The Painful, Emotional Journey to Where We are Today (AKA We’re Pregnant).

Rebecca (my wife) and I are very much pleased to announce that we’re expecting our first child, due on Valentine’s Day (more commonly referred to as Dave’s Day Eve, as my birthday is on the 15th) of 2019. Here’s a picture of our little one, taken just over a week ago at the 12 week scan:

Our path to get to this point however hasn’t a smooth one and, in all honesty, was probably the biggest source of trauma for both myself and Rebecca over the past couple years. Many of our very close friends know our tale but it’s one I think needs to be spoken about more. I’m also incredibly frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t seem appropriate to bring up these sorts of things until you have some good news to broadcast. Of course I’ve had the means and motive to do so for years now and just haven’t,  but that’s because neither myself nor Rebecca felt empowered to do so. It’s been incredibly hard to watch our friends, family and colleagues start their lives as parents whilst we were denied the same opportunity, though no fault of our own.

I say all of this not to bring you down but to give you an idea of the state of mind we’ve been in for the better part of 3 years and why I want to tell our story.

It all started a couple years ago when we decided that we were ready to start our family. We were so excited when we fell pregnant almost instantly, my wife telling me by leaving a new pair of pyjamas on the bed, lying right next to a baby sized version of the same kind. At the time I was still working in an office and my daily coffee run took me past a early childhood learning center, packed with rampaging toddlers and their carers. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking past them every day, thinking to myself that I’d have one of them soon, a little human that my wife and I created. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone.

But then, not 5 days later, Rebecca started to bleed.

It was late at night when it started to happen. The pains and bleeding didn’t seem to be getting any better and we made the decision to head over to emergency. There we sat for an hour or so before we could be admitted. Once we were in we let the doctor know what was happening and asked where we needed to go to from here. He ordered a blood test for beta hCG and told us to wait for the results. They came back as somewhat normal for this stage of the pregnancy but he wanted to test again to see if the levels were increasing or decreasing. As it turned out they were on the way down and he let us know that it was likely a miscarriage. He recommended a second test in the morning to confirm but, based on what he was seeing, this was the end of the line for this pregnancy. That’s when our whole world started to collapse in on us.

The tests the next morning confirm the diagnosis and, somewhat thankfully, also showed that Rebecca wouldn’t need to be booked in for a D&C. Rebecca took the rest of the week off work and we had ourselves a pity party at home consisting of vast amounts of chocolate, ice cream and KFC. Rebecca consoled herself with her sisters and I was lucky enough to have a friend who had just been through the same experience I could talk to, staying on the phone with me for an hour while I walked around the client site like a stunned mullet. After a week or so we started to feel better about it, thinking that we were just part of the unlucky 20% who go through this. We’d seen many of our friends and family struggle to even get to the point of being pregnant so we counted it as a somewhat mixed blessing, we knew we could get pregnant and so we’d just try again.

And so we did, and we proceeded to miscarry another 5 times.

Our first fertility expert we consulted after the second miscarriage wrote it off as just being unlucky (4% chance of it happening, so not out of the ball park) and told us that we had nothing to worry about given our age and health. So we tried again, miscarried again, and once again he gave us the same advice (0.8% chance now, if you’re counting). It was at this point my wife told me she wasn’t comfortable with him and wanted to switch, so we did. The following fertility expert proposed a raft of tests to figure everything out, eliminating all sorts of possible causes. Some of these tests were fine but one in particular, the HyCoSy Ultrasound was an especially uncomfortable experience for my dear wife. All of these came back negative and so she recommended, cautiously, that we try once again. That again ended in failure and so she went to her last resort: testing us for some kind of chromosomal abnormality or incompatibility between us.

This revealed that I have a balanced chromosomal translocation, essentially a rearrangement of my chromosome that (thankfully, for my sake) resulted in a balanced amount of information allowing the creation of a somewhat (I usually like to twitch at this point when telling people in person) fully functioning human being. When I go to create another human however that imbalance of information becomes an issue and when my DNA recombines with my wife’s it will more often than not result in an unbalanced individual which the female body will purge before it can be carried to term. The long story short is that the miscarriage rate for us is astronomically higher with 3 out of 4 of our pregnancies will result in a miscarriage.

There are options available to us though, although all it amounts to is playing the numbers. IVF with Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis allows us to make a bunch of embryos all at once and test them for balanced chromosomes before we go ahead and use them. In all honesty my wife has been an absolute champion throughout this process, going through the entire procedure no less than 7 times. Throughout that whole process we’ve managed to collect a grand total of 3 embryos, more than enough for most folks, but with all the various risks associated with normal pregnancies it might not be enough for us. We want to go until we get 1 or 2 more but our new bub has put those plans on hold for now (it happened naturally, lucky for us!).

Throughout all of this we’ve had great support from a lot of people and for that we’re incredibly thankful. At the same time though we’ve endured pressure from family, the constant reminders from seeing others with young families that we don’t get to have that as easily as they did and the stigma surrounding everything that happened. That’s the whole reason I wanted to write this: to shine a small light on the pain that we and many others have suffered and hopefully make it easier for all of us.

For me personally, whilst I have an incredible group of friends I know I can rely on for almost anything, I have a few beefs I want to air out. Whilst I know pregnancy and its many ins and outs isn’t exactly “male conversation” I’ve made a point of being interested in my friends parental journeys. Yet, when it came to the challenges and struggles we were going through, I got nothing. Part of this is because I’m not the kind of person to seek out that kind of help, I’ll shoulder the world’s burdens before I ask of it anything, but it’s not like I was keeping what was happening to us secret. This then extended to them talking about their newfound parenthood in front of me and not realising how painful that might be. Not that I didn’t want to talk about it with them, far from it, but in the same conversation I desperately wanted them to ask me about my journey. Again I feel comfortable talking about that now since I’ve at least got something good to talk about but, honestly, we should all feel empowered to ask for those kinds of things regardless.

Also there are times when someone who’s going through this won’t want to talk about what’s happened. If you’re the kind of person who needs to help others this is the point when you need to back the fuck down. I can understand how hard it is to see someone suffer and want to do something about it but people need to realise that, sometimes, talking about it just brings old trauma back to the forefront. Then it’s on us to not only deal with that pain again but also manage them. Honestly the best thing to do is let them know you’re there for them, whenever they need it, and make good on that promise when it comes due. Also, please for the love of fuck, do not tell people who’ve miscarried “Well at least you know you can get pregnant”. Trying to console someone with that platitude doesn’t help anyone, least of all those who’ve miscarried or those who’ve struggled with fertility issues in the past.

This latest pregnancy for us has been met with a lot of trepidation. Whilst all signs are looking good we’re still scarred by our past experiences. The joy I first felt long ago when I saw those toddlers playing on my coffee walk in the morning is still yet to return. The embers are there, glowing and ready to be stoked, but I don’t know when they’ll kindle themselves into a full fire. I’ve joked with many of my friends that I could be hold my newborn in my arms and still be shaking my head saying “Nope, nope, could still all go wrong!”. At least now we have a path to the future that includes us starting a family, something that has eluded us for many, many years.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from reading all of this it’s this: be supportive of those around you. I’ve read far too many stories from others who’ve felt isolated, alone and depressed about going through miscarriages, all of them feeling like they couldn’t talk about it with even their closest friends. Let’s break that barrier down and make it ok to talk about these things.

Subnautica: We Need to go Deeper.

Survival sandboxes have never really been my cup of tea. I get the appeal, crafting your own story however you see fit, but if I’m going to engage in the kind of repetitive activities that most of them make you do I’ll go back to my MMORPGs (at least I can get those SWEET SWEET PURPLES). However I’ve long had a large group of my friends pester me to play some of them and whilst I’ve inevitably left most of them behind one managed to get its hooks deep into me. As you’ve likely guess that game was Subnautica, one I had avoided for its entire life until it came up in conversation once again. With my dumpster diving in the Steam new release section wearing me down I figured it was time to try something that had a better chance of capturing my attention. Boy, did it ever.

Subnautica takes place in the far future, putting you in control of an unnamed protagonist (well I never figured out his name, but apparently it’s Ryley Robinson) aboard the spaceship Aurora. As you’re approach a planet your vessel is struck by an unknown energy pulse, sending it tumbling down to its surface. You manage to escape aboard one of the ships escape pods and upon landing find yourself stranded in a vast ocean. The aurora crashed close by, its reactor heavily damaged and spewing untold amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. Your life pod has all the basics to keep you alive but you’ll have to draw on the resources on the planet if you’re ever going to make it off. What follows is a tale of survival that you’ll largely define yourself although it’s clear that this planet is hiding a secret that you’ll need to understand if you’re ever to get off it.

For a Unity based game Subnautica sure is a pretty one, making full use of all the features available to the engine. The level of detail could be tuned a little better as quite often you’ll see a lot of asset and texture pop-in. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t so reliant on those details to navigate yourself around and locate the things you’re looking for. There’s also quite a lot of simulation going on, even for stuff that’s no on screen, which means as your time in game stretches on your performance is likely going to start taking a bit of a dive (pun…yeah intended). I definitely enjoyed the slightly simplified, stylized art direction that they took for this game though, especially with the huge variety of different environments you can find yourself in. That’s only made better by the great voice acting, sound track and substantial foley work that went into rounding out the rest of the experience. Overall, whilst Subnautica might still have a few Early Access rough edges to polish out, it’s definitely one of the better looking games I’ve played this year.

In the heavily oversaturated sandbox survival simulator genre Subnautica stands out as the one that went full in on the nautical theme. Sure you’ve got the standard things that you’ll need to take care of like food, water and health, but all the progression mechanics are based around diving to deeper depths in the ocean world you find yourself stranded on. All the things you craft will either help you stay underwater for longer, move faster so you can explore more or craft vehicles that will allow you to go on longer and longer journeys. You’ll also build yourself a base (or twenty) to generate and stockpile resources, build upgrade stations and serve as a place of respite between your expeditions. All of this is in aid of exploring as much of the map as you want and by golly there’s quite a lot of it. More impressive is that it’s all hand crafted too and often updated so things aren’t always where you (or people on the forums) expect them to be. Driving all of this is a kind of campaign story that also entices you to dive to deeper depths whilst revealing to you the fates of your fellow crew and the efforts that are being undertaken to rescue you. Suffice to say there’s quite a lot to do, so much so that I lost almost 30 hours to it without really trying.

Exploration is the main aim of the game and for the most part Subnautica does it well. The game does a good job of giving you a safe area to explore around in initially, one that isn’t too demanding and gives you a decent intro into the main mechanics. A more directed tutorial would’ve been nice as it’s not completely obvious where you’d go about to find certain materials, making those first few items a bit of a chore to get done. Once you’ve got a few basics completed and some form of vehicle built though things start to progress a little faster and the campaign missions start coming thick and fast. Things can get really non-linear though as somethings will likely be easier for you to find than others. For instance I had a Seamoth fully completed before I managed to get everything together for a Seaglide, including having the blueprints for the powercell charger before I had the respective ones for my batteries. Similarly it took me quite some time to track down the multi-purpose room (yeah I know, I know, I didn’t explore the island enough) which limited my capabilities somewhat for a good few hours.

The crafting system is deep and rewarding, giving you ample things to shoot for throughout the course of the game. It’s almost always worth picking up as many crafting materials as you can carry as you’ll never know when you’ll next need them to craft the next upgrade. Probably my biggest gripe with the whole system is that the various drop rates for different materials doesn’t seem to be inline with the amount you’ll need. For instance diamonds, lithium and gold all drop from shale outcrops but always ended up with more diamonds than I needed and little of the precious lithium which seemingly all the higher end upgrades crave. Things only get worse with higher end materials, especially if you’re like me and built your base in the safe shallows near the escape pod (since that’s where I had all my stuff). Of course I could’ve built another base further out if I so desired but honestly the amount of times I had to dive back out to get more titanium meant that I’d probably be doing just as much travel no matter where I decided to put down my roots. If they ever add something like a mining rig which produces some of the minerals from that depth I think that’d make the whole experience a little better, at least for people like me who don’t really want to grind a lot in a single player experience.

I didn’t spend too much time on building out my base, basically just fleshing out the bare necessities I needed and a few other things to make my life a little easier. It took me a while to understand the whole structural integrity thing and how other modules affected it. I think that’s part of the experience though as there’s a whole bunch of mechanics based around not doing it properly (those who’ve played that will know what I mean and yes, I did do that, multiple times). I did engage in a little mobile base building towards the end of my play time though, keeping enough resources with me to be able to build a single multi purpose room, a hatch, two power cell chargers and a nuclear reactor. I only ever ended up using it once (and discovered a limitation I didn’t know of, you can’t remove the reactor rods) so it was probably not completely needed. Still it was a nice little safety assurance to have.

I almost gave up on Subnautica after I finally built my cyclops as I wasn’t particularly interested in the effort required to kit it out and transfer all my stuff into it for the long journey into the deep. However I just went and did that for a couple hours one night, fully equipping it with everything I’d need to make the long journey down. Honestly I think the amount of effort I had to go through to do it suddenly made the whole thing feel a lot more worthwhile; this wasn’t something that you could just blast your way through. No if you wanted to see the story through to the end you’d have to equip yourself with all the things you’d need as coming back might not be possible. Whilst I didn’t go as crazy as some people did I had more than I ever needed for the long journey down and boy, that was some intense gaming.

Going from piloting the Seamoth and Seaglide the Cyclops is an exercise is slow, steady precision. Of course the first thing I did was to put it up to full speed to see what it was capable of and promptly caused massive cavitation, damaging my propeller and causing a fire. It was then I realised that this vessel wasn’t built for speed but endurance and I’d have to be very careful how I handled it going forward. Once you get a handle for it though the cyclops is very maneuverable and is nigh on invulnerable to you bashing it around. Creature attacks are a different story however and once you’re in the deepest depths it becomes a real balancing act of movement speed, damage from creatures and how much charge you’ll lose if you don’t find all those fscking Lava Larva that have attached themselves to the outside of your ship.

Given that Subnautica has been out for about 4 years now most of the egregious bugs have been fixed but a few still remain. Lockers and other interactable items can glitch out on you if hit a hotkey when you’re interacting them, preventing you from interacting with anything and hiding your HUD from you. This can usually be fixed by walking away or just spamming buttons but it is rather annoying when it happens. Hitboxes can also be a bit iffy, like when you’re trying to say interact with a part of the Seamoth and end up entering it instead. Base building too can be a little weird, like when you place 2 multi-purpose rooms on top of each other. The green indicator would make you think that everything is fine but no, there is actually a wrong way to do it which will prevent you from putting in a ladder between them. There’s also the performance and LOD detail issues I mentioned before, something which I would have expected to be fixed by now. None of these things are game breaking experiences and all of them are things I think will be fixed in due course.

Subnautica was sold to me as the kind of survival game I’d be able to get into because of the story and, by and large, I’d agree with that. To be sure the first 8 or so hours were quite engaging because there was always an objective for me to go to, one that would show me a bit more about the world. After that though things started to get a little thin on the ground. Sure there were a few tidbits here and there but for the next 14 hours or so I was in something of a narrative hole. That picked up swiftly towards the end of the game with the last 6 or so hours filled with a lot more excitement, especially towards the end. If I was playing more efficiently I’m sure the story would have felt a lot better paced but even for a min-maxer like myself, one who was routinely consulting with the wiki and forums, I don’t think a genuine first playthrough could be done much quicker. With that in mind I’d like to see another 4~5 hours worth of story content to help drive things along as I’ve heard a lot of people drop the game as they get their cyclops which usually coincides with the dearth of story elements. All that being said though I thoroughly enjoyed Subnautica’s story and would happily recommend it to people who’d traditionally shy away from games in this genre.

Subnautica was one of those games I went into thinking I wouldn’t like it and was gladly surprised to be proven wrong. There’s always this sense of just needing to go a little deeper to find that next thing, whether it be story related or that item you need to make your life that much easier. The story that plays along helps to keep you engaged as you scrape together the upgrades you need to get to the next chapter. There’s still a few rough edges from its Early Access days, including a glaring lack of story for a good half of my time spent in it, but these aren’t things I think are beyond fixing. So it seems my friends were right, this is the kind of game for people like me who’ve given the whole survival genre a miss because we do like a good story that we don’t craft ourselves. Subnautica seems to strike the right balance here, giving you ample room to craft your own tale whilst giving you a trail to follow if you so wish. Whilst the AAA drought is soon to be over it’s still probably worth giving Subnautica a look in as it really is worth the time, especially if you can get through to the end.

Rating: 8.75/10

Subnautica is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours playtime and 82% of the achievements unlocked.

The Free Ones: Swing Free.

This is the last week I go Steam new release diving, I promise.

I mean I’m sure there’s a ton of gold in there somewhere but the process for discovering new titles that are worth playing couldn’t be worse. Valve has made something of an attempt with their discovery queues but they rarely recommend anything new and I’ve yet to hear of a viable alternative (and no, I’m not going to try and put something like that into Completionist, that idea died when Valve killed the data I relied on). So it’s up to us, dear gamers, to churn through the hundreds of games released every week to try and hone in on something that might take our fancy. This week it’s The Free Ones and whilst I’m not about to throw it under the same bus as Elementium or NUMERIC it’s certainly not going to make any must play list anytime soon.

The Free Ones puts you in control of Theo, a captive who’s been working as a slave in the mines for most of his adult life. One day however a mysterious glove finds its way to him, accompanied by a note telling him that they can make him free. Soon after he comes across a group of escaped slaves, living on a nearby island away from the watchful eye of their captors. There he learns of their plan for escape and agrees to help them. What follows is a tale of his journey to regain his freedom and grant it to those who’ve known nothing but slavery their entire lives.

Graphically The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, being about a generation and a half behind the trend. The environments are definitely not made to be explored in detail and that’s by design, you’re meant to swing on through as fast as possible in order to get to the next section. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was a little more love given to the parts that you can’t blow past, like the cut scenes or some of the slower sections. It’s at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how basic most of the assets and other elements are which in this day and age is a big detractor from the overall experience. Couple that with extensive asset reuse and you’ve got a relatively bland, repetitive visual experience. Considering that it was only in development for 1 year and 8 months I can see why better visuals took a back burner to other things.

The one sentence overview of The Free One’s core mechanics is that it’s a momentum based 3D platformer akin to similar games like A Story About My Uncle or Valley. The main part is the grapple hook, allowing you to latch onto wooden objects in the environment and pull yourself towards them. This allows you to build up some momentum and fling yourself across the map. The challenge starts to build up as the things you’re able to grapple to start moving, forcing you to figure out how best to latch onto them in order to gain the greatest momentum. There’s also numerous challenges based on threading the needle through various tight spaces which aren’t particularly forgiving if you don’t hit the mark. There’s also a bunch of collectibles to get, ones that are only collected if you land back on solid ground, something which will provide an extra layer of challenge to those seeking it. Achievement hunters will also love the no death and time limited runs but I personally didn’t find them compelling. At a mechanical level I think The Free Ones is implemented well but it’s not the kind of challenge I’d typically seek out for myself.

For me the game excels in the large, open environments where you’re able to fly past large areas in a single go. It’s a pretty great feeling when you get on a roll and manage to clear a section or two without stopping, even if there is a couple desperate moments where you’re searching for the next thing to latch onto. The tighter, closed in environments are much less satisfying mostly because there’s usually a lot more that can go wrong, requiring a lot more attempts to clear a section which can be a little frustrating. This is made worse by the fact that the hit detection in the game isn’t as polished as I’d like, leading to a lot of furious clicking as I plummeted down to my death.

Indeed this lack of polish is present through all of the game and it becomes painfully apparent in the late stages of the game. There were numerous times when I fell through the world or got out of bounds, sometimes triggering a respawn and sometimes others requiring a checkpoint restart. There’s also a lot of sections where you can end up in places that the developers didn’t intend you to be, like on some of the levels with trains and the islands that surround them. If you manage to get on one of them accidentally you can walk around it but it’s pretty clear that the developers didn’t intend anyone to be on them. Similarly latching onto train tracks is a real hit and miss affair as there were times when it made the “clang” noise indicating I’d latched on while I fell back down to my death. Of course this is the product of only 2 full time devs so this lack of polish is somewhat expected and it’s not something a couple more months in dev would’ve fixed.

Unfortunately the story can’t make up for the game’s faults as it’s rudimentary, predictable and oddly paced. It’s pretty standard in terms of your motivation (I need to get out of here to get back to my real life) and follows the well trodden story path along that. The pacing is odd in that the characters go through wild swings of emotional development over what appears to be a couple days. If they’d broken the sections up a bit more and given it time to develop it’d be a bit more believable but as it stands today it just doesn’t have enough investment for the emotional outcomes it presents.

As a standalone game The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, as it doesn’t really excel in any particular category. The so-so visuals wouldn’t be out of place a generation or two ago, even for games that came from similarly sized development teams. The core game play works well enough although the lack of polish is quite noticeable, especially towards the later sections of the game. Finally the story does nothing to tie this all together nor make up for the more egregious missteps that the game makes, instead serving as another reminder that the game is decidedly mediocre. Compared to what I’ve been playing recently it was definitely a step above but that’s not saying much. I’m sure fans of these kinds of games will find something to like here but in all honesty if you haven’t heard of The Free Ones you really don’t need to worry about missing out on it.

Rating: 6.0/10

The Free Ones is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.2 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.

Numeric: Pretty Colours are no Substitute for Substance.

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a sucker for eye candy. Sure I’ve played (and enjoyed) my share of games that have gone for substance over style but I’m far more likely to enjoy something if it’s visually pleasing and manages to get all the usual trappings in as well. However that penchant for visual flair can easily lead you astray as judging a game by its screenshots is the same as judging a book by its cover. That, dear reader, is how I ended up playing NUMERIC, a bargain basement platformer that suckered me in with semi-decent visuals, tricking me into thinking there was actually a game underneath it to be played.

NUMERIC has a story but it’s so ham fisted in its implementation it’s barely worth mentioning. It’s clear that English is a second language for the developer, as the description of the game on Steam will attest:

After a long sleep, the Model “98” finds itself in an abandoned place away from the usual house. There is little left in the memory, in addition to the memory of old friends. Where are they? What happened, why is everything so empty and lonely around?

With no story to drive the game along there’s only 2 things left for it: the visuals and the gameplay. One of those is above average, but that won’t be enough for the astounding lack in the other two.

So visually NUMERIC has a lot going for it. It manages its own spin on the current low-poly aesthetic that’s all the rage with indies these days. If I had to hazard a guess though the majority of those assets have come from the Unreal Marketplace and all of them have been dumped directly into the game’s files. That means for a game which has barely an hour of gameplay in it and a handful of environments the entire package clocks in at a whopping 6GB; not something you’d expect given its low-poly nature. NUMERIC does make good use of modern lighting effects to make for good screenshot bait but, beyond that, there’s really not much more to it. Honestly I should’ve expected as much when I was trawling through the new releases section of Steam, but a man can dream can’t he?

The core game play is 3D platforming, with all the usual pitfalls coupled with a distinct lack of any refinement or inspiration. You simply have to get to the end of the level, usually through hitting a few switches to unlock doors whilst avoiding a few obstacles. The game will always trigger a cutscene whenever you’re triggering an action which is skippable but, honestly, after the first time we’ve seen it there’s no reason to trigger the cutscene again to remind us of what is happening. Worse still the hit detection is very unreliable, often failing to trigger multiple times until you figure out where the hitbox for the switch your or character is. Couple that with level design that isn’t exactly well thought out and you’ve got a bunch of levels which can be finished in obviously unintended ways and others which are just exercises in frustration as you work you way around the developer’s mistakes.

NUMERIC then comes to an unceremonious end with a screen that says “Thanks for playing The End 2018” not even trying to attempt to close off the loose jumble of threads it thinks counts as a story. I would be kinder to the developer if this was their first title but it’s not, they’ve got no less than 3 titles for sale on Steam, all of which were released this year. Looking at the others it’s clear that they’ve found their formula and are running with it, hoping to churn out title after title until they hit on something. Whilst admirable it doesn’t lend itself to developing quality titles and won’t do them any favours when it comes to standing out of the torrent of games that are released on Steam every day. What they’re producing isn’t as egregious as some of the asset flip titles I’ve seen, but its close.

NUMERIC does the very bare minimum to be counted as a game, luring in visually driven idiots like myself in the hopes of finding something worth playing. Whilst they’ve managed to make some good looking visuals with the help of marketplace assets that’s where the substance stops. There’s nothing about this game that warrants playing it, nor even watching a stream of it on Twitch or a Let’s Play on YouTube. The fact that the developer is churning out title after title should tell you a lot about the motivations behind this game’s creation and none of them should compel you to spend money on this game. You’d think I would’ve learnt my lesson after Elementium, but alas, it seems I’m a slow learner. Hopefully you’ll head my words and let this one pass through to the keeper.

Rating: 3.5/10

NUMERIC is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was 54 minutes that I’ll never get back again.

Ghost of a Tale: A Mouse in a Rat’s World.

Now is the time for the independent games to take center stage as the AAA developers rest, scheduling their big releases for later in the year. For me this time of year always presents a challenge, forcing me to look afar from what I might typically play. In some respects Ghost of a Tale isn’t too different from what I usually play, adventure/rpgs are one of my mainstays, but I honestly hadn’t heard about it until I went looking. The promise of great graphics and a good story were enough to intrigue me but unfortunately, after playing it for 3 hours, I’ve decided it’s simply not for me.

You play as Tilo, a minstrel mouse who’s been caught up in a perilous adventure. Separated from your wife you’ve been thrown into prison to await your sentence and, quite unfortunately, the possibility of the hangman’s noose. So you take it upon yourself to break free of the prison and begin the search for your wife. The prison is full of unlikely allies however including a few of your former captors. You’ll need every bit of help you can get as breaking out of the rat infested prison will be no small feat, even for a small mouse like yourself who can fit into some incredibly small spaces.

On the surface you’d think that Ghost of a Tale was running on the Unreal engine given its overall look but it is in-fact a Unity based game, something I honestly did not expect. The aesthetic then is not born out of the engine defaults or limitations but instead is an active choice by the one and only developer behind the game. The environments aren’t particularly large but they are brimming with detail, a lot of which is unfortunately hidden away quite often due to the dark areas you’ll be exploring. Whilst many reviewers laud the visuals they’re honestly not that great, but the fact that they come from a single person is quite impressive. It has taken them over 5 years to get to this point though.

Ghost of a Tale is an adventure game in the truest sense, giving you an environment to explore and a set of puzzles to solve in order to progress. There are a few RPG elements thrown in for good measure, like a rudimentary level and perk system, which helps with giving you a small sense of progression (outside of unlocking new areas). It’s a stealth based game without a true combat system, instead giving you some options to cope with situations when you’re discovered like hiding or knocking them out. The adventure game elements are well developed as well, going as far to incorporate things like what you’re wearing into how NPCs react and what dialogue options will (or won’t) be available to you. Overall Ghost of a Tale is a surprisingly complete game and is certainly the product of someone passionate about bringing it to life.

The stealth mechanics are done well, giving you the usual “awareness meter” that will fill up as your enemies become aware of where you are. If you’re discovered you’ll have to break line of sight and then hide somewhere for a time until your pursuer gives up the chase. This can get a little buggy at times as the rats can get stuck on corners and other places which, for some reason, prevents them from entering their non-alarmed state. You can also throw bottles at them to knock them out which is sometimes necessary in order to steal a key from them or to get through an area quicker. Running drains stamina but the rats don’t move faster than you do at your normal pace so really all you need to do to avoid getting hit by them is run past once then trundle along until you can find a hiding spot. Once you get the hang of it navigating the map becomes a lot quicker as you can judge when you can quickly dart through or when you need to take your time. This well done stealth is what kept me playing for the first hour or so but after then things started to drag on a bit.

Pretty much all of the missions are fetch quests, sending you around the map looking for different things that you’ll need to bring back to someone in order to progress the story. If you loot anything and everything in sight (which there’s no penalty for doing, by the way) you can sometimes preempt some of these but most often you’ll be sent to find a bunch of things that you couldn’t collect beforehand. Given how much of a maze the map is this quickly became tiring as I’d often forget where I was or where I’d looked already and then have to spend the next 5 minutes staring at the map to figure it out. Whilst I’ll admit that this is probably what a lot of people enjoy about the game for me it was simply frustrating. If at all possible I’d love an option to guide me in the right direction for my current quest, even if it was just to the general area. That’d certainly have kept me playing for much longer.

Those who played the game will now likely point out that the game has a kind of in-built walkthrough in the form of florens and the blacksmith. Basically you can find some currency in the game and spend it on hints which I honestly quite like. However there’s not a lot of them around and I feel like I’d probably run out of them before the game was half over. Sure I could also consult a walkthrough guide but I just wasn’t that interested in what the game had to show me.

A lot of that is probably due to the fact that the story wasn’t exactly resonating with me. I’ll wholeheartedly admit I’ve been spoiled by many games that were fully voiced and so my tolerance for wall of text based games has dropped considerably. That, coupled with the fact that it didn’t feel like Ghost of a Tale’s story wasn’t going anywhere fast, meant I didn’t have anything driving me to play it beyond the few hours that I did. It’s a shame as based on the wildly positive reviews I’ve seen for it on Steam and elsewhere I had good expectations for it but, unfortunately, it just didn’t deliver for me.

Ghost of a Tale is one of those few games where I seem to find myself on the opposite end of public opinion. There’s no doubting the amount of love and effort that’s gone into this game, something that’s especially commendable given it was all done by a single person. However if The Witness taught me anything great craftsmanship only goes so far if the result isn’t fun to play. There’s perhaps a few small changes and additions that could bring someone like me into the fold but, honestly, it feels like that might be antithetical to what Ghost of a Tale wants to achieve. So whilst I might not have enjoyed this game that certainly doesn’t mean you won’t and the review score below is simply reflective of my experience, not necessarily the quality of the game itself.

Rating: 6.0/10

Ghost of a Tale is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 15% of the achievements unlocked.

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.