Monthly Archives: September 2017

State of the Game: 04/09/2017 to 10/09/2017

Hey YouTube People!

Got a favour to ask you if you don’t mind me asking: what brought you all here? I’ve tried pretty hard to figure out where you’re all coming from but I’m struggling to find anything.

Thanks for dropping by regardless 😀

Avez-vous l’honneur de vous demander si cela ne vous dĂ©range pas de demander: qu’est ce qui vous a amenĂ© ici? Je me suis bien efforcĂ© de comprendre oĂč vous venez tous, mais je suis en train de trouver quelque chose.

Merci d’avoir laissĂ© tomber indĂ©pendamment: D

The First Tree: Through The Woods of Grief.

Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.

The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.

From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.

The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.

Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.

You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.

The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.

The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.

Rating: 7.5/10

The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 28/08/2017 to 03/09/2017

Late Shift: Not Your Typical Day at Work.

The use of full motion video in games used to be a kludge; done to inject a semblance of realism into an otherwise unrealistic world. Even with brand name actors they still had the penchant to be campy and overacted, but that ended up being part of their charm. The late 90s to early 2000s saw FMVs fall out of favour, replaced instead with cinematic renderings or in-game cut-scenes. Recently however the FMV has been making something of a comeback with titles like Quantum Break upping the ante when it comes to mixed-media productions. However what I haven’t seen up until now is a movie production that incorporates game elements and that’s where Late Shift, from CtrlMovie, comes in. At its heart Late Shift is very much a film production but it also incorporates the idea of player’s choice, putting you in charge of how the movie plays out.

Late Shift puts you in control of Matt, a young student who’s taken a job as a parking attendant for high end cars. The night begins like any other with Matt taking his place at the front booth and settling down to while away the hours until his shift is over. From here where the story goes is up to you and you’ll be faced with numerous decisions over the course of the film, each of which can have a drastic impact on how the plot plays out. Late Shift features some 180 decision points, 7 different endings, 14 chapters combining into a total of about 4 hours of film. Suffice to say it’s an impressive gambit and one that I didn’t think would grab me as much as it did.

The film made its debut on iOS and in select cinemas last year, only coming to Steam just recently. Reading up on the cinema release shows that they used an audience majority vote to dictate the choices, using the audience’s smart phones to cast the votes. Indeed it seems that CtrlMovie’s whole focus is on developing technology to support more movies like this with Late Shift demonstrating on the bare essentials of what they are currently capable of. In all honesty I’m excited to see where this kind of tech could lead as I’m a big fan of narrative focused games and, whilst I’ve said I like interactive movies before, this is probably the first title to be 100% true to that idea.

Mechanically Late Shift is very simple: at various points throughout the movie’s run time you’ll be presented with a bunch of options. Depending on which one you choose certain things will happen and the course of the story may change. I’d estimate that about half the chapters are “mandatory” in the sense that there’s really no way to escape them but even in them there’s a bunch of decisions that change how that particular chapter plays out. There’s also the option of not making a decision at all (if you allow the timer to play out) but from what I can tell that by default chooses the leftmost option. Once its all said and done you’ll be presented with a screen that shows you how many decisions you made, the number of chapters you saw and the endings that you unlocked. It would’ve been nice to see the global statistics for choices at this point but they weren’t included (and I can partly understand why, they don’t want to spoil the other endings).

I was initially on the fence about whether or not Late Shift would be worth it but after playing it through once myself I was sold on it. My wife also enjoys these kinds of interactive stories (she played Until Dawn no less than 4 times over) so we sat down to play it through again together, this time with her in the driver’s seat. It was interesting to see the choices which, on the surface, would seem to not matter actually influencing some aspects of the story quite heavily. Additionally her ending played out completely differently to mine, showcasing some decision points which, in my play through, meant nothing but for her meant a lot more. Interestingly her play through also highlighted that there is a “path of least resistance” as the game will put up a lot more roadblocks to some decisions than others.

The tech that drives this is relatively simple however there are a few rough edges that could be smoothed out a bit. CtrlMovie boasts “seamless playback” on their website but it’s anything but with decision points, the interface freezing up for a half second or so as it loads the next bit of video. Additionally, and this might have been due to us using Steam in-home streaming for the second playthrough, the click recognition on the decisions can be a little finicky at times. Both of these things aren’t huge distractions from the overall experience though and are things that can be easily fixed with a few minor patches.

Late Shift’s story is a crime thriller and its strength comes from the interactivity. If it was presented just as is I don’t think it’d be anywhere near as engaging as it is otherwise. There are a few weird plot holes that exist due to the interactive nature, mostly things that may/may not have relevance to your particular story thread. I’ll stop short of saying it’s a must see for everyone but if you’re a lover of narrative-first games, walking simulators and the like then Late Shift is definitely up your alley.

Late Shift shows that the ideas of player choice can translate well into the land of cinema. It’s definitely a 1.0 product although that being said the rough edges and handful of choice-driven plot holes are a small price to pay for the overall quality of the end product. I really can’t say much more without diving into spoiler territory but suffice to say Late Shift was an unexpected gem, one I’m sure will get a few more playthroughs in the future.

Rating: 8.75/10

Late Shift is available on iOS and PC right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 21/08/2017 to 27/08/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.0/10

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

State of the Game: 14/08/2017 to 20/08/2017

The Long Dark: So Cold…

The survival genre and I have never really gotten along. I can appreciate the challenge you can create out of just existing but for me these kinds of games just never satisfied me. The act of survival is typically one of repetitive tasks and if I wanted to do that I’d go back to playing MMORPGs. Still enough people in my gaming circle had said that The Long Dark’s story mode, Wintermute, was worth the look in, with many comparing it to Firewatch. I’ll have to strongly disagree that the experiences are comparable but, at the very least, it’s reaffirmed my aversion to this genre.

Set in the present day The Long Dark takes place after a great “geomagnetic disaster” which wiped out the power grid for many. You play as Will Mackenzie, a pilot who services many of the remote towns in the Canadian wilderness. After a brief reunion with Astrid, his ex-wife, you agree to take her to where she needs to go without asking too many questions. On the way there however you hit rough whether and your plane comes crashing down long before reaching its destination. Stranded in the isolated wilderness you have to survive and, if you can, try to find Astrid before its too late.

Aesthetically The Long Dark opts for stylized/cartoony visuals much like that of Firewatch and games from Telltale. This does mean that the visuals are relatively simple and uncluttered, something which is a blessing when you’re scrounging around for things to help you survive. Interior buildings are a bit more detailed but then it’s more clutter than anything, which can make scavenging buildings a little more challenging. Fitting in with the simple visual theme is the lack of in-game physics on a lot of things, something which I think many of us have simply grown accustomed to seeing everywhere. Back when The Long Dark was first released I’m sure this visual style would have been quite impressive however, this being 2017, they do seem a little dated. I don’t expect that to change though.

Given The Long Dark’s 3 or so years in Early Access the survival game play is quite well developed. You’ve got a number of attributes that you need to keep up including food, water, heat and sleep. At any time you could be affected by any number of conditions ranging from things like food poisoning to wolf bites to good old fashioned hypothermia. Should you not manage your attributes properly your “condition” will start to deteriorate and, should it reach zero, you will pass into the long dark. Everything you need is available in the wilderness but it won’t be easy and you’ll have to make sure that you can survive long enough so you can…keep on surviving. This is all happening whilst you’re following the story line which, for the first hour or so, serves as an extended tutorial of sorts. Past there it becomes somewhat optional, although following it does have its benefits.

Just like in real life the business of just plain surviving in The Long Dark isn’t exactly a pleasant one. You’ll find yourself doing the same basic tasks time after time just to make sure you have a fire that will last, enough food to not starve and a small stash of emergency supplies should you fall down or get attacked by wolves (or worse). It’s these kinds of activities that turn me off these kinds of survival/sandbox simulators as I’m really not interested in having to gather firewood for the hundredth time or trying haphazardly to hit a rabbit with a rock so I won’t starve. Additionally, and I’m not sure if this was a limitation of the story mode, it seemed like I didn’t have a lot of options to improve my ability to survive beyond scavenging. Certainly the crafting menu was never populated with any beyond some simple things, despite me finding all sorts of materials.

Credit where it’s due though as the game really does a great job of simulating all the various things that drastically alter your chances of surviving. It didn’t take me too long to realise that venturing out at night was a fools errand, especially if I didn’t have a torch in my hand. I learnt this after following what I thought was a road for some time, only to find out it was a path to literally no where. Trudging along the same path during the day I could see where I went wrong and it became all too clear how easy it would be to get lost in the dark in bad weather. From there on I’d often spend just as much time indoors waiting out the time so I didn’t have to expend a ton of resources just to stay alive out in the night.

The Long Dark’s story starts off well however as the time between major events starts to draw out I started to become disinterested in it. The longest part of the story arc that I played (which is Episode 1, I gather) consisted mostly of fetch quests for a NPC, something which I’m not the biggest fan of even in the MMORPG genre. This means that the main story kind of stalls at this point and the ultimate conclusion to it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying at all. Firewatch by comparison had great pacing for both the main arc and the sub-plots ensuring that you always felt like whatever you were doing was leading somewhere. The Long Dark, at least in its first 4 hours, doesn’t have that and I’m not enough of a fan of the survival genre to forget that.

The Long Dark’s time in Early Access has resulted in a well crafted game but it’s unfortunately just not for me. I can appreciate the simplistic aesthetic it’s going for, especially when it produces something as gorgeous as the screenshot above, but it is erring on the dated side now. The survival mechanics are deep, requiring a lot of effort on the part of the player to make sure your character doesn’t simply freeze to death on the first day. The story’s strong opening fades relatively quickly and, should you not enjoy survival games as a rule, there won’t be much else to carry it on past the first few hours. Overall I can appreciate the craftsmanship of The Long Dark but it’s simply not a game for the likes of me, but it could very well be for you.

Rating: 6.0/10

The Long Dark is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $34.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours playtime and 10% of the achievements unlocked.