Indie games are typically a tradeoff between several different aspects that were once considered to be critical for a game to be successful. The typical approach is to tone down graphics, mechanics and even interactivity in favour of better storytelling. This is what attracted me to the indie scene in the first place as I find it easy to write off larger faults in the game should it be able to tell an engaging narrative. However sometimes there are little gems of indie titles that manage to do well in more than just one area, executing more than just a good story. Mind: Path to Thalamus is one such indie game, being able to deliver an experience that’s above many higher budget titles yet still retains the same aspects that make indie titles so charming.
You are stuck in a surreal and desolate world, one devoid of any other humans and that seems to react to your very presence. Some of the places are familiar, reminding you of places that you used to visit as a child, whilst others seem to have risen up from your deepest nightmares, shaking you to your very core. There’s only one thing that keeps pushing you forward: you must reach the Thalamus, no matter how painful the journey to it is. Can you suffer through the mistakes you made in order to find redemption? Are you even worthy of it? These are the questions you’ll answer as you journey towards the ever elusive Thalamus.
For an indie game Mind: Path to Thalamus is incredibly beautiful with the wide variety of different environments providing a great array of eye candy. Part of this is due to it using the Unreal under the hood, an engine that’s renowned for being able to produce great visuals, however the artwork is above that of many other indie games of similar calibre. This goes hand in hand with the soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, swelling at all the right points in concert with your character’s emotions and dropping to deathly silence, reminding you that you’re alone in this world. The screenshots I’ve taken really don’t do it justice, it’s an exceptionally well crafted experience.
The core game of Mind: Path to Thalamus is that of a puzzler, done in the now traditional indie style of not telling you exactly how everything works but giving you enough visual clues in order to be able to figure it out. The various mechanics change throughout the game however they’re introduced individually so you can get a feel for what their triggers are, how they combine and what bits and pieces of the environment you should be on the lookout for in order to be able to progress to the next section. Overall the puzzles are pretty simple, if you’re struggling it’s typically because you’re doing something the wrong way, however there’s enough challenge that they feel like an organic part of the game rather than a brick wall designed to pad out the play time.
This is probably why Mind: Path to Thalamus has such great visuals as they really are key to the overall game experience. Pretty much every time I found myself stuck on something was due to me not noticing or forgetting about a particular game mechanic, usually one that was just introduced to me not 1 puzzle ago. The last few puzzle stages kept me busy for a good couple hours as they use every mechanic to their fullest, forcing you to figure out what sequence of events you have to go through in order to unlock the next piece. It was well timed however as the final dialogue sections, which are scripted to repeat after a certain time, only did so right before the final scene showing that the developer has paced Mind: Path to Thalamus out extremely well.
For the most part Mind: Path to Thalamus runs well with no graphics glitches or broken gameplay elements to speak of. It does however seem to crash randomly on occasion, something that didn’t seem to have any one particular cause. Some sections that would crash at one point would inexplicably play through fine afterwards. They didn’t happen often however the checkpointing system seems to get confused when it happens and will send you back to the start of the chapter and not the current respawn point you’re at. It’s not a big deal, especially if you’ve already worked out all the puzzles, but it was a slight frustration when I was elbows deep in the story.
What sold me on Mind: Path to Thalamus originally was one of the trailers that showed some of the opening scenes of the game which had some extremely gripping voice acting. Whilst that same level of passion isn’t carried throughout the game the story is delivered well by the sole voice actor. Usually out of order narratives annoy me but Mind: Path to Thalamus does in it such a way that several story threads are built around you and only towards the end is the relationship between the two revealed. It wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster however it was a solid story on regret, redemption and the highly illogical process we all go through when we’re grieving. Suffice to say I’d rate it above many other story-first games that I’ve played in recent memory although I wasn’t exactly in tears at the end of it.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a fantastic example of what the indie development scene is capable of producing, from the gorgeous visuals right down to the engaging story. Whilst a story-driven indie puzzler might not be everyone’s cup of tea I feel Mind: Path to Thalamus would stand well just on its mechanics alone, with the inventive mechanics requiring more than passing glance to understand fully. It might not be a perfectly polished gem however Mind: Path to Thalamus expertly delivers on the goals it set out to accomplish and is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 48% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s nearly 2 decades ago and 10 year old me has found a new game to obsess over: The Incredible Machine. For a little while I’m captivated by the puzzles, trying to figure out the multiple ways in which I can solve the problem put before me. However it’s not long until I discover the real fun that this game contains: the free form creative mode. Soon I’m creating dozens of horrendous devices, most hellbent on inflicting as much torture as is humanly possible within the game’s confines. This debauchery was only exacerbated by the presence of friends with numerous hours being spent building all manner of wicked contraptions. So you can imagine when I heard that some of the developers of that game were out to make a spiritual sequel, called Contraption Maker, I was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia that wouldn’t go away until I hit the purchase button.
Contraption Maker has actually been available for quite some time now through Steam’s Greenlight program but it only just recently hit version 1.0. The result is a product that’s been heavily influenced by the community, being put through the wringer by some of the most die hard Incredible Machine fans for the past year. The result as it stands today certainly has the same feel about (at least that’s what the remains of the 10 year old me is saying, anyway) with all of the modern flair you would come to expect from a game of this calibre. However whilst I do appreciate that they chose the PC as their preferred platform I can’t help but feel that its place might no longer be with this platform.
Visually Contraption Maker really does feel like the Incredible Machine, just berthed in this time instead of 20 years ago. For me it felt a lot like a Flash game that had received a lot of love as the animations and art styling all had that Flash-y appearance to them. It also helps that the vast majority of the parts used in Contraption Maker had their mirror within the Incredible Machine, something which I’m sure was done on purpose. Still it’s to the developers credit that they’ve managed to capture that same feeling that I experienced so long ago whilst also modernizing the look and feel dramatically.
For those who remember The Incredible Machine the game play will be instantly familiar as Contraption Maker’s game play is pretty much identical to its spiritual predecessor. You’ll be given a scenario, a short blurb about what’s going on, what the goals are and a set of tools with which to make everything happen. From there you’re left to your own as to how to figure everything out which can be as simple as knocking something over to far more elaborate puzzles that can have multiple different solutions, depending on which behaviours you exploit. There’s also the creative mode which hooks into the Steam Workshop, allowing you to create and share puzzles with everyone else around the world.
Whilst I haven’t made my way through all 140 or so puzzles (I’m about half way through them) I’m glad to say that the difficulty ramp is quite well done, with the progression from Easy to Medium to Hard done well enough that you’ll likely find yourself challenged but rarely ever struggling for minutes on end. Should you find yourself breezing through everything Contraption Maker has to throw at you then dozens of incredibly obtuse puzzles await you care of the community, ensuring that you’ll likely never run out of new content to explore. If the current community is anything to go by Contraption Maker will have a long future ahead of it, fuelled by endless community challenges.
However the 1.0 version moniker is really only in spirit as Contraption Maker still seems to suffer from a few teething issues. Certain key combinations will inexplicably force you to desktop (copying and pasting is fraught with danger), usually erasing any progress you had made or anything you were working on at the time. The physics engine also appears to be a little bit selective in its behaviour with things not behaving exactly how you’d expect them to, something which I think was likely done in the aid of simplicity and limiting emergent behaviour. Considering the amount of development this game has seen over the past year I’m sure these issues will be resolved eventually (I submitted crash reports for everything I encountered) so I’d check the discussion forums to see how the latest build is faring.
What Contraption Maker really needs though isn’t so much an improved version, or even more puzzles, more I think it needs to find its way onto a tablet sooner rather than later. 20 years ago The Incredible Machine really only had one platform it could ever find itself on and thus no one would’ve ever considered putting it anywhere else. Today however games like this have a home that’s far more welcoming to it, one that is perfect for Contraption Maker’s innate pickup/putdown play style. Thankfully it looks like the developers are working on this and honestly if you’re thinking about getting Contraption Maker and don’t want to play it on PC I’d highly recommend waiting for the future release.
Contraption Maker is everything you would expect a modern version of The Incredible Machine to be, taking the original premise and thoroughly modernizing it for today’s market. The puzzles, parts and free form creative mode will all be instantly familiar to long time fans with newcomers to this series being able to pick it up in no time. It’s still shaking off it’s beta status with crashes and funky behaviour peppering it’s otherwise solid execution, something that I hope to see remedied in the not too distant future. Personally I think it will make an absolutely fantastic tablet game, one that the current generation of 10 year olds will remember as fondly as we do when it comes to The Incredible Machine today.
Contraption Maker is available on PC right now for $14.99 (although you get 2 copies for that price). Total play time was 2 hours.
A game based around any of the world wars is usually an instant turn off for me. The number of games that have been based around those events are so numerous that there really doesn’t feel like there can be any more angles to tackle it from as pretty much every story from it has been done to death. The alternate reality and fantasy versions of it, like those in Wolfenstein, get away with it since they’re not wholly dependent on war stories for inspiration but they’ll still need a little something extra to pique my interest. Valiant Hearts, which comes to us care of Ubisoft Montpellier, has been receiving wide praise for it’s touching story. As someone who’s just come off 2 rather lacklustre story based titles I wasn’t hoping for miracles but Valiant Hearts managed to surprise me, bringing this writer to tears as its conclusion.
The year is 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France, anticipating that this war will escalate far beyond those two countries, deports all of its German citizens back to their home country. Karl is one of those citizens, torn away from his wife and young son he is sent to the frontlines of the war to fight for his home country. Not long after his wife’s father, Emile, is called to duty as well and sent to fight for the French army. What follows is a tale of how the war drives families apart and the never ending quest for them to be reunited once again.
Valiant Hearts reminds me of the flash games of yesteryear, albeit with production values far exceeding that of any of its predecessors. It was developed on the same framework that powered Ubisoft’s recent release Child of Light and it’s easy to see just how heavily the choice of that platform influenced the art work. In contrast to Child of Light however Valiant Heart’s art style is far more dark and monotone with infinite shades of brown and grey being the primary colour palette. This does mean that when colour is used it’s quite striking and the art team does a fantastic job of using it to great effect. This also extends to the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the game, ebbing and flowing at all the right moments.
In terms of actual game play Valiant Hearts is much like other story-first games in the sense that it usually takes a back seat to progressing the story. For the most part you’ll be doing elaborate fetch quest missions that require you to find one item in order to progress through the next session. Sometimes you’ll have to make your way through various different people in order to get to the final objective and try as you might there’s no clever way to bypass certain things. There’s also a bevy of quicktime-esque events that will require you to either guess correctly or simply memorize the sequence in which events happen in order to move on to the next part of the story.
Thankfully Valiant Hearts didn’t fall into the trap of putting far too much game play in between sections of the story like both the recent titles I played through did. In all honesty I didn’t think it was a major hurdle for games of this nature to get past as many of them are done by indie developers and so ancillary mechanics are usually on the bottom of their to do list. However with 2 games falling prey to the same problems I have to commend Valiant Hearts for getting the pacing right which helps immensely with keeping the player interested in the story. There were some sections that could use some tuning but compared to my recent experiences it was heaven.
Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive as your inventory space is limited to a single item, limiting the amount of complexity that the game can throw at you significantly. There’s a pretty good variety of puzzle mechanics so you won’t be redoing the same thing over and over again but most of them shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so to figure out. A couple of them will require you to think laterally about what you’re doing as some of them lack obvious cues as to what might interact with what. This did lead to a couple confusing moments when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing but most of the time you’ll get there through trial and error.
One issue I did find with Valiant Hearts was that since there’s not a lot of visual differentiation between different parts of the environment it can be sometimes hard to find a path you’re meant to go down or what elements are interactive. This meant that in some of the more visually busy sections I was wondering just where exactly I was meant to go as I couldn’t find the particular path to go down. I also had some deaths that felt like they were more due to visual confusion more than anything else. This might just be a fault of the writer however but it’s still an issue that should be pointed out.
Of course what really makes Valiant Hearts worth playing is the story. Overall it’s a pretty typical story of a family torn apart by war, almost Romeo and Juliet like in the star crossed lovers from different houses idea, and the story of them trying to reunite with each other. The main characters all receive the background and development they deserve, which helps immensely when it comes to scenes that rely on engaging your sense of empathy with them. Some of the elements of it are a little on the fantasy side, which can be a tad distracting from the overall message that the game tries to put forth, however they’re only there as aides to the plot so they’re easily pushed aside.
I’ll have to admit that for probably the first half or so of Valiant Hearts I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the characters or story. Whilst the opening was gripping enough to draw me into playing the game further there’s a bit of dearth in the early game as the characters are seemingly just going through the motions. However as each of their back stories is developed in detail you find yourself becoming attached to them and each tragedy that befalls them starts to cut into you. The final climatic scene is by far one of the most bittersweet endings I have endured in recent memory and whilst it might lean on the cheesy/predictable side that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears, overcome with a sense of grief.
Valiant Hearts is a beautiful story masterfully told through the medium of video games. The art style and music direction are some of the best I’ve experienced in their category, taking the traditional flash styled game and ramping it up to the next level. The game mechanics are simple, enjoyable and thankfully stay out of the way of the story, leaving the player to enjoy Valiant Hearts for what it truly is. Finally the story is by far one of the best examples I’ve come across this year with all the characters receiving the right amount of screen time and development required for it’s ultimate emotional climax. If you, like me, have been feeling let down by the offerings of story based games of late then I can wholeheartedly recommend Valiant Hearts as the cure to what ails you.
Valiant Hearts is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $14.99, $22.95, $22.95, $19.95 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time.
I was never really a big fan of doing books of puzzles, like crosswords or sudoku. I understand the attraction to some degree, once you’ve got a modicum of skill in doing them such puzzles can be relaxing as you don’t really think about much else while you’re doing them. Since I’m primarily an escapist when it comes games the idea of doing puzzle only games like Lyne didn’t really appeal to me at first but after playing for a couple hours it became more of an optimization problem, one which had a very simple set of rules that could create rather complicated problems.
The basic premise of Lyne is simple, there’s a bunch of different coloured shapes and all you need to do is connect them all together. All of the shapes of one colour must be connected together so you can’t be tricky and skip certain blocks to make your life easier. Additionally every path can only be crossed once which means that the path you take for one colour will determine what paths are left available for the remaining ones. The number of puzzles available in Lyne is rather staggering, on the order of 600 or more by my guess, which should be enough to keep even the most intrepid puzzle solver busy for a while.
Lyne is incredibly simplistic in its aesthetic, using solid colours and distinct shapes for everything. At first I thought the unlocking of additional colour palettes was a bit of a gimmicky way of getting you to play for longer but they actually function really well as a visual break. Since the style is so basic everything starts to blend into each other after a while so changing up the colours helps to stop that from happening. The pallette unlocks seem to be spaced out evenly enough so that you’ll get a new one before you get bored of your current one which, I admit, did make me play for longer than I’d first anticipated.
The puzzle sets are well thought out, starting out easy in order to introduce the concept for that set and then ramping up the difficulty as you make your way through each of the puzzles. For me personally the most challenging ones always seemed to be somewhere in the middle of the set, usually because I was missing some trick that would enable me to progress through it. Indeed the more puzzles you do the more patterns you’ll recognise , something which can both simplify and complicate a puzzle for you. For me some basic rules like finding out which paths must go somewhere and dividing the board up by colour helped to get me past some of the trickier puzzles although even those could some times leave me in a tizzy.
The daily puzzles were an interesting aside from the regular sets as, from what I could tell, they are generated on the day using some kind of algorithm. In fact I think this is how most of the puzzles were likely generated however the sets have been guided somewhat by the developer whilst these sets seem to be far more random, with some of them being incredibly easy whilst the others horrendously complex. Still if you’re the kind of person that likes doing a puzzle daily then this will be a brilliant little feature for you as it’s almost guaranteed that these puzzles will be unique every day.
Lyne is an interesting minimalistic puzzle game that looks deceptively simple on first look. The mechanics are simple enough that you can figure it out without instruction but, like many things with simple origins, mastering those rules will prove to be far more challenging. Like all games of this nature though it does tend to become somewhat repetitive after a while however if you’re the kind of person who thrives on technical challenges like this then Lyne will provide endless hours of enjoyment.
Lyne is available PC, Windows Phone, Android and iOS right now for $2.99, $2.49, $2.99 and $2.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with4 hours of total play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.
In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.
Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.
The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.
There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.
However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.
It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.
Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.
The soft spot I’ve had for indie exploration games has developed into a fully fledged love affair as I continually find myself drawn to games that are light on game mechanics, heavy on atmosphere and use your innate sense of game play to guide you through the experience. I think I’ve come to understand just what it is that attracts me to these kinds of games, they’re essentially the most basic form of what we can call a game. Whilst there’s been examples of this genre which have rubbed me the wrong way it doesn’t take much to convince me a new entry is worth a look in and FRACT OSC from Phosfiend Systems caught my eye with a simple premise: revive a world through music.
You are dropped into a seemingly dead world, devoid of nearly all colour and sound. In the distance you see 3 giant pillars pointing skyward, strange curiosities in this startlingly desolate place. When you approach them however it becomes clear that these pillars have a purpose, and that you have the capability to unlock that. Shortly afterwards the pillars come to life, surging with colour and sound, and you ascend from the depths of a wasteland to another place, a relic of another time. With your help this relic can be revived, bringing back colour and sound to a world that has been long devoid of them.
Like most games of this genre FRACT takes a highly minimalistic approach with much of the scenery being very boxy and jagged, a trademark of extremely low poly work. Typically this is done for a couple reasons, usually time and resource constraints, however I think it’s partially because the whole scene is also run through a sort of scan line filter. It’s not immediately apparent from the screenshots (although if you look at the larger versions and zoom in you can see it) but things like that have a tendency to be very expensive, render time wise. At the same time though the environment is highly reactive to your presence with objects changing shape or illuminating themselves based on your presence. Whilst it’s reminiscent of other simplistic titles like Kairo it does feel distinctly different from them.
Like other exploration games there’s no real tutorial or introduction to speak of (although you could say that the first 3 pillars function as that) and so FRACT relies on your inbuilt game sense to get you going. For the most part you’ll be solving puzzles that are based around a few different kinds of mechanics, all of which have their basis in music and electronic sound generation. Some of them have you moving blocks around, others funneling light through different points in a Pipe Dream style minigame. All of them end up with you constructing a small riff in order to finish them off, with each section having a final sequence that proves to be quite challenging. So whilst a little knowledge of how synthesizers work will be an advantage you’d still be able to figure out most of it by trial and error, albeit taking a lot longer to figure everything out.
For the most part the puzzles are fairly logical in the way they work and whenever you’re stuck it’s usually because you haven’t noticed a particular mechanic that you could make use of. FRACT relies heavily on sound cues for those puzzles which involve fuzzy elements which can be a bit misleading at times, confusing you into thinking a particular sound is meaningful. Still usually it’s obvious enough that you know you’re heading in the right direction although there are a few notable exceptions. Mostly this is to do with the final puzzles that present you with a track selection and 4 dials. Without any indication as to what’s meaningful and what’s not (hint: only one set of inputs is) it leads to a rather frustrating experience, especially since you don’t get any feedback until you’ve almost completed it.
Whilst the puzzles are laid out in a logical order, one that you’ll likely notice if you’re not completely daft like myself, you can actually do them out of order if you know where to look. Now I’m not sure if this was an intended part of the game (and I’m leaning towards no since the only way I could get out after finish it was through the fast travel things) but I managed to do some of the red puzzles out of order by using some of the old “wall walking” tricks and finding a conveniently placed elevator. Indeed whilst this game might come under the exploration genre going off the beaten track isn’t likely to net you any benefit, apart from an achievement or two. It’s a little annoying as the game seems to want you to go down there but rarely does it reward you with anything.
You could say that there was a kind of narrative behind FRACT OSC as the way you interact with the game seems to indicate that you’re reviving a long dormant machine for your own purposes but unlike other exploration games I couldn’t find out how to make FRACT OSC end. Once you’ve unlocked everything, well I assume I got everything due to all the lights being on, there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. You can go into your studio but that just seems to be a nice little add on to play around with the pads/sequencers/basslines you unlocked. So whilst FRACT OSC is fun to play the lack of a conclusion, at least one that I could find, does mean it feels a little unsatisfying.
FRACT OSC is an intriguing game, combining a minimalist aesthetic with some challenging game mechanics to provide a solid exploration experience. The brutal minimalism does have its drawbacks however as some of the puzzles, whilst on the surface seem intuitive, don’t provide adequate response to your input. The lack of a solid ending as well also makes all the work you’ve done feel somewhat hollow, especially if you don’t have a lot of interest in creating music in the studio afterwards. Still overall it was a pleasant experience, although one I’d probably only recommend to other exploration game fans.
FRACT OSC is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 4 hours with 21% of the achievements unlocked.
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.