ReCore is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 5.5 hours of total play time and 64% of the achievements unlocked.

Inside: All Hail the Blob.

Playdead’s Limbo inspired an entire sub-genre of atmospheric puzzler platformers. It’s one of the few games that many will finish in a single sitting; its succinct and engaging game play cementing you to your seat until it’s finished. It’s been quite a while since Limbo was released however and many have been eager for Playdead’s sophomore release. Inside was teased 2 years ago and, like all good hotly anticipated releases, was met with numerous delays before being released this year. Of course the release brings with it the question of whether or not Playdead can live up to their previous accomplishments and, perhaps, even exceed them.

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On first blush it would seem that Playdead was hoping to ride out much of the nostalgia and hype that they generated with their seminal title. Once again you find yourself in control of a lone, young boy making his way through a dark and dangerous wilderness. However where Limbo’s world was allegorical Inside’s is more literal, everything seeming fare more real than its predecessors did. You’re given just about as much instruction as you were in Limbo, leaving you to figure out what the controls are and how to interact with your environment. Once you’ve got that down you’re then left to explore this dark world and all the dangers that it contains.

Inside utilises a muted colour palette with a highly stylized aesthetic reminiscent of games like Team Fortress 2. Where Limbo used their own custom engine to produce the trademark monochromatic visuals Inside instead uses Unity with a specially developed temporal anti-aliasing filter. This is what gives Inside it’s smoothed, cinematic quality that eliminates most of the jaggies that would otherwise be present. It also, as the developers point out, has a nice side-effect of giving everything a stochastic effect which adds that slight dreamlike quality. The resulting experience is quite honestly exceptional, bringing that Limbo-like effect to the modern day.

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Like its predecessor Inside is a puzzle platformer, pitting the young boy against a myriad of challenges which will require you to figure out how best to tackle them. None of the mechanics it uses are new or inventive however they’re all tied into the theme of Inside in some way. There will be much dying, retrying and going down dead ends to try and find the various secrets scattered throughout the game. Inside is very much of the ethos of “Show, don’t tell” with the game giving you clues and hints about what it wants you to do next. It’s also a linear experience with there being one and only way to progress to the next section. It’s simple and unoriginal but Playdead made their name in defining this sub-genre and the quality of craftsmanship in all aspects of the game belies its mechanical simplicity.

What Limbo and Inside both do exceptionally well is inspire feelings in the player. There are numerous moments in Inside that inspire sheer terror or that horrible sense of foreboding should you step one foot out of place. As someone who’s typically not a fan of horror or its sub-genres it was genuinely refreshing to see this done right. This, coupled with the drip feed of information about the world that’s given to you, gives you a driving sense that this is all building to something but you can’t be sure what it is. Then comes what I think is the game’s pinnacle moment and what cements it as another brilliant title from Playdead.

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PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

The moment is, of course, when you transition from the scared boy to the blob. The entire premise of the game up until that point is you existing in a world that is hunting you, one that you should be afraid of. That all changes when you become the blob, the world now fears you, and what you might do to it. Instead of the world and its people fighting you they assist you (for the most part), trying to ensure their own survival just like you were before. The fear and tension is gone, replaced by a kind of excitement. You are now in control, even if that means you’re a strange amalgam of body parts that moan in the most horrendous way whenever you move.

Which leads us to the story. I’m firmly in the camp of the boy being controlled directly by the blob, sent on a direct mission to free it from its prison. Of course how you interpret either ending is up to you, that’s the beauty of how the story is told, but that’s the only explanation I’ve seen thus far that fits well with the events as they unfolded. Regardless of what explanation you take as true it’s hard not to appreciate the final ironic climax, the purpose of Inside being only to get outside. Inside’s story is definitely an intellectual rather than an emotional one.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

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Inside has done what many would think would be impossible: improve on the formula set by a classic and bring it into the modern age. The aesthetic retains that same Limbo-esque feeling whilst modernising it significantly, likely setting the precedent that many games will follow for years to come. The gameplay, whilst standard affair for the genre, is well polished and all done in aid of telling the story. The overall narrative, shown to you rather than told, is certain to keep people talking about it for years to come, the ultimate meaning hidden behind many clues, red herrings and good old fashioned speculation. Inside is a game that is thoroughly worth the time to play and, if you can manage it, in a single session on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Rating: 9.25/10

Inside is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2.9 hours of total play time with 29% of the achievements unlocked.

SUPER HOT: Mind is Software.

Truly unique game mechanics are a rarity. This is not because of any lack of imagination on the part of game developers, far from it. More it’s to do with the fact that there have been so many games made that it’s almost inevitable that a mechanic has been explored before. So often game developers combine different mechanics, hide them cleverly or just rely on the story to carry things along. SUPERHOT however brings with it the novel mechanic of only moving when you do, putting you in a kind of eternal bullet time movie. It was this mechanic that made it a Kickstarter success (full disclosure: I backed it at the $75 level) and the resulting game is much more than just an extended version of their prototype.

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You get a message from your friend. It’s this game, superhot.exe, and it’s amazing. He sends you a crack for it so you can get in on the action. It’s interesting but in the end it’s just you, no plot, no nothing. Just killing red guys. Still you can’t seem to draw yourself away from it, going back again and again, playing through the various scenarios it throws at you. Things start to get weird after an unknown entity starts talking to you, warning you that you don’t know what you’re doing. Will you play on? Or will you quit while your mind is still free?

SUPERHOT retains the minimal, low poly aesthetic that featured in the original game and accompanying marketing material. The environments are all stark white, lacking in any real detail apart from a few objects strewn here or there. Your enemies are bright red, easily distinguishable against the plain background. Other than that there’s not much to say about SUPERHOT’s graphics as they’ve been done to focus your attention, rather than be a distraction. Considering how hectic things can get, even though the game doesn’t move unless you do, this visual simplicity is something I’m sure all players will be thankful for.

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At it’s core SUPERHOT could be considered a simplistic FPS, one where a single shot takes down all enemies (and you, if you’re not careful). Of course what changes it from being a rudimentary FPS to the novelty that it has become is the fact that time only moves when you do. So whenever you shift sideways, look around or perform an action the game will advanced forward. This means that you have an almost unlimited amount of time to plan your next move, choosing the best course of action possible. Each level you clear is played back to you, showing your superhero like fighting skills in real time. In the end SUPERHOT ends up being more like a FPS puzzler as each level is a game of optimization and understanding what actions happen when.

The core time mechanic would, on the surface, make the game incredibly easy. However whilst the game freezes while you contemplate your next move you are not an omnipotent being and, as such, you don’t know everything that’s happening around you. Whilst most of the time it’s easy enough to figure out what you need to do there are numerous puzzles where enemies spawn behind you, meaning you’ll probably have to die a few times before you know exactly what to do. Also the AI isn’t dumb and will attempt to lead you when shooting which can see you running into their bullets rather than away from them. Indeed whilst the first few levels are a breeze SUPERHOT quickly becomes a much harder game than you’d first expect it to be.

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Most of the levels are done well, giving you enough opportunity to flex your FPS and prediction skills whilst punishing your mistakes. Some levels are far more strict than others, really only having one solution that you need to execute perfectly. One issue that I have to point out though is that the AI doesn’t react in the same way to the same situation every time which makes some of the more difficult levels pretty frustrating. The very final fight, for instance, required a good chunk of luck for everything to go perfectly. In the first 10 seconds an AI deciding to pick up a shotgun or simply run directly at you could be the difference between barely making it through and not having a chance at all. All that said however the challenges are beatable but they can be a little frustrating at times.

The story, whilst somewhat basic, is presented in an interesting way. Most of the dialogue is presented to you through a DOS-like terminal at the start of the game, taking the form of a chat between you and someone on the other side. Eventually it takes over the main game, using the SUPERHOT flashes. It’s best described as a psychological thriller, one which makes you question what is real and what is not within the game world. It ends rather predictably but then again I wasn’t expecting massive narrative development from a game that’s only a couple hours long. Suffice to say for a game that rode to fame on its mechanics the story was well above my expectations but SUPERHOT isn’t a game you’ll play for the narrative.

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SUPERHOT sets the bar for Kickstarter games priding themselves on innovative game mechanics. The minimal visual aesthetic is purposefully done to focus your attention on what matters most, casting all visual distractions aside. The core “time only moves when you do” mechanic is done well, transforming an otherwise rudimentary platformer into an intricate puzzler. The story is above par for these kinds of games, even if it is somewhat predictable towards the end. Overall SUPERHOT is an excellent game that makes great use of its core mechanic,

Rating: 8.5/10

SUPERHOT is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the project on Kickstarter at the $75 reward level.

Unravel: Thread the Needle.

Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.

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You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.

Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.

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Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.

The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.

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Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.

At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.

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Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.

Rating: 8/10

Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.