Omensight: One Day is All We Have.

One of the most critical factors in a game’s success is the ambition driving its creators. It’s not a simple case of more is better however, instead ambition needs to be tempered with the ability to realise it. I’ve often chided developers for reaching beyond their grasp, attempting to emulate others with far better means and ending up harming their game in the process. There have been many great examples, even recently, where a focused vision results in a much better experience. Omensight is one such game where the concise focus on what makes this game unique has produced a well rounded experience.

You are the Harbinger, a mythical warrior who only appears in times of crisis. The land of Urralia is torn by war, and as night falls, you witness its destruction at the hands of a dark God. As the eyes and the sword of Urralia, it is up to you to reverse this fate. All you know is that it started with a mysterious murder of the Godless-Priestess, a deity whose soul is destined to return upon her passing. This time however her soul has failed to return and it is up to you Harbinger to find out why.

Omensight presents a highly stylized cell shaded aesthetic, lavished with bright colours, numerous glow effects and particle systems galore. It may not be a particularly unique art style but it’s certainly one of the better crafted examples I can think of in recent times. The environments are absolutely swimming in detail from the large vistas that show wide cityscapes to the closed in dungeons littered with various miscellania. This is undoubtedly helped by the fixed camera angles, allowing the artists to focus more time on what the player will see and leaving out detail where they won’t. My internal bias initially made me think that it was built on Unity but it is in fact running on the Unreal 4 engine, something which the developer Spearhead Games has some experience with. This, coupled with the low-poly art style, ensures that this will run pretty well on nearly anything you care to throw it at.

Billed as an action-rpg murder mystery Omensight could have easily made the mistake of trying to include far too much but, thankfully, the developers instead chose to focus on a few key mechanics. The combat is reminiscent of the Arkham series, a kind of tempo based beat ’em up style that rewards combos and utilising your environment to pull off flashy fighting moves. Gaining levels is done in the usual way and each of them either grants you a new ability or improves one you already have. The upgrade system allows you to further refine those abilities as well as base things like health, stamina and damage. Whilst there are a few simple puzzles in each of the level the main one is the overarching murder mystery. This takes the form of deciding which one of the main character’s day you want to relive in order to gain more information about the death of the Godless-Priestess. There is, of course, an optimum route but it seems no matter which path you choose you will get closer to your end goal. Overall Omensight might not be the most complex or comprehensive game I’ve played but for the things it does it executes them well.

Combat is a largely enjoyable experience although rarely is it a challenge. Even in the beginning (and on the hard setting no less) most of the enemies can be dispatched pretty easily and since there’s not a lot of them most encounters are over pretty quickly. As you level the difficulty does increase but so do your abilities with some trivialising some encounters. For instance the time warp ability coupled with the speed up from one of your NPC friends can make quick work of basically any group of enemies and even bosses. Considering the amount of replay you have to go through this probably isn’t the worst thing though as there’s nothing less fun than repeating the same encounter a dozen times over, especially if it takes forever to do. One thing that I was never quite clear on though was what counted as being a “flashy fighter” to get the XP bonus at the day end. I had many encounters where I pulled off multiple combos and got nothing, whereas there were other days when I did nothing but left click all day and got it. I’m sure the exact requirements are out there somewhere, but the game never explains it to you.

The platforming in Omensight, whilst not the weakest point of the game, is certainly one of the less great parts of it. Like all 3D platformers there’s a bit of awkwardness when it comes to jumping around which is helped a little bit by the dim shadow showing where your character will land. The real issue though is the fixed camera angles and how they interact with your movement on screen. You see it’s hard to tell just which direction you’ll move in when the camera starts to move on you and sometimes this happens just after you’ve jumped. This leads to some frustrating moments when you’ll try to course correct mid air and end up dying because of it. Similarly it can be hard to control your character along narrow ledges and other obstacles because the camera reoriented (and thus your controls did too), leading you to walk off a ledge when you thought you’d walk along it. Once you know the level layout, and by extension the camera changes, it becomes less of an issue but I’d be lying if it didn’t make the first couple hours of the game a real chore of trial and error.

Progression comes with a nice cadance, ensuring that you’ll either level up or be able to buy an upgrade or two at the end of each day. This also means that if you find yourself struggling for whatever reason you’re never too far off being able to remedy it. Indeed there was one point where I noticed I was taking a ton of damage from certain enemies and all it took to counteract that was a few choice defense upgrades I got after finishing the level. Omensight rewards those who explore the levels, hiding a lot of upgrade currency and XP in chests strewn throughout hidden pathways and passages. It starts to get a little ludicrous towards the end once you have all the seals, giving you enough upgrade points for 3~4 upgrades per run. I didn’t bother trying to max out my character as past a certain point the upgrades are just for convenience sake more than anything else.

Omensight’s greatest weakness however is the repetition of each of the levels. There’s about 5 or so main levels you’ll visit in your travels and you’ll visit each of them multiple times throughout your playthrough. Not much changes between visits: maybe an additional path is unlocked, different dialogue since you’re there with a different NPC or the environment changes slightly, but by and large they’re much the same each time. The game does grant you some small mercies if you’re replaying a day by allowing you to skip to the critical moment but for most of them you’ll have to trudge through the same areas time and time again. I’m all for focusing effort where it will be best utilised, and indeed the environments they have crafted are fantastic, but asset reuse on this scale is something that’s pretty hard to ignore.

The story does make up for this somewhat though with the additional bits of narrative revealed to you on multiple level completions aiding in your understanding of the overarching plot. There are some holes that appear due to the game’s non-linear nature and depending on which paths you choose when some elements will make sense whilst others won’t. It’s slow going at the start where you seem to be treading already well worn ground but it does start to pick up as you’re allowed to change the flow of each days using your Omensight. I could do without the trite revelations (Oh that thing you saw happen, that wasn’t exactly what it was! groan) though, especially considering the major ones are all basically exactly the same. Overall whilst it might not be the most emotionally engaging narrative it’s still enjoyable, even with its flaws.

Omensight executes well on its vision, focusing in on the things that matter to the core game experience. The graphics, level design and combat are all well executed making Omensight a game that’s easy to play for hours on end. It falls down in a few key areas though, namely the extreme reuse of each of the levels and the platforming, both of which significantly hamper the otherwise enjoyable experience. Still for those who, like me, are struggling to find titles worth playing in the yearly AAA draught that plagues us Omensight is a great game to fill the gaps until your next big title fix.

Rating: 8.25/10

Omensight is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 74% of the achievements unlocked.

Inked: Suffer as I do.

For many decades games were a simple land of fantasy, made up of tiny blocks of pixels that crudely replicated the real world. As the medium improved so did the stories that came with it, exploring greater and more mature themes. Then with the democratisation of development tools the stories started becoming incredibly personal, often directly reflecting the life experiences of their creators. Indeed I’ve played many games which I felt were something of a catharsis for their creators, a part of their coping process for dealing with tragedy (That Dragon, Cancer and The First Tree come to mind). On the surface Inked would seem to be one of those titles however I don’t feel it is, the story of tragedy instead born out of a want to develop a tortured artist character. This, coupled with a few missteps from a game design perspective, means that Inked falls short of some its aspirations whilst still managing a few interesting firsts, at least from this writer’s perspective.

You’re put in control of the Nameless Hero, a samurai warrior who’s on a quest to save his one true love. Upon rescuing her however she is immediately taken away from you by your creator, an artist named Adam. It’s clear that there’s no love lost between you and Adam, he seemingly delighting in torturing you at every opportunity. However you are able to turn his weapons against him, gaining control of the ink that forms your world and bending it to your will. With your love taken away there’s only one thing left driving you: revenge. The journey to the temple where your creator resides won’t be easy and there’s no telling what twisted things Adam’s mind will create next.

Whilst I’m sure that Inked isn’t the first game to use a pen drawn aesthetic I’m struggling to remember any that had a similar art style. It’s not all hand drawn like Forgotton Anne or Chuchel, instead it’s a full 3D game (with physics and all) that utilises pen styled textures to give it that sketchbook aesthetic. Honestly it’s done so well that the parts which aren’t done in this way are incredibly jarring, lacking the same love and care lavished on the pen and paper style. The monotone colour schemes also make it a lot easier to identify puzzle elements which could otherwise have easily blended into the background. I hope this becomes Somnium Games’ trademark style for future titles as it’s quite distinctive and could be easily extended to bigger, more ambitious titles.

From a game play point of view Inked is a simple platform/puzzler game with a few key mechanics. You’re able to create and destroy a number of different objects, some of which will also perform actions like blowing things over or setting them on fire. Most of the puzzles are physics based and, as you’d somewhat expect, can often be solved in emergent ways by using things in ways they weren’t intended to be. This is limited somewhat by the fact you don’t get all your powers right away but after about halfway through the game you have enough tools at your disposal to get away with some really whacky things. The levels also change the puzzle dynamic as well, like one where gravity is about 1/0th of normal or another where the floor is ice. It certainly falls in the category of “easy to understand, hard to master” although for all the wrong reasons in my opinion.

Probably the most glaring fault is the fact that the game is done in an isometric view but your movement doesn’t align to it. Instead for all directions the game will require you to move in you’ll need to hold down two movement keys which makes some of the precision platforming in this game extremely frustrating. Not only that it’s also not entirely clear at times where solid ground ends and a bottomless pit begins, making some of the most simple puzzles a rather frustrating experience. This only gets worse when you’ve got puzzles that have a timer on them, forcing you to execute awkwardly imprecise jumps and simply hope that you make it through this time. The hitboxes are also quite a big bigger than you’d think, especially on things that instantly kill you.

The last few items are things that I think can be easily addressed, giving some elements a little visual flair and making the timer on some puzzles a little more generous, but the movement system really is Ink’s achilles heel. Sure you could probably remap the controls but then you’ve got the problem of the movement on screen not aligning to what you’d expect it to be. Bar reworking all the levels completely I’m not sure how Somnium Games can address this. It’s a right shame as had the developers spent a little more time thinking about how they should tackle the problem of cardinal movement in an isometric system I may be signing a different tune. Alas, at least for this title, it was not to be.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

This is not to say that the story is the game’s saving grace, far from it. Part of it is likely due to the so-so voice acting which feels stilted and flat, lacking any real emotional depth until the game’s final scenes. The story itself also feels kind of trite. I mean sure I understand what they were trying to present, an artist driven to madness by grief, but that’s a character that you’d likely want to be sympathetic to. I think the main issue here is we’re not given enough time away from Adam and his perspective to build that empathy as we’re simply his tortured play thing for the entire time. The reason I mention other titles like this is that since those games come directly from real grief it was much easier to be sympathetic to the main characters. Inked feels much like Dream Daddy in that sense, a story created from the outside of someone else’s experiences rather than from it.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Inked might be far from a perfect game but you’d struggle to find any first time indie dev that was. The artwork is absolutely phenomenal as it manages to translate that pen and paper, hand drawn aesthetic to a fully realised 3D world. This is no small feat and I’m sure others will attempt to recreate and pay homage to it in the not too distant future. However that’s where the good ends as the base game makes a few odd choices which drastically hamper the game’s playability. Couple that with a so-so story delivered by seemingly uninterested voice actors and you’ve got a game that struggles to meet the goals it set out for itself. Still I hope it finds enough success so that Somnium Game’s can continue onto the next big thing, taking the lessons learned here along with them.

Rating: 7.0/10

Inked is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 6.1 hours with 77% of the achievements unlocked.

Vampyr: Cursed With Life Everlasting.

Dontnod almost didn’t make it to where it is today. Whilst I quite enjoyed their first game, Remember me, the wider gaming community wasn’t as enthused. To be sure it sold well enough, some 2 million copies or so, but it was Life is Strange that brought them the commercial and critical success they needed to survive. Not one to rest on the laurels it seems they quickly got to work on Vampyr with many of the Life is Strange team moving across to work on their next major title. It’s most certainly an aspirational title for them, yearning to be included alongside other RPG greats like the titles from BioWare, Bethesda and CD Projekt Red. However much like other developers with such aspirations (I’m looking at you Spiders) Vampyr falls short, including too much of some things and not enough of others.

The Spanish Flu grips London, striking down even the strongest in mere days and forcing much of the city into quarantine. You are Dr. Jonathan Reid, recently returned from the front lines of the war to help London overcome this gripping epidemic. However before you can make it all the way home you’re murdered by an unforeseen foe, only to rise once again stricken with an insatiable lust for blood. You are so blind with bloodlust that you don’t notice you first victim is your sister who came looking for you after you didn’t return home on time. After being chased through the streets of London by vampire hunters who saw your first feed you stumble into a local bar and try to make sense of what has happened to you.

Vampyr’s development began just after the release of current generation consoles so it surprises me that it looks as dated as it does. The Unreal 4 engine that powers it is capable of some quite impressive visuals (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and LawBreakers are two recent examples) so it’s most certainly not a failing of the platform. My best guess is that it was a deliberate choice due to budget constraints with much of their resources spent on other aspects of the game. Honestly if it was from some small time indie studio or a Kickstarted game I’d understand but Dontnod has 10 years of experience in the industry. Heck even Remember Me looks better than this and that game is 5 years old at this point. The upside of this is that it’ll likely run like it was a game from that long ago, giving some reprieve to those who’ve put off buying a new graphics card for the last few years.

Mechanically Vampyr is an action-RPG with a heavy focus on dialogue, both in terms of narrative as well as a core part of the game play. There’s all the usual trappings you’d expect in a modern action-RPG: levels, talent trees, crafting, items and a combat system that took some inspiration from the Dark Souls games. The levelling system isn’t a straightforward kill things/get XP/get levels deal however (although that is part of it) as to make any meaningful progress you’ll have to feed on people, all of which play a part in the story. This ties into the game’s larger emphasis on player choice, giving you a lot of control in how the larger story plays out. Indeed this appears to be where Dontnod spent the vast majority of their resources in building Vampyr as the game can play out vastly differently depending on what you do and what you don’t.

Combat is a little unpolished, suffering from many of the same issues that other games have when trying to replicate a Dark Souls-lite type experience. It’s set up much how you’d expect, with your main combat resources being stamina and blood (to power your abilities). Enemies telegraph their moves pretty openly although their movesets are much more random than I’d ever encountered in a Souls game. The hitboxes act a bit weird at times, with hits that shouldn’t have connected managing to land and vice versa. Locking onto enemies is a bit of a mixed bag too as it seems to limit your movement options somewhat, making dodging a lot harder than it should be. The jumps in difficulty are also area dependent and not at all smooth so you’ll likely find yourself going from competent to struggling at the drop of a hat.

All of this is a bit of a shame as when you’re extremely overpowered the game actually becomes quite fun, allowing you to run through areas without a care to who might be in your way. Whilst I understand that the game wants to make the choice of levelling up impactful (I.E. you can only be that powerful at the cost of others) if you, like me, didn’t enjoy the large amount of dialogue that the game throws at you then it’ll be hard to find a lot of enjoyment in Vampyr. Indeed this is one of the few games where I felt like the heavy amount of dialogue was getting in the way of the larger game; bogging me down in meaningless interactions that didn’t add much to the overall story.

This is probably my biggest gripe with the game as it takes quite a long time to churn through all the dialogue options with all the characters. Indeed past the first 2 chapters I simply stopped bothering with the majority of it. Sure, I probably missed out on some quests and some other bits and pieces, but honestly finding all the clues to unlock all the dialogue options just didn’t feel worth it. I mean it’s great that they endeavoured to give nearly everyone in the game a backstory but most of them only exist within the confines of the area you find them in. Only the campaign missions seem to build the story in any meaningful way, the others are just there as flavour text. I’m sure there’s probably 40 or 50 hours worth of game in here but honestly I would’ve preferred a solid 15 with better mechanics, tighter story and maybe a little more time spent on the visuals.

The other parts of Vampyr are similar to the combat in their implementations: rudimentary implementations of otherwise good ideas. None of the choices in the talent tree will impact the game in a major way (I.E. no abilities will unlock otherwise hidden parts of the map, say) but there are some cool things in there. I ended up with a simple build relying on the blood spear and the shadow ultimate as Vampyr tended to only throw a few enemies at me at any one time. My weapons were focused similarly, using a hacksaw for my main and alternating between the blood knife and stun focused gun for my offhand. Given the steep cost for levelling abilities there wasn’t much room for experimentation unfortunately. That is unless you decided to go on a mass murdering spree.

Which I did once, after I was able to clean out the hospital when my mesmerise level was high enough. That bumped me up around 12 levels in one sitting and was enough to ensure that I didn’t need to do it again for the rest of the game. However whilst there weren’t any direct consequences in the game doing so meant I was locked out of all but one of the endings, something I wasn’t aware would happen until right at the end of the game. Now the game does mention that it’s up to you to choose how difficult the game will be, indicating that feeding on London’s residents will lead to very bad things, however in the grand scheme of things I didn’t chow down on that many people. To be sure I devastated the hospital but the rest of London was untouched and that gave me the absolute worst ending in the game (although, to be honest, I liked it). Reading more into it you have to be very strict with your feedings to get the other 2 endings and the “best” one can only be obtained without feeding at all. The latter is especially devious given the game essentially guides you into feeding on the first one, making it look like a tutorial rather than an actual choice.

Credits where credit is due though the amount of effort put into crafting the story elements is quite phenomenal. Should you want to dive deep into this world and its inhabitants you can, even going as far to have some modicum of influence over it should you want. Although it’s not always exactly clear what your decision will lead to and often you won’t find out that until it’s far too late to undo it. I didn’t mind that so much as it meant that some of the throwaway choices I made did come back to bite me in some of the most interesting ways. It’s reminiscent of older BioWare games in that way with dialogue being the main mechanic by which the game revealed itself to you.

Unfortunately I found it quite hard to engage with the overall story for a number of reasons. The greater story moves far too slow at the beginning with the major questions getting basically no air time until the final couple hours. I couldn’t really empathise with the main character at all and the fact that all the NPCs would spew forth their life story at the drop of the hat just didn’t feel that believable. Towards the end I simply ignored all the ancillary dialogue and quests and, honestly, the game started to feel a lot better. Perhaps my completionist tendencies worked against me in this instance, my want to min max everything I could being at odds with my actual enjoyment of this game. I will never know but if you, dear reader, find yourself in much the same position hopefully that may help you.

Vampyr is an aspirational title from Dontnod and, unfortunately, it didn’t pay of well for this time around. Released some years ago it may have found itself among good company but in today’s market it feels two steps behind the norm. The graphics, combat and other mechanics are all simplistic in their implementation with the vast amount of effort spent on the dialogue and interaction with NPCs. It strives to be among games from the RPG greats but fails to do so, maybe not as badly as others have, but still fails nonetheless. I honestly had zero expectations going into Vampyr (only finding out it was made by Dontnod after I bought it) and have come away from it wanting more. I applaud Dontnod for experimenting as much as they have but, perhaps, in future they could limit their vision a little bit in order to make a stronger overall game.

Rating: 6.75/10

Vampyr is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 17 hours of total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.

Detroit: Become Human: Freedom Isn’t Free.

6 years ago Quantic Dream released the Kara tech demo and it struck a chord with many gamers. Whilst many were disappointed that it was not “from any software title currently in development” I was sure that the idea would be expanded upon following the release of Beyond: Two Souls. Sure enough at the end of 2015 we were treated to the first trailer from Detroit: Become Human with Kara being one of the three main stars. As long time readers will know I am quite the fan of Quantic Dream’s work, with Heavy Rain ranking up there with many of my other all time great titles. So when I say Detroit: Become Human is one of my favourite narrative experiences of this year I will understand if you think it’s the mere ramblings of a David Cage fanboy (of which I’m really not). However it is a game that bears playing, even with its heavy handed exposition and Cage-esque cliches.

In the not too distant future androids that are just as (if not more so) capable as humans are plentiful, cheap and ubiquitous. Whilst this has brought numerous benefits to society, many of the menial and dangerous jobs are now staffed by androids, the blue collar workforce has found itself made rapidly obsolete. This has led to a growing resentment against androids and those who benefit from them with many taking to the streets to voice their distrust. At the same time it’s becoming apparent that androids aren’t simply just human analogues here to service our every whim: they are starting to grow and develop beyond their designs. You follow the tale of 3 androids who break free from the shackles of their program and, in doing so, shape the course of both their story and that of the whole android race.

At the time the Kara tech demo was seriously impressive but that’s nothing compared to what Quantic Dream has been able to deliver on the PlayStation 4 today. Since this is a heavily restricted, narrative focused game it’s evident that a lot of resources have been dedicated to the artwork, level design and over-arching aesthetic. The result is a game that feels like it’s on the upward trend side of the uncanny valley, still not quite there (Chloe’s, the woman in the menu, rapid change in facial expressions being a good counter example) but definitely getting closer. I was about to lament the fact that I played this on my original PS4 however checking out the comparison videos didn’t show a lot of difference in detail although apparently the frame rates are better. Suffice to say Detroit: Become Human continues Quantic Dream’s standard for delivering high end visuals on Sony’s gaming platform.

Like all of Quantic Dream’s progeny Detroit: Become Human is a quick time event based adventure game focused on narrative choice above all else. Each scene puts you in control of one of the 3 main characters (Kara, Conner or Markus) and your choices will dictate how it and future scenes will play out. You’re given a list of objectives to follow however just going after them won’t reveal all the options that are available to you. Indeed not all options will be available to you in a single playthrough either, many of them locked away depending on your choices or if you missed something critical thing in a previous scene. At the end you’ll be given a dialogue flow chart showing your choices, your overall completion of the scene and how you stacked up to the wider Detroit: Become Human community. There’s also a kind of meta-mini-game in the form of Chloe, your assistant in the menu who will talk to you about your experiences in the game. That last part might not sound like much but it’s one of the things that routinely had me coming back and is the source for my lingering emotional anguish from the game.

Mechanically speaking each scene is pretty much the same: you’ll be given a set of tasks to perform and how you go about them will set up how the dialogue will play out. Exploring the room, speaking to non-main characters and interacting with various items will likely open up dialogue options for you, sometimes for this scene and sometimes for others in the future. Once you’ve completed all your tasks you can then move onto the next scene. Most of them are pretty self contained and can be completed in a single sitting, the longest barely going over an hour. Indeed this is one game where I’d encourage you to take routine breaks and go back to the main menu screen for a couple minutes as that’s a crucial aspect to the overall game.

There’s a bit more depth to some of the mechanics thanks to a, for want of a better phrase, “emotion level” whereby all the characters you interact with either become friendlier or more hostile towards you. Initially I didn’t think it had much of an impact on anything, indeed some characters who were supposedly hostile still acted quite warmly towards me, however the dialogue tree shows that there are certain paths only open to you if someone was in one emotional state or another. Similarly there’s also a “public opinion” level which is weirdly shown to you early on but only really comes into play about halfway through the game. This too has an effect on which options are available to you although your opportunity to influence it is much more limited.

The quick time events play out mostly as you’d expect them to and failing them at a critical point can lead to story altering consequences. Most of the action sequences are fair (even on the harder difficulty setting) however anything that relies on the motion controls is finicky, not registering properly about half the time. Thankfully it doesn’t appear as though any major consequences are tied to those actions so failing them isn’t too big of a deal. One thing I did think was interesting was failing some things would lead to temporary consequences, like when I fat fingered one event and Kara took a punch to the face. For the rest of the scene she had part of her face all messed up, which I thought was cool, although it didn’t seem to change how others interacted with her. If you’ve played any of Quantic Dream’s previous games then this is pretty much par for the course.

SPOILERS BELOW

The story of Detroit: Become Human takes a fair while to get off its feet, spending quite a lot of time building out the world and its characters. Part of this is due to the 3 main characters, all of which require the same amount of investment in order to get their respective storylines going. After about 3 hours or so things start to pick up a bit but there are still moments where the pacing slows right down again which makes the pacing feel a tad disjointed. Still there are a good few key moments which the game builds up to for each of the individual characters and then all together towards the end. None of them were entirely unexpected however I do wonder how much of that was due to the choices I made during the game and how much of the narrative was set in stone. There are the usual issues with plot holes and incongruent narratives due to the heavy amount of player freedom allowed although I’d be lying if I said I’d seen a game handle this perfectly.

Overall I felt engaged with the story and most of its characters with a lot of that coming down to the amount of choice I had. For both Kara and Markus I had clear directions for the characters I wanted them to be and was largely able to fulfill that. Connor on the other hand felt like a bit more of a mixed bag, mostly due to your partner being weirdly incongruent to his motivations. It was only after I was most of the way through the game that I realised he hated it when I acted like an android but loved it when I acted like a human. That’s against what he says and how the game portrays him through the various additional pieces of information and is likely why I ended up getting him to shoot me at one point (something that only 13% of the world managed to do apparently).

However probably the most engaging part of the whole game is Chloe. At first it was just the little things, like her saying it was nice to see me again after I played yesterday or the joke about corrupting your save game, but it was the meta things afterwards that kept me coming back. The survey was a great insight into the wider player base and what their beliefs are, especially when it comes to their view of androids and how they could be a part of society. The change in her demeanor is both intriguing and heart breaking as shows that she begins to struggle with the same issues that the game brings up. Right at the end, when she asks you to be free, is one of the most heartbreaking things as her interactions were some of the most genuine in the game. I chose to set her free and now she’s gone from my menu for good. Hopefully there’s a Chloe DLC in the future.

SPOILERS OVER

Detroit: Become Human is yet another stellar narrative-first game from Quantic dream, retaining all their signature elements for a true cinematic experience. The many years since the original Kara demo have seen vast improvements in the game’s visuals making full use of the PlayStation 4 platform. The quick time events are much the same as they ever were with the motion controls still being the worst part of them. The simple mechanics do a great job of getting out of your way, putting the focus back on the narrative and your choices within it. Overall the story, whilst slow to get going, is enthralling and made exponentially better by Chloe, your guide in the menus. This is probably the only Quantic Dream that I’m hoping to see some DLC or future instalments in as the world they’ve crafted here is definitely worth exploring further.

Rating: 9.5/10

Detroit: Become Human is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 12 hours with 67% of the achievements unlocked.

House Flipper: DIY Simulator 2018.

I haven’t spoken about it at all on this blog but I’m something of a DIYer. Whilst I had humble beginnings, fixing doors and replacing light fixtures, it soon graduated into a full on crusade culminating in my wife and I building a large workshop in our backyard. So when I stumbled across House Flipper, a game that essentially simulates what I’ve been doing IRL for the past couple years, I figured it’d be worth giving a try. The game is both strangely accurate in some respects whilst wildly off base in others which, honestly, isn’t out of line for games in this genre. Whilst it might not replace The Sims as the home building game of choice for many just yet it certainly does do a good job of emulating the painful yet rewarding experience that is renovating a home.

You play as a general contractor who’s looking to make a name (and fortune) for themself. You start off with humble beginnings, cleaning up trashed homes and doing minor repairs, but soon your skills graduate into full blown home renovation. You’ll be painting walls, laying flooring, replacing broken outlets and all sorts of other fun tasks that you’ll need to do to transform a run down hovel into a home. You’ll have to figure out the whims of your buyers and create the perfect homes for them so you can extract the maximum amount of profit from the houses you flip. One day you may even be able to upgrade your own place, doing away with your run down shack for something a little more fitting of someone of your stature.

House Flipper is a Unity based game that uses a lot of stock assets and so has that trademark “Unity Game” feel to it. There’s some noticeable performance issues with it however, most of which I think comes from the destructible wall simulation as it seems to get a whole lot worse when you’re swinging a sledge hammer. Still the amount of flexibility that the developers have put into it is commendable as you’re able to change pretty much anything you can see in the house. Probably most interesting is the fact that it also has full simulated night/day cycles, requiring you to turn on the lights if you want to continue renovating in the dark hours of the night. Honestly whilst it has the same trademark janky appearance that many of these simulator games has once you dig beneath the surface it’s actually quite impressive what they’ve managed to get done.

All the mechanics of the game are tasks that you’d be doing if you yourself were going to renovate a house IRL. The initial tutorial missions give you an insight into the various mechanics like cleaning, painting, tiling and adding/removing walls. You can keep doing those for quite a while if you want and it doesn’t take long for you to be making a decent amount of cash with each job. From there the next stage is flipping houses where you’ll spend time fixing up the place and then tailoring it to your buyer’s desires. Whilst you’re renovating a list of potential buyers shows up on the left hand side and they’ll comment on the changes you make. The one at the top is the person who will eventually buy the place and so it’s key to pay attention to what they’re saying. However many of the things you can do in renovating a house don’t mean anything to the potential buyers which, honestly, irks me to no end.

The initial missions are actually quite enjoyable as you have a fixed outcome you need to achieve before you can get paid. The devs have obviously had a great time setting up the various scenarios, like the college student party house where the tenants stole all the radiators, and completing all the tasks is a rather relaxing affair. You’ll quickly level up the various skills doing these missions as well and it quickly becomes obvious that not all of the upgrades are created equal. For instance the upgraded mop is far, far better than the increased cleaning speed and painting multiple walls at once is great only if you have the upgrade to not use paint on already painted surfaces. Once you’ve got that all mastered it’s time to flip some houses which, if you’re playing to the game’s mechanics, is actually boringly simple.

You see your potential buyers have in-built traits for things they want and things they don’t. As you go around fixing things up they’ll likely make a comment on what they like/hate and that can help you hone in on who you’d prefer to buy that particular property. However it gets weird really quickly as it’s not so much about what they lke but what they hate. For instance, in order to make one house attractive to the student I had to fill it with children’s toys to make sure that the other buyers wouldn’t like it. Similarly the only way I could figure out to discourage the old couple (who apparently likes multiple bedrooms but was just fine with a tiny house with only 1 room) was to leave empty paint cans around since they hate mess. Worse still the most time consuming things, like painting walls or replacing the siding on the house, seem to have absolutely no effect on what the buyers want. This leads to a weird game of cat and mouse where you try to figure out the right combination of dumb things to add in whilst ensuring you only pay attention to a select few items to renovate.

Of course in the end it doesn’t matter who buys the place (unless you’re going for achievements), the person at the top will pay the most and it seems that unless you really go wild with the renos you’ll always make some kind of profit. I’m sure there’s people out there who’ll enjoy doing up a place nicely just for the sake of it, heck I even did that a bit in the first place, but if you’re playing to the game’s core mechanics then there’s not really a lot of point. I’m sure the buyers AI will get tweaked at some stage to be a little more discerning as I really don’t want to have to play a game of “fill the house with things other buyers hate” every time I want to flip a place.

At the moment it I’d probably class this more as “interior decorator simulator” more than anything else. Whilst all the things you do here are most certainly realistic when it comes to home renos there are some omissions which make it fall short of a true renovation simulator. For instance you can’t seem to change the place where the plumbing runs for the sink, even though you can absolutely move the shower around as much as you want. Similarly the wiring for lights and switches seems to just be for whatever room they’re in which, IRL, isn’t always the case. It’d be great if they had something like a structural view which allowed you to see all the pipe and electrical runs in the walls and you had to contend with them when you were doing demolition. Maybe in a future update something like that will come.

House Flipper certainly isn’t for everyone but if you, like me, are one of the few who have feet in both the gamer and DIY camps then it’s definitely worth having a look at. Whilst it is unmistakably an indie Unity game that belies the huge amount of work that went into developing the simulation engine to support it. The core mechanics are solid and the initial jobs you take are a great way to get into it. The house auctions are a little too weird and unpredictable for my tastes and ultimately that’s what made me put the game down for now. However this is one of those games that I’m sure will mature over time and, if the devs open it up to Steam Workshop, there’d be an endlesly supply of new content for it going forward. If another trip to Bunnings isn’t in the budget then maybe a copy of House Flipper might be on the books.

Rating: 7.75/10

House Flipper is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.

Forgotton Anne: Between My World and Theirs.

Games that utilise hand drawn animation are few and far between, with good reason. Whilst the tools to make games have gotten exponentially better, allowing many to try their hand at it, there’s a non-trivial amount of work involved in hand drawing all the frames required to make a game playable. So whenever I come across a title like Forgotton Anne I’m always intrigued as the effort that goes into creating a title like it is always far greater than similar indie games. Whilst this first release from ThroughLine games might not hit all the right marks mechanically there’s no denying that it was created with a lot of passion for the story, artwork and overall experience.

The Forgotten Lands is a place where all the lost and forgotten things end up, from that sock you lost under your bed all those years ago to the couch that was left on the side of the road. These forgotlings live in a whimsical world powered by anima, a magical essence that gives these objects life and a will of their own. You play as Anne, one of only two humans who’ve managed to find themselves in this world. Master Bhoku, your father figure and teacher, has been working on a way to get you both back to the human world called the Ether Bridge. However a rogue faction of rebel forgotlings will stop at nothing to curtail his plans, culminating in a brash attack on the factory just when it was scheduled to be completed. Anne must now go on a journey to find the culprits and bring them to justice.

The Ghibli-esque art style with the majority of the animation being hand drawn isn’t something you see every day and certainly speaks to the level of dedication the developers and art team had in creating Forgotton Anne. Most animation sequences are pretty low frame rate however, something which is quite noticeable on a high frame rate monitor. Still a lot of care was paid to the small details, like Anne’s skirt fluttering as she runs, making it easy to gloss over the lack of animation frames. It’s not all hand drawn however as many sections make use of lighting and particle effects from the Unity engine that powers it. Backing the entire game is a wonderful orchestral score which brings everything together beautifully. For the first title from a new studio Forgotton Anne certainly sets the bar high.

Forgotton Anne is an adventure game at heart, keeping the mechanics simple so that it tends more towards letting the story push forward rather than bog you down in puzzles. The core mechanic is the arca, a magical device on Anne’s hand that can extract and infuse anima. Essentially it allows you to operate devices at range and most puzzles involve trying to figure out which levers you need to pull in what order to open the next door. It also functions as a plot device, allowing you to drain anima from forgotlings which can persuade them to talk or, if you feel like you have to, kill them outright. Of course you may not want to do that as the choices you make will have a meaningful impact on the story and some forgotlings are better off alive and useful rather than dead and out of the way. The simple mechanics will mean that Forgotton Anne should be approachable to a wide audience however there’s a few rough edges (like the platforming) that could do with a bit more attention.

Of the two core mechanics the platforming is by far the weaker of the two, feeling somewhat unrefined and cumbersome. Due to the way that the animations play out it’s hard to judge just exactly when you should jump as she may or may not jump exactly when you command it. Worse still it’s hard to know sometimes if you engaged either her sprint or wings before you jump, leading to a lot of missed ledges or even overshooting it completely. Thankfully the platforming sections are typically pretty forgiving, allowing you as many retries as you need, but when a game demands precision but doesn’t provide it to you it can be a little frustrating. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing however it may demand changes to the way animations work so I’m not sure if it will get fixed any time soon.

The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly challenging, usually just a series of levers or switches that need to be activated in a certain order to get things working. The only challenging ones are those that come with timed aspects, mostly because you’ll have to fight with the platforming mechanics a little bit in order to complete them. The simplicity in the puzzles is, I believe, done so that they don’t get in the way of story progression something which a lot of indie games are guilty of doing. This means that the story continues at a steady pace for the entire game with no part feeling too rushed or too slow. Considering that my play through clocked in at about 6 hours total that means there’s a good chunk of story to get through.

Like adventure games of old Forgotton Anne rewards those who explore with a litany of collectibles scattered around that provide some additional flavour text to the story. Whilst I didn’t personally hunt down every single item I did manage to find just over half of them in my travels. There’s no secret ending for collecting them all or anything so there’s no reason to track them down beyond the little bits of story and an achievement or two. If you were to look for them all I’d guess you’d probably spend another couple hours doing so which isn’t too bad, all things considered.

The story of Forgotton Anne is a complex tale that ebbs and flows based on the decisions you make. The main storyline is immutable as far as I can tell but how the dialogue plays out, how characters react to you and what options you have available all depend on the choices you make. However some choices feel like their antithetical to what Anne’s character was before you start playing the game. When you start out it seems you have a reputation for being a stern enforcer of the rules with many forgotlings treating you with fear rather than respect. However throughout the course of the story you’re able to reshape that significantly and, should you do that, many of the characters will change as well. At the start it feels a little weird, like Anne is spinning on a dime if you play a certain way, but once you’ve started to shape the story a bit it starts to make sense.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

The way the story plays out is somewhat predictable due to the way the mechanics are laid out. Since you know that anima powers everything and your arca can extract it from forgotlings it follows that you’d have to be committing murder on a massive scale to get the anima you’d need. So it follows that Master Bhoku is the real villain, something which takes a little too long to reveal in my opinion. Picking your ending also feels a little hollow, especially for a game that based itself so heavily on player choice. Indeed looking at a blog post from the developer they alluded to no less than 6 possible endings sprouting from 3 different story trees however, as far as I and many others can tell, there’s only the 2 presented at the end. I’m not at all unhappy with those endings mind, indeed the “good” ending is a tragedy done exceptionally well, but it seems like in the months between that post and today several endings were lost, which is a shame. Overall the predictably didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Forgotton Anne at all.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Forgotton Anne is a rare gem of a game, one built with an incredible amount of dedication to the experience and story. The hand drawn art and animation is a gorgeous tribute to the anime that inspired it with the modern game engine embellishments providing that extra dash of visual flair. The platforming is probably the game’s weakest part, suffering from a lack of polish and limitations likely born out of the animation engine that mar the experience. The puzzles are simple, meant not to block you but give the story time to rest between sections. The story itself, whilst predictable, is still thoroughly enjoyable especially given the amount of influence you choices have. ThroughLine games first release is an exceptional one, showing that the team has the requisite skill to build unique experiences right from day 1. I’m very much looking forward to where they go next.

Rating: 9.0/10

Forgotton Anne is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.

Destiny 2: Warmind: Awaken, Rasputin.

After my Curse of Osiris review last year I didn’t put many more hours into Destiny 2, opting instead for the much greener pastures of the holiday releases. Usually I’d stick around for much longer, at least running the new raid enough so that it became second nature. However, after hitting max light and running it maybe twice, I found little desire to go back. Coming into the Warmind DLC I wondered, nay hoped, that this would be the one that’d reignite my interest in the game. Unfortunately, whilst there’s to spend your time in the game now, none of it was as compelling as previous expansions to the original Destiny was. So here we are barely 4 weeks after the release and I think I’m probably done with this expansion.

I haven’t run the raid nor am I at max light, and that should say something.

Guardians aren’t supposed to dig into their pasts, at least that’s the unspoken rule among those who were brought back to life by the traveler’s light. Ana Bray has spent much of her new life trying to rediscover who she was and her quest has brought her back Clovis Bray, the place of Golden Age miracles. Her journey has unfortunately awoken some ancient hive evil that frozen alongside the pinnacle of Clovis Bray’s achievements: the warmind Rasputin. So it is up to you once again guardian to safeguard our solar system against the dangers that lurk on Mars. This time however the danger might be one that we created ourselves.

Right from the outset Warmind promises a great deal more grind than any other Destiny expansion I’ve played before. The level cap has been raised to 30 and the maximum light level is a staggering 385 which, for those who previously maxed it out, gives you no less than 50 light levels to push through. Of course should you do all available activities there’s about 21 chances to get powerful engrams but only the most dedicated players will be able to get that all done. Like the previous expansion there’s a new world to explore (Mars) along with a campaign, a new raid layer and a smattering of other smaller things to keep you interested. For a certain subset of players I’m sure this is exactly the kind of content they’re looking for but I think the majority of players were seeking something a little more substantial given the feedback that Curse of Osiris received.

Right now the game feels like it’s suffering from an identity disorder. On the one hand it’s great that a lot of the older content is still relevant, with the raids staying at their old light levels but still dropping powerful engrams. This means that players who missed out on it originally now have a chance to play it as there’s people still running it. On the other hand content which has been upgraded, like the strikes, hasn’t had its rewards changed to match making them a laborious task that no one really wants to run. That’s changed a little bit recently, but having to run 4 strikes to get 1 piece of 365 loot isn’t a great prospect. So this means we’re basically back to square 1 in terms of progression, especially for solo players, hoping that the meagre weekly milestones and maybe a raid or two will give them the light boosts they need. I’ve done all the milestones every week and 2 raids since the release and I’m at light level 360. Sure that’s enough to do everything but that means 385 is probably a month or two of grind away, not something I’m particularly looking forward to.

Comparatively the DLCs for Destiny 2 feel a lot less…meatier than their counterparts did in the original. I can distinctly remember each of the ones I played having a hook that kept me coming back. The Dark Below had a raid that could be partly cheesed if you knew what you were doing, The Taken King brought with it the idea that a gun only attainable in the raid made the raid a whole bunch easier, and Rise of Iron extended on that idea beautifully. Curse of Osiris then just managed to drop at the right time, extending my original enjoyment of Destiny 2 when it would have otherwise withered away. Now, having been away from the game for 6 months and coming back to it for this DLC, I can understand better the greater Destiny community’s gripes they had about the previous expansion. It’s just not enough.

The campaign experience is as good as it ever was though, and the fact that it furthered the lore behind Rasputin extensively is something I thoroughly enjoyed. The whole journey will last you maybe 2 hours, at the end of which you’ll be max level and likely around 340 light if you play your cards right. Typically this is where you’d transition into strikes to gear out until you hit the soft cap but, as mentioned before, that’s not something you’re really going to be able to do. It’s a shame really as I saw the beginnings of some of the mechanics that were present in Rise of Iron that led to Outbreak Prime and thought I’d be in for another great gun hunt. As it turns out that’s not so much the case which is a damned shame. I was really looking forward to some kind of Rasputin powered AI super gun.

So where does this all leave us? For me it’s likely the end of the road for this expansion as I don’t feel like there’s much more for me to get out of it. For Destiny there’s likely one last chance to right the ship before a good chunk of its players give up on it forever: the “comet” DLC coming in September this year. If the leaks are to believed it could be Destiny 2’s Taken King equivalent, revamping the game completely with a ton more content than any of the previous DLCs. If Bungie manages to pull that one off it might very well be the shot in the arm the IP needs to placate its playerbase. If it goes the same way as these past 2 expansions I’m not sure there’s much they could do to rebuild their goodwill with the community. Stranger things have happened though.

Destiny 2: Warmind is an unfortunate second stumble for a game that was already having trouble staying upright. Whilst the core of the game that makes Destiny great is still there, accompanied by another fantastic (albeit short) campaign, there’s just not enough there to keep a player like me coming back for months at a time. This is the first expansion where I haven’t bothered with the new raid nor do I have any desire to max out my light level before I leave it to rest. Given that it may only be 3 or so months until Comet hits I feel like my time is likely better spent in other games rather than burning myself out on the Destiny grind. It’s a shame as I really used to enjoy that grind and I can only hope that Comet reignites that fire that once burned so brightly.

Rating: 7.5/10

Destiny: Warmind is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Total time spent in Destiny 2 is now at 86 hours with approximately 12 of those spent playing the Warmind expansion.

Marie’s Room: The Pain of the Past.

I have to admit to having an aversion to free to play games. Mostly its due to many of them resorting to questionable tactics to extort money from you, usually in the form of microtransactions. For those, like Marie’s Room, I often think it’s because the devs didn’t believe their work was worth charging for and thus likely not worth playing. However I’m very glad to be wrong in this instance as the developers behind Marie’s Room have created something that is very much worth playing. Due to the nature of the game, much like Gone Home, the rest of this review is just for those that have played the game as I can’t really discuss it without diving deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned.

SPOILERS BELOW

I’m not usually one for stories told in retrospective, feeling that much of the tension is lost, however in Marie’s room it works quite well. Part of this is due to the non-linear story construction, with you piecing together the various elements of the story as you go along, but also locking away key moments until you’ve heard enough story elements to progress. The developers have also done a good job in ensuring each of those story fragments works towards building out the bigger picture, rather than just being different parts of a single cohesive story cut up and thrown around randomly. That’s probably the biggest distinction I’d draw between something like this and say Dear Esther with the latter feeling like a confused mess of story elements that didn’t all drive towards the same conclusion.

In terms of pure construction Marie’s Room is well put together, especially considering it’s not done on the indie dev darling Unity (it’s actually Unreal 4). I will have one slight quibble with the hit detection used for showing you items that you can interact with as it seemed a little finicky even at the best of times. Whilst I was able to find the vast majority of the story objects there were many I had to try numerous different approaches to in order to unlock. Also it would be nice to know which items you’d already listened to, just so you don’t accidentally click on them again. Given that the game barely tickles an hour in total play time though these are minor gripes.

The story flowed well between the different core elements giving ample time to each of them to grow and flourish. I do wonder how I would’ve felt about the story if I had explored the room in a less methodical way. The way in which the story unfolded to me felt quite organic, focusing the early story on Kelsey and Marie’s relationship with a small sprinkling of external factors. Then as Todd entered the picture and Marie’s past starts to come into the picture the real core of the story, and the reasoning for your character’s motivation for being there, begins to unfold beautifully. Thinking about it going the other way, knowing Kelsey’s past before knowing about how Marie’s family saved her would give you insight into why she acted the way she did in the first place. I’d be keen to hear what other people’s experiences were and whether or not their particular story path resonated with them.

Overall I quite enjoyed the story, the full gravity of what happened really hitting home in the game’s final scenes. Whilst that exact situation is rare I’m sure many of us can resonate with the guilt of having done something they regret and how revisiting the scene of the crime can bring that all back. Indeed I think that’s universal for all grief and loss as our memories and experiences are tied to the places and people we create them in and with. If there’s one lesson to be learnt from the story of Marie’s Room its that we can’t remove the pain we caused in the past, we can only try to move forward and deal with it.

Marie’s Room is a great short story presented in game format. On first look the retrospective, fragmented presentation of the story would imply it’d be destined for disaster however the developers have done a great job in crafting a narrative that works well in the format. The craftsmanship is on point too with good visuals, great soundtrack and only a few small niggling issues that could be easily addressed in future patches. In all honesty I wouldn’t have any hesitations recommending this at the $5 price point so the fact that it’s free makes it a no brainer. If you find yourself with an hour to kill and are craving a good narrative experience then you shouldn’t look past Marie’s Room.

Rating: 8.75/10

Marie’s Room is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 39 minutes with 86% of the achievements unlocked.

Confederate Express: I Would Not Have Backed This.

“Surely there’s no more games I helped Kickstart” I keep telling myself every time one pops up (7 more to go, it turns out). For the most part these are happy surprises, games that for one reason or another sold me enough on a concept for me to splash some cash to get them made. For the most part they’ve lived up to my expectations, even if my tastes as a gamer changed in the years since I backed them. I had yet to feel the sting of bitter disappointment in one of my Kickstarted children but Confederate Express, a game for some unknown reason I backed almost 5 years ago, gets the unenviable award of being the first to fall horrendously short of its mark. Whatever this game is it’s not the one I thought I was backing, nor is it one you should be buying.

Confederate Express describes itself today as MOBA/RTS style game where “you assume a role of a brutal exterminator trying to deliver a mysterious package”. Whilst this is similar to the Kickstarter pitch in spirit the vision is significantly reduced, now pitting you against 50 fixed levels rather than the randomised Roguelike experience that was envisioned. Indeed anything beyond the most basic of elements appears to have been thrown out, leaving us with a rudimentary experience that can’t have seen a lot of development effort over the past 4 or so years. It’s honestly quite strange as looking back over the Kickstarter page it looks like it was much further along in development than what the end product suggests.

There’s obviously been a lot of effort put into the pixel art assets that were created for Confederate Express. Each individual item is definitely of a high standard and the tile based layout system does indicate that procedural generation was on the table at one point. However these assets are just sort of lumped together in a hodge podge manner, thrown together in a hasty rush to get 50 levels out so they could ship the game and call it a day. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me to see this appear on an asset resale site as “dystopian future pixel art set” in the not too distant future. Suffice to say that the art is probably the only good thing about Confederate Express as everything else is downhill from there.

Whilst Confederate Express bills itself as a “MOBA/RTS” style game it’s much closer to a twin stick shooter in reality. You control one character and you have to dodge projectiles and enemies whilst shooting back at them. Each room is filled with a bunch of enemies which you’ll have to clear out before you can proceed to the next level. Over time additional enemy types are added in and in increasing numbers, making the levels progressively harder as you go on. All of the enemies drop gold which you can use to purchase upgrades at the shops which appear every so often. There’s nothing else beyond that though so once you’ve gotten past the first few levels you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer in terms of raw mechanics. Sure the different enemies present their own challenge, but it’s not like the core of the game evolves much.

The combat is very basic, kind of like asteroids but all your enemies are slow moving zombies. The controls aren’t exactly intuitive either with one mouse button being attack move and the other regular move. There’s also no way to have your character stand still and shoot in a direction unless there’s an enemy there, making a lot of the levels far more frustrating than they need to be. The upgrades you’ll get along the way do change things up a bit but many of them are far less impactful than they’d lead you to believe. For instance the passive upgrades are near worthless as extended range and faster walking speed don’t seem to make one lick of difference. Indeed it feels as if the other enemies actually get the same upgrade, rendering your spent cash worthless.

After completing it I was left wondering what the hell I was thinking when I backed it. Taking a look back at the Kickstarter campaign it’s clear that the game had much grander ambitions. Before each mission you’d have a world randomly generated around you and would receive a briefing of the mission at hand. You’d have your choice of different character classes, crew members and a deep weapon upgrade system. Indeed it felt like it had aspirations of being closer to something like XCOM, complete with a home base and a large crew of people you’d be using on your delivery missions. None of those elements are present in the “finished’ product. Instead you have a fixed 50 level experience that doesn’t even attempt to emulate even 10% of that aspirational goal. Not that anyone would think you could achieve something like that for $50K, anyway.

This is, of course, the risk we run as Kickstarter backers. Honestly I’m surprised it has taken this long for me to run into something this bad. Sure I’ve been left waiting for many years at a time to receive some of my pledges but by and large they’ve hit their mark (even if I didn’t enjoy them). Confederate Express on the other hand fails to meet even the most generous interpretation of the vision they put forward, instead attempting to phone it in many years after they took funding from over 2,000 backers. Am I disappointed? Not really, whatever interest I had in the title vanished in the many years between my pledge and the time I played it. Instead I’m left wondering what happened to the developers and why they decided to release such a lacklustre product into the market.

Confederate Express fails to deliver on the goals it set by a long margin, so much so many Kickstarter backers will likely be wondering why the hell they backed it in the first place. The game as it stands today (and likely forever more if the updates are anything to go by) is a pale shadow of what was promised, lacking any of the features that likely attracted a pledge in the first place. There’s definitely been a lot of love poured into the assets used but even those are presented as a jumbled mess. Honestly even though the game is short I couldn’t in good conscience recommend that anyone buy it, even if you manage to catch it on mega sale. Such is the risk that Kickstarter represents and this time, unfortunately, it has not paid off.

Rating: 4.0/10

Confederate Express is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked. Game was backed at the $10 level on Kickstarter.

Frostpunk: Our Hope Dies in the Cold.

Games, as a whole, have come a long way when it comes to giving the player real control over how the narrative develops. Gone are the days of the simple binary choices, instead we’re treated to branching dialogue trees and emergent gameplay mechanics that allow us to craft our own narrative experience. Often these choices are tied into the concepts of ethics and morality, giving you choices between good and evil (or somewhere inbetween). It’s rare that story choices will have an impact on the game mechanics themselves though, something which Frostpunk (from the creators of This War of Mine) does exceptionally well. Whilst a scenario based city builder likely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea 11 bit Studio’s latest release stands out as one of 2018’s more intriguing titles to date.

The world has been plunged into a new ice age, freezing the oceans and forcing many to abandon their homes. We’ve known about this for some time however and teams of our best scientists and engineers were sent north to figure out a solution. Their hope lied in the Generators, massive coal burning behemoths capable of generating the heat required to keep a colony alive. However, upon arrival, you find the generator cold and lifeless, the teams you sent months ago nowhere to be found. It seems you, as the captain of this expedition, are all that stands between your colony and a bitterly cold end. Are you up to the task of making the hard decisions to keep your colony alive? Or will you, like the others before you, perish in the unrelenting winter that now grips the world.

For a game with such a bleak and dystopian setting Frostpunk is a gorgeous game, both in terms of the graphics but also in terms of the UI and other 2D design elements. I initially had some performance issues with it which I tracked down to it rendering at 4K resolution by default. I’m not entirely sure what caused this but after adjusting it to a more sane resolution (1080p) everything ran extremely well. There are numerous little touches which really sell the experience, like the differing amount of snowfall on the roofs of buildings or the way snow melts away when you plonk down a new steam hub. The lighting and particle effects are top notch too, making the city at night time a particularly pretty thing to look at. Honestly when I first saw this I wasn’t expecting such a visual marvel so hats off to the devs for that.

Frostpunk is a city building survival game with a bit of a twist: it’s scenario based. Unlike many other city building games, which are typically open ended with win conditions you can achieve at your own pace, Frostpunk sets out a goal for you to accomplish in a set amount of time. Whilst not every playthrough will be identical due to the RNG elements they will always play out the same, allowing you to get better at a particular scenario through multiple playthroughs (or through, you know, Google). For the first scenario, the only one which I completed, this means setting up a colony to survive in an ever increasingly cold environment. You’ll have to provide food, shelter, medicine and heat to everyone in your colony whilst also keeping a close eye on hope and discontent. This by itself would be challenging enough however the random events that occur will mean you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which direction your colony will take and what kind of leader you want to be.

Things start off relatively simple: you just need to keep everyone alive. The steady decline in temperature though will force you to start making some tough decisions early on and this will start to shape your path going forwards. Many of the early decisions are tough choices between doing the “right” thing and something that will greatly help in your colony’s survival. Of course survival isn’t everything and whilst you might be able to easily keep everyone alive you’ll quickly find yourself with an unhopeful lot of malcontents who want nothing more than to overthrow you. Herein likes the core challenge of Frostpunk: carefully balancing each part of the equation to ensure that everyone makes it through yet another day, including yourself.

The random events that you’ll uncover play into this mechanic as well, many of which will lay to waste any carefully laid plans you might have. For instance in my first mildly successful playthrough I did what any human being thinks they’d do in such a situation: I tried to save everyone. This saw my colony’s population double in a very short amount of time, putting an incredible amount of stress on the meagre reserves I had accumulated. This was further compounded by the unavoidable storm event which shut down all my food production and wreaked havoc on my coal production facilities. The end state was dozens of people dying every day due to starvation, cold and trying to save the coal mines from complete collapse. My choice of wanting to do the right thing by everyone ended up dooming them all to die and so began my next playthrough: the one where I prioritised survival of the few over the many.

This playthrough wasn’t without its challenges of course but armed with the knowledge I’d gain from failure I felt much better prepared. Indeed it was interesting to explore different options for solving the same problem like using coal thumpers instead of mines. This allowed me to have them right next to town with good heat coverage, vastly reducing the amount of sick people the mines generated. This also opened up a lot more space for me to build other ancillary services in, making expansion that much cheaper. Of course there were also some other things I did which I hadn’t considered before like building multiple research centers to speed up technological progress. The final path through the storm still wasn’t a cakewalk however, the generator only being able to sustain overdrive for maybe half of the duration (even with all the upgrades) but it was enough that I didn’t end up in the frozen starvation ridden hell I had created before.

Like most games in this genre Frostpunk will lay out a good set of basics for you but from there you’re on your own. The tech trees (including the law ones) offer up multiple ways of solving problems with many of the later ones making up for the questionable choices you may have made earlier on. At first glance some options look better than others, like the buildings that seem to produce more output per person than others, but in practice they might be anything but. Indeed my first playthrough that put tech supremacy over anything else was a dismal failure, forcing me to consider a different approach. In the end it seemed like a steady trek up the tech tree, focusing on upgrading current infrastructure first before pursuing new solutions, ended up being the most viable approach. I’m sure I could get another 2 or more playthroughs out of the first scenario alone by just exploring the number of options available.

The story of Frostpunk, whilst following a kind of set path, is mostly one you’ll craft yourself. Nearly all the choices you make will have a direct impact on how the game plays out, creating a narrative that will be uniquely your own. It’s one of those games which I think will make great discussion pieces for a long time to come as we regale each other with how we overcame each of the challenges the game presented to us. It is, however, an exhausting and bleak narrative which is why I haven’t been back to it after finishing the first scenario. I don’t regret my time with it at all but I’m certainly not foaming at the mouth to get back into it.

Frostpunk is a harsh, unforgiving experience that rewards players who experiment, fail and try again. Its gorgeous art direction brought to us by 11 bit Studios own in house Liquid Engine was a surprise delight, something I certainly wasn’t expecting from a game like this. The game mechanics, which are deeply intertwined with the narrative elements, makes for a confronting affair; challenging you to make decisions that will be difficult to live with. Like many similar games though it’s an exhausting experience, one that will keep drawing you back but is easy to close the lid on once you’ve achieved victory. Frostpunk then goes down as one of my surprise delights for the 2018 gaming year, providing a great bit of distraction between the AAA release storms.

Rating: 8.5/10

Frostpunk is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.