Playdead’s Limbo inspired an entire sub-genre of atmospheric puzzler platformers. It’s one of the few games that many will finish in a single sitting; its succinct and engaging game play cementing you to your seat until it’s finished. It’s been quite a while since Limbo was released however and many have been eager for Playdead’s sophomore release. Inside was teased 2 years ago and, like all good hotly anticipated releases, was met with numerous delays before being released this year. Of course the release brings with it the question of whether or not Playdead can live up to their previous accomplishments and, perhaps, even exceed them.
On first blush it would seem that Playdead was hoping to ride out much of the nostalgia and hype that they generated with their seminal title. Once again you find yourself in control of a lone, young boy making his way through a dark and dangerous wilderness. However where Limbo’s world was allegorical Inside’s is more literal, everything seeming fare more real than its predecessors did. You’re given just about as much instruction as you were in Limbo, leaving you to figure out what the controls are and how to interact with your environment. Once you’ve got that down you’re then left to explore this dark world and all the dangers that it contains.
Inside utilises a muted colour palette with a highly stylized aesthetic reminiscent of games like Team Fortress 2. Where Limbo used their own custom engine to produce the trademark monochromatic visuals Inside instead uses Unity with a specially developed temporal anti-aliasing filter. This is what gives Inside it’s smoothed, cinematic quality that eliminates most of the jaggies that would otherwise be present. It also, as the developers point out, has a nice side-effect of giving everything a stochastic effect which adds that slight dreamlike quality. The resulting experience is quite honestly exceptional, bringing that Limbo-like effect to the modern day.
Like its predecessor Inside is a puzzle platformer, pitting the young boy against a myriad of challenges which will require you to figure out how best to tackle them. None of the mechanics it uses are new or inventive however they’re all tied into the theme of Inside in some way. There will be much dying, retrying and going down dead ends to try and find the various secrets scattered throughout the game. Inside is very much of the ethos of “Show, don’t tell” with the game giving you clues and hints about what it wants you to do next. It’s also a linear experience with there being one and only way to progress to the next section. It’s simple and unoriginal but Playdead made their name in defining this sub-genre and the quality of craftsmanship in all aspects of the game belies its mechanical simplicity.
What Limbo and Inside both do exceptionally well is inspire feelings in the player. There are numerous moments in Inside that inspire sheer terror or that horrible sense of foreboding should you step one foot out of place. As someone who’s typically not a fan of horror or its sub-genres it was genuinely refreshing to see this done right. This, coupled with the drip feed of information about the world that’s given to you, gives you a driving sense that this is all building to something but you can’t be sure what it is. Then comes what I think is the game’s pinnacle moment and what cements it as another brilliant title from Playdead.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The moment is, of course, when you transition from the scared boy to the blob. The entire premise of the game up until that point is you existing in a world that is hunting you, one that you should be afraid of. That all changes when you become the blob, the world now fears you, and what you might do to it. Instead of the world and its people fighting you they assist you (for the most part), trying to ensure their own survival just like you were before. The fear and tension is gone, replaced by a kind of excitement. You are now in control, even if that means you’re a strange amalgam of body parts that moan in the most horrendous way whenever you move.
Which leads us to the story. I’m firmly in the camp of the boy being controlled directly by the blob, sent on a direct mission to free it from its prison. Of course how you interpret either ending is up to you, that’s the beauty of how the story is told, but that’s the only explanation I’ve seen thus far that fits well with the events as they unfolded. Regardless of what explanation you take as true it’s hard not to appreciate the final ironic climax, the purpose of Inside being only to get outside. Inside’s story is definitely an intellectual rather than an emotional one.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Inside has done what many would think would be impossible: improve on the formula set by a classic and bring it into the modern age. The aesthetic retains that same Limbo-esque feeling whilst modernising it significantly, likely setting the precedent that many games will follow for years to come. The gameplay, whilst standard affair for the genre, is well polished and all done in aid of telling the story. The overall narrative, shown to you rather than told, is certain to keep people talking about it for years to come, the ultimate meaning hidden behind many clues, red herrings and good old fashioned speculation. Inside is a game that is thoroughly worth the time to play and, if you can manage it, in a single session on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Inside is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2.9 hours of total play time with 29% of the achievements unlocked.
Journey was one of my favourite games of its release year, blending together many well-crafted elements into an enthralling experience. Long time fans of Thatgamecompany weren’t surprised at this though as the developer had a history of delivering atmospheric titles with brilliant sound tracks. For me though it was the multiplayer aspect that made Journey shine; the co-operation through minimal communication a truly inspired mechanic. However Thatgamecompany’s usual release cycle of every 3 years has come and gone without another release, leaving us wanting for the kind of experiences that they were known to deliver. In the mean time however former art director for Thatgamecompany Matt Nava has formed a new games development house called Giant Squid Studios and their first game, ABZU, has just been released.
It’s easy to see Matt Nava’s influence in ABZU, the main character sharing similar stylings to the main protagonist of Journey. Indeed the setting, whilst being the polar opposite of Journey’s desert, shares a lot of the same elements. After a short cut scene, which obviously holds some significance to ABZU’s plot, you’re dumped in a massive underwater world and set forth to explore. The how and why of everything are left up to you to figure out as there’s no dialogue nor walls of texts to explain anything. The only helping hand you’ll get is a few screens that fade in to let you know what the controls are, after that you’re on your own.
Borrowing yet again from it’s spiritual predecessor ABZU has the same highly-stylised, almost cel-shaded like aesthetic. Unlike the barren wastes of Journey ABZU is a world that teams with life, schools of fish and other sea creatures dancing about as you explore. These visuals are then accompanied by an incredible sound track done by Austin Wintory, the same composer behind Journey. I’ll endeavour to stop making comparisons between the two but calling it “Journey but in the sea” seems like the most apt description of what ABZU is on first glance.
ABZU is an exploration game, one that makes full use of the underwater environment to provide you with much more freedom than traditional platformers do. You’ll be dropped into a gated off area, one that you must explore in order to find your way out. Along the way you’ll find various collectibles, unlocks and various items that are used to unblock/unlock your way through to the next section. There’s no combat to speak of however, the game preferring to gently remind you that there’s a better way than throwing yourself head on at every problem. Overall it’s a very simple game but as we’ve seen before simplicity in game mechanics doesn’t mean it isn’t a sophisticated experience.
The exploration is done mostly well, the environments being full of detail that’s worthy of exploration just by itself. Unlocking additional creatures from their underwater prisons adds them directly to the local ecosystem, sometimes changing it radically. You move at a good speed, especially with boost, making it easy to get across a map in no time at all. What’s lacking however is an indication of how complete each section is, leaving you to wonder if you really did get everything or there was something left behind. I may have just missed the signal that showed you that but I remember Journey’s version of that being very obvious and if ABZU has a similar mechanic it was far too subtle for me to pick up on.
I did as instructed when the game asked me to use a controller however even then the controls felt a little janky. I do understand that there’s a certain amount of inertia when you’re in water however the way the character moves sometimes doesn’t quite line up with what your inputs are. It’s not unusable by any stretch of the imagination but it does make some moments far more frustrating than they need to be. I didn’t swap it out for the mouse and keyboard however, so I’m not sure if that might have resolved my issues.
The story is told through your interactions in the world, various hieroglyphics that adorn parts of the world and lots of cut scenes that paint a high level picture of what your character is trying to accomplish. Consequently there’s not a lot of meaning you can derive from ABZU directly, it’s all inferred from what you see on screen. This doesn’t prevent the game from having some truly impressive emotional moments however, many of which are reminiscent of Journey, but it does mean that the higher meaning of the game is somewhat elusive.
ABZU is a true spiritual successor to Journey, taking all of what made its predecessor great and applying it to a whole new setting. The visual and sound design both come from direct from those who worked on Journey and their influence can be seen throughout ABZU. Mechanically it plays largely the same with the added freedom granted by being underwater used to great effect. The controls are probably the one black mark against the otherwise solid experience, making some aspects of the game just a bit tedious and awkward. Overall though ABZU is a standout debut title for Giant Squid Studios and I very much look forward to what they do next.
That is if Thatgamecompany don’t release something before them, of course!
ABZU is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
Mirror’s Edge came at a pivotal time in gaming history. The industry was leaping forward in ever greater strides with game budgets soaring and consumers ever more willing to shell out for the latest and greatest titles. However it was the time when the yearly game cycles began to take hold, the same titles regurgitated year after year and original IPs were few and far between. The Indie Renaissance was still some years away and so gamers were hungry for titles that were a break away from the norm. It wasn’t a breakout success however, generating good but not great reviews. Still the success it had led many to believe a sequel was inevitable but DICE was tight lipped on the franchise for a long time.
It wasn’t until 5 years later that we’d find out that Mirror’s Edge would be returning and it would still be another 3 after that before we’d be able to play it. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was initially envisioned as a prequel title however it’s current incarnation sees it as a reboot of the franchise. It’s a much broader scope game, expanding on the free running concept by dramatically increasing the area you’re able to move about in and adding in some additional mechanics to keep it interesting along the way. Whilst rebooting the franchise at this point makes some sense, not many will go back to play an 8 year old game, it does lay waste to the narrative that many fell in love with.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst retains that same stark white base and vivid colour scheme that was popularised by the original title. This is then amplified by the significant improvements in lighting and environmental effects that the current generation of consoles allows, highlighting the contrast even further. The environments are quite lacking in detail however with flat textures covering nearly every surface. It’s an aesthetic that does its best to get out of the way however it can be visually confusing at times (more on that a little later). Still there are many great screenshot worthy moments, some of which I’ve included here.
Catalyst retains the base characteristics that drew many of us to its predecessor: the free running through large, open environments with numerous obstacles in your way. Layered on top of this is the usual open-world smattering of side quests, collectables and hidden areas that can be unlocked for various bonuses and whatnot. There’s also a levelling system now, meaning some abilities are locked behind level gates and talent trees requiring you to do some additional work to unlock them. Gone for good though is the ability to use weapons something that was awkwardly implemented previously (some would say for good reason). At a structural level Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels like a bolder, more ambitious version of what the original was but it’s difficult to say that a lot of these things are outright improvements.
The core mechanics are still solid so getting from point A to B, especially if you do it flawlessly, gives you that same exhilaration that its predecessor did. There were numerous times when I found myself gliding elegantly past all obstacles, enjoying the continuous momentum and slight wind noise in my ears. The additional mechanics open up the world a bit more, however since they’re gated to specific campaign missions it can be a bit of a let down to find out that you need them to get to a certain area. The much more open world does make it a bit more interesting, especially when you’re trying to run and hide, however the actual area you can explore is far smaller than the game would have you think. You can test this by simply trying to run in one direction and you’ll often find yourself hitting a wall in under a minute or two.
I don’t remember combat being particularly enjoyable in the original and Catalyst doesn’t do much to improve on the system. The addition of the focus meter, filled when you run and depleted as you get shot, encourage you to move around more than straight up fighting. However when it comes time to fight you’ll often find yourself with basically no where to go. So then you have to engage in the unfortunately awkward and repetitive combat, using specific moves to take down each of the different types of enemies. Until you unlock some of the higher finishing moves and extra damage bonuses this can take quite some time. In the original this tedium could be broken up a bit by snagging a weapon or two but without that option you’re unfortunately locked into the monotony of grapples, kicks and punches.
I’m sure open world fanatics will find a lot to love in the ample side missions and collectables that are strewn around Glass (the city in Catalyst) but for me they became an exercise in frustration. The time trails and courier missions can almost never be done in the first half dozen tries as any mistake costs you the valuable seconds you need to make it to the end. This means a 1 minute running mission will probably take you at least 10, especially if you don’t have all the upgrades that unlock the game’s various short cut routes. I’ll admit that some of this stems from my dislike of being shown things that I can’t get and having to go back to them later on, but I do feel like there’d be a better way to craft these kinds of missions to make them more attractive.
The stark colour scheme of the original Mirror’s Edge enabled the developers to use red as an indicator of where you should go. That’s still used in Catalyst, however the objects aren’t permanently red, they’re highlighted so by your “Runner’s Vision”. This works fine about 80% of the time however sometimes if you take a wrong turn, change your mind halfway climbing up something or even just randomly you’ll lose that highlighting completely. When you’re in the middle of escaping from something this usually means your death or it can mean many seconds of frustration as you rapidly click R3 to try and get it to come back. This is definitely one case where its predecessor did a far better job with visual cues and is my biggest gripe with Catalyst.
The story is very middle of the road, not terribly bad but so forgettable that 6 weeks on from playing it I’m struggling to come up with any memorable moments. Sure it provides the backdrop for some awesome things to happen (like the below screenshot) but it doesn’t do much more than that. I’m not pining for the previous story to make a return, there wasn’t much to write about home there either, however a stronger narrative could have made some of the more glaring issues fade into the background.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a moderately successful reboot of the classic title, broadening the scope of the game significantly whilst keeping much of the core in tact. The same stark colour scheme which has since been used in numerous other titles returns successfully, draped in current generation flair. The open world vision might not be entirely to my liking but the extra space to free roam is a welcome addition. The parkour mechanics remain solid, however the progression and combat systems are questionable additions. The story does little to tie everything together but at least does nothing to break it apart. Overall Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a good-but-not-great title, one that can be enjoyed and then lent out to other curious friends.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.99, $99.99 and $99.99 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with 12 hours of total game time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.