Monthly Archives: February 2018

Monument Valley 2: In Which I Find Joy, Once Again.

There’s no denying that the original Monument Valley set the bar for what a mobile game could be. Its minimalistic visual style has since been replicated by dozens of other titles but none have come close to matching it in terms of overall experience. Indeed even when compared to games on dedicated platforms it still ranks up there as one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in recent history. Of course I was devastated last year when I saw Monument Valley 2 was released on iOS and not Android, leaving me wondering when it would be out. Out of luck I was browsing the app store and, happily, I discovered that the sequel had been released. What followed was perhaps the best 2 hours of my gaming life this year in one of the strongest sequels I’ve ever played.

Taking part in a different corner of the Monument Valley universe to the one Ida inhabits Monument Valley 2 puts you in charge of Ro, another keeper of the world’s geometry. However her story is not one of tragedy and reviving a world left barren, instead it is of Ro, her child and what it means to grow up in this strange world. The journey is one they start out on together but eventually, as it always is for members their race, is one where they must part ways. The infinite mothers of the past are there to help guide you but ultimately it is up to you to carve your path through the world’s geometry and care for the monuments.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that ustwo games had retained the same art style as the original but the differences between the two are night and day. Whilst the overarching style retains the same minimalistic aesthetic, with the signature elements of simple shapes and bright colours, there’s a much greater use of shading, lighting effects and more overall “modern” design elements. The developers have also been much more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with the visual style they created with a much greater variety between different puzzles. Backing all of this is the impressive soundtrack and foley work, all of which is tied directly into how you interact with the puzzles on screen. Usually I scoff at games that tell me to reach for the headphones but in the case of Monument Valley 2 you’d be doing yourself a real disservice if you didn’t. It is so, so rare to find a game that manages to execute all these elements together so well. Rarer still are sequels that manage to improve on a formula that they defined before (I can only think of Inside as another example). Once again ustwo has demonstrated their mastery in crafting experiences like this.

The same non-Euclidean puzzle mechanics return for the sequel, making up the bulk of the Monument Valley 2’s game play. Each level plays out in much the same way as well with the puzzle’s main mechanic being introduced early in a simple form before it’s exploited in more varied and complex ways. The experimentation in visual style extends directly into the puzzles as well as the designers have been free to integrate more wide and varied visual elements with which to play. There’s also the rather fun addition of letting you drawn your own spirograph thing at the end of each sequence, a simple thing but one that brought an immense amount of joy to me. I think the best way to describe it is that it is the original but improved in nearly every way, something few sequels manage to get right.

For players of the original or veterans of the non-Euclidean puzzle genre though there’s not likely going to be much challenge to find here. I remember the original having numerous head scratching moments, some requiring me to put the game down for a bit to mull over my approach. This time around there was none of that, each of the puzzles being solved pretty much directly without much fussing about. I’m in two minds about this as, on the one hand, the reward from completing a challenge is (to a point) tied directly into the effort required to solve it. On the other there’s something to be said about puzzles that are designed in such a way that the pace of the game, and by extension its narrative, are maintained (like in The Turing Test). That is perhaps the only true negative I can level at the game, if you could call it that.

I did have some slight issues with touch recognition again with some interactions not working exactly how I’d expect them to. Again this could be a hardware level thing and this being Android small things like this are somewhat expected. For reference I am using an original Google Pixel and I did give the screen a thorough cleaning after I identified the issue first time around. That certainly made it better but there were still times when touches didn’t seem to register properly. However these weren’t constant so my overall impression of the game wasn’t tarnished much. It certainly didn’t wipe away the huge smile I had on my face the whole time I was playing.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Monument Valley II is one of the greatest examples of the basic writing principle “show, don’t tell”. All the information you need to understand the story is shown to you on screen and some of the things are so subtle that when you notice them a whole narrative blossoms in your mind. For example when you send your child off she’s young, her footsteps moving in double time to yours in order for her to keep up. Your world then turns to grey and the soundscape changes to a set of cutting, piercing noises that show every moment is a burden without her in your life. After then however colour slowly begins to return to your world as you know she is on a journey of her own making. Then when she returns you see that she’s no longer a child anymore, she’s a woman, now ready to take the responsibility you’ll bestow on her. Few games manage to communicate such complex emotions through such a simple medium with so little dialogue. After playing through numerous games recently with such a derth of narrative playing something like this reminds me of why I love narrative-first games. To ustwo I’m thankful for being reminded of that as it’s far too easy to forget sometimes.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Monument Valley 2 is a true gem of a game, one that extends itself far beyond the confines of the original. The art style has been improved in ways that I could never think of, the unbridled creativity of the level designers shining through in each level. The mechanics remain largely the same and will likely pose little challenge to those who played the original. However examining each of these parts individually feels like I’m doing the game a disservice as the overall experience is so much greater than any one component. Really for a game this good and of such short length there’s little more to say than this: go play it, you won’t regret it.

Rating: 9.5/10

Monument Valley 2 is available on Android and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on a Google Pixel with approximately 2 hours of total play time with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

The Fall Part 2: Unbound: I Need My Rule.

These games reviews serve a couple different purposes for me. The first is to push me to try things out of my comfort zone as there’s so much more to the world of gaming than just the AAA releases. The second, and one I’m finding increasingly useful as my back catalogue of reviews grows, is to serve as a secondary memory; a kind of online copy of my impressions of the game to augment my own. So when I saw The Fall Part 2: Unbound I had this feeling that I’d played something like it before which, of course, I had. So I felt compelled to give the sequel a shot as, after reading through my previous review, I remember liking the concept even if the implementation fell a little short. It seems that the developers have stayed true to their roots in that regard as Part 2: Unbound keeps the same intriguing story whilst retaining many of the issues that I grated up against before.

SPOILERS FOR THE FALL BELOW

Part 2: Unbound begins where the previous story left off with ARID being dragged away for repurposing. During this process she’s infected with a virus which, interestingly, allows her to redefine her core rule. No longer bound by the need to save her pilot, nor anyone else, she defines her new rule as: I must save myself. However a user on the network is attacking her body, seeking to destroy what is left of her. In order to save herself she must find out who this user is, reaching beyond the confines of her body into the vast network beyond. It is there where she meets others who will help her fulfil her rule, whether they want to or not.

The visuals of Part 2 don’t appear to have changed appreciably in the 3 years since the original’s release. There’s certainly a lot more detail in most of the scenes, especially those that deviate from the original’s corridor-only design. The visuals have the trademark “Unity Engine” feel to them which is especially noticeable when the camera zooms in for close ups. 3 years ago this was a refreshing change from the current trends but now? It feels a bit dated. This is somewhat understandable as the focus appears to have been spent more on the puzzles and level design, given the sequel is almost 3 times as long as the original.

Mechanically Part 2: Unbound is the same game as the original, requiring you to explore your environment to find the solution to the current puzzle. This time around however you’ll be doing the majority of that through others, taking control of other AIs to help you complete your task. Each of these different entities have their own set of capabilities and limitations, both of which you’ll need to exploit fully in order to progress.The game also introduces several new mechanics along the way which ramp up the puzzle difficulty substantially towards the end (although I’ll abstain from describing them as it’s most certainly spoiler territory). Combat makes a return with a couple additional mechanics thrown but it’s mostly a distraction from the core puzzle solving game. It’s clear that the developer has focused more heavily on the parts that were received well (puzzle design and story) whilst defocusing others. The result is a game that I’m sure will delight fans of the first but, for people like me, it does highlight a lack of growth in the developer.

I mentioned in my review of The Fall that it was clear that the developer and I weren’t completely in-sync when it came to puzzle design. That hasn’t changed in Part 2: Unbound as there were numerous puzzles that just simply didn’t make any sense to me. Sometimes it was something simple, like missing an interaction point, but other times the logical leaps required would never come to me. Sure I could try clicking everything in sight in order to find out but that gets tiresome really quick. The worse ones were problems that had an obvious solution that was locked behind some mechanic I simply didn’t understand, preventing me from solving the puzzle until I’d completed some other, seemingly unrelated, task. I’d estimate that about 65% of the puzzles made sense (even if they were challenging), 15% were faults of mine and the remaining 20% were just nonsensical. I’ve played worse, to be sure, but I’ve also played better.

I’d forgive the game for that, as I did for the original, if it wasn’t for the fact that the developer made many of the same mistakes again. The control scheme is still the awkward mess it was before with the game often failing to capture the mouse pointer. For dual monitor users this will result in the game minimizing itself every so often when you click outside of the game’s window. There’s also a few puzzles which you can get stuck in, requiring you to exit to the main menu in order to be able to reset. There’s even a few places where you can fall through the world, like when One is on the train (simply walk to the left, there’s no barrier to stop you plummeting off the edge). That will also require a restart to get you back again. For first games from an indie studio I’m usually quite lenient, it is after all not easy to create a game, but for further titles I expect to see some level of polish. It’s just not there unfortunately which is a real shame. Hopefully I don’t see the same mistakes in Part 3 (this is supposed to be a trilogy, after all).

The story is still great with the addition of 3 extra characters giving you a much broader perspective on the world that you find yourself in. Each of the new characters are given enough backstory to get you invested which helps immensely in driving you through the game’s more obvious flaws. It certainly had its share of climatic moments, the Josephs scene comes to mind, and the little bits of levity sprinkled throughout are a welcome distraction from the dark overtones. The game proudly announces “To Be Concluded” at the end, signalling that the next instalment is coming and will be the finale to the story, something which I’ll always take points off for. It definitely feels like the story I’d be much more into if it wasn’t for the awkward controls and illogical puzzles. It’s a shame really as I always hope to see indie developers grow beyond the confines of their original success.

The Fall Part 2: Unbound, doubles down on what made the original popular whilst retaining many of the things which I’d had hoped they’d change. The story and puzzles were definitely the developer’s main focus as the game is much longer and more in depth than its predecessor was. However things that marred the original, like the awkward control scheme, lack of polish in some aspects as well as puzzle design that simply didn’t gel with this writer, felt like I was playing almost the same game from 3 years ago. For those who loved the original these issues aren’t likely to pose a problem but for me, someone who loves to see indie developers grow over time, it feels like they’re stagnant. In my mind Over The Moon Games has one last chance to prove that they, and their IP, can innovate beyond what they’ve achieved so far. All this being said The Fall Part 2: Unbound is still probably worth playing for those who love a good puzzle and story, I just wish it wasn’t almost the same game as it was 3 years ago.

Rating: 7.0/10

The Fall Part 2: Unbound is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.

Elementium: What You Find in the Depths of Steam’s New Releases.

Years ago I used to troll through the new releases section of Steam, looking for anything that piqued my interest. I played a lot of things out of my comfort zone and grew to enjoy the wide and varied experiences that the Indie scene brought to bear. Back then the signal to noise ratio was quite a lot higher, mostly because there were far fewer games released per week (it’s something like 200+ on average now). Those days were mostly gone however as I could usually find something on the first page of “Popular New Releases” section but last week I came up empty. Enter Elementium, the game that managed to catch my eye with its Talos Principle like visuals. It isn’t anything like that though, more akin to an alpha release of a Kickstarter game than a full release on Steam that the developer is charging $15 for.

Elementium is a physics based puzzle game where the main mechanic is where you can change the size of objects through the use of perspective. That’s pretty novel, indeed the tech demo of the Museum of Simulation Technology is the only other “game” I can think of that uses it, however that’s where the interesting part of the game ends. What follows is a series of 40 levels, most of which can be beaten on first try in under a couple of minutes. The others? Well they’re fiddly messes, either requiring precise timing (something you’ll struggle to get done due to the ham fisted nature of the controls) or doing things that have a high chance of failing which will require you to restart the level (which takes approximately 30 seconds to load every, damn, time). Honestly I was going to be kind to this game at the start but after 40 levels I’ve simply run out of patience.

It does manage to look good however I think that’s more a function of the Unreal Engine’s asset store more than anything else. The sound design is god awful with each sound always sounding exactly the same including very noticeable things like your character’s footsteps. Indeed anything without a smattering of glowy lights looks like something that was developed over 5 years ago with that telltale Unreal engine feel about them. Suffice to say the audio-visual experience isn’t going to save this game and, unfortunately, the overall game doesn’t do itself any favours either.

Most of the puzzles are so blindingly simple that you’ll often wonder if there’s some kind of hidden switch or alternate solving method to unlock a secret. There are none and it’s hard to see why the developer built most of the puzzles the way they did. For example there’s one puzzle with 3 boxes in a room and a laser stopping a door from opening. To solve it all you have to do is put one box in front of it, that’s it. What were the other 2 boxes for? Just fun decoration? When that first happened I thought, maybe, that was just an early test puzzle or something but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Instead there are numerous puzzles with extraneous items strewn about, never to be used for anything.

Crappy puzzle design would be one thing but the real irritation comes from interacting with those items. Picking up items can be a bit of a guessing game, often requiring you to get just the right angle on it to be able to pick it up. This because quite a chore when you’re working with big items as quite often you’ll be unable to put them down. The game says that the middle mouse button is the “drop item” button but it rarely works. What this often leads to is furious clicking as you try to figure out how to pick up and move stuff about often to no avail. Worse still the perspective/size mechanic works on items even after you’ve finished interacting with them. This is especially clear when you’re say dropping big boxes into holes as they’ll magically shrink as they fall down, even if you’re not looking at them.

The same feeling of extremely low effort applies to the other aspects of the game like the UI. Every element is simple text boxes, all of which will require at least 2 mouse clicks to register properly and even after you’ve done that it can be hard to tell if the game is actually doing anything. The final scene of the game is a simple portal that has 2 switches which, when pressed with the boxes, display the simple text shown in the screenshot below. This makes me think that at one point the game did have some kind of story, which might explain why there’s a pointless corridor walk at the start of each puzzle, but the developer simply didn’t have enough time to get it done before he shoveled this pile of crapware into the public eye.

This isn’t even a game where a few simple tweaks here or there would result in a game that I’d deem worthy of playing. Pretty much every aspect has to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch as there’s not one part of this game that doesn’t have some kind of issue associated with it. Visuals? Repetitive asset-reuse that makes every single level feel pretty much identical. Sound? That would require using more than a dozen sounds at a time. Mechanics? Every single one is implemented in a rudimentary, unoptimized way. Story? Don’t make me laugh.

Elementium is the kind of game I expect to see on /r/Indie where the developer doesn’t seem to understand why it isn’t selling. The fact of the matter is that this game barely qualifies as such, playing like an early alpha rather than a game you’re paying full price for. These are the kinds of titles that Early Access is designed to help, the ones where the developer has an idea they want to explore but hasn’t got a clue about how to make it fun. Further the extreme lack of polish on nearly all elements makes me think that this game didn’t see any external play testing at all as there’s no way any of these issues made it past even the most forgiving of family members. I tried to keep an open mind when I was playing Elementium, figuring that there had to be a point somewhere along the lines where it started to really come into its own. That time never came and here I am, 4 hours in the hole without much to show for it. Honestly Ignite Studios, if you’re reading this, email me: [email protected], you sound like you need the help.

Rating: 3/10

Elementium is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

Celeste: We All Have Our Own Mountain.

Ever since I gave myself new, unknown forms of RSI playing games like Super Meat Boy I’ve had an aversion to twitch based platformers. The challenge can certainly be rewarding but the games can be exhausting to play, needing to be put down after an hour or so. Trouble is when I feel forced to put a game down, rather than feeling like I’ve come to a good place to stop, they tend to not get picked up again. That is the unfortunate tale of Celeste for this old reviewer as whilst it’s a very competent platformer I simply haven’t had the drive to go back to it after I last decided to give it a rest.

You play as Madeline, a young woman out on a quest to conquer the mighty Celeste mountain and, in the process, confront her own inner demons. The journey to the summit is fraught with all sorts of fantastical dangers that will push you to your limits. There will be those who belittle you for daring to take on such a challenge, some who support you and those whose intentions aren’t particularly clear. The reason as to why you’re climbing the mountain isn’t particularly clear but one thing is for sure: Madeline will make it to the top no matter what.

Celeste takes its artistic inspiration from fellow low detail pixel art platformers, emulating the style of games of yesteryear that weren’t capable of pushing more than a handful of pixels at a time. The attention to detail is impressive though, using each pixel to convey much more information than would otherwise be from say larger images that had been downscaled. The higher resolution images have that old Flash game feel about them which isn’t surprising given the developer’s heritage in making games on that platform. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard pixel art affair.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Celeste is a platformer, one that takes much of its inspiration from the bevy of similar games that have been released over the past decade. Its signature mechanics are simple: a dash and the ability to hold/climb on walls for a limited amount of time. Each level will have its own unique additional mechanic which it will make use of to provide additional challenge, leaving your in-built abilities unchanged. Each of the levels ends with what you could call a boss which typically takes the form of something either chasing you or making your platforming journey just that extra bit more difficult. Scattered throughout the levels are dozens of collectibles, all of which are trapped behind harder than usual platforming puzzles. All in all, from a base game perspective, there’s not much I haven’t seen before and this doesn’t feel like a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The platforming mechanics are crafted well enough, rarely did I find myself in a position where the journey from beginning to end of a particular puzzle wasn’t clear at the outset. Indeed Celeste does a pretty good job of demonstrating the mechanics to you, ensuring you have all the tools at your disposal. Of course using them correctly is where the challenge comes in as, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to forget which finger does what when you’re in the middle of a complex puzzle. Thankfully all the harder challenge puzzles are completely optional so I never really felt like I was being put up against an unfair challenge. No, instead where I started to lose interest in Celeste was in how it ramped up the challenge.

You see there’s really only so much you can do with a simple bag of mechanics that are augmented with a single additional one per level. So instead the challenge typically comes from extending the puzzles length, meaning the distance between checkpoints progressively gets longer and longer. This means that the later puzzles are more difficult not because they’re more complex but because it takes longer to get to the point to retry that particular section. This is especially true for the boss sections which are the longest by far and include another additional irritating mechanic that makes completing those puzzles just that little bit harder. Sure the sense of accomplishment is very real when you finally complete a level but I could never really push myself to attempt more than one level in a sitting.

For those who enjoy platformers though these things are likely to be what makes a game like Celeste worth playing in the first place. There’s certainly a lot of content packed into Celeste with the strawberries, b-sides and what have you scattered around. I simply don’t enjoy chasing those kinds of rewards and so, when I put down Celeste on Sunday for the final time, the compulsion to go back simply vanished.

STORY SPOILERS BELOW

Had the story found its legs earlier I may have played it through to completion however. In the beginning the game doesn’t do much to build out the greater narrative except for hammering home the fact that Madeline is flawed. There is one incredibly touching moment when Madeline has a panic attack in the cable car, something I think anyone who’s dealt with anxiety before can relate to, but that comes over halfway through the game. Perhaps the story develops at a much faster rate in the sections which I haven’t played yet but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough to keep me engaged to want to see if that was the case. Perhaps I’ll watch a run through on YouTube or something one day but, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever see it of my own volition.

STORY SPOILERS OVER

Celeste is a competent platformer that is sure to delight fans of the genre. Whilst none of its features stands out as the main reason you’d play it what they have done does fit together well. For me though this is probably one game where my biases against this type of game are showing through as I simply didn’t find enough reward in its challenge. To be sure it’s a well designed platformer, carefully guiding you through each of the level’s signature mechanics before hitting you hard with more challenging puzzles. Good design does not guarantee a fun game, however. Perhaps if I sunk another hour or two into Celeste I may sing a different tune, especially if the story manages to find its feet beyond that point, but for now it shall join the rest of the platformers I’ve laid to rest.

Rating: 7.0/10

Celeste is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.5 hours of total play time and 20% of the achievements unlocked.