Monthly Archives: August 2018

Unravel 2: Between Two Yarns.

A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.

Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.

Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.

At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.

Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.

The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.

Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.

There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.

The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.

Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.

Rating: 9.25/10

Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.

Florence: Love, Heartache and Learning to Live Again.

One of the secrets behind the Nintendo Wii’s wild success was how it was able to tap into one of the largest markets that had been largely ignored for decades: non-gamers. The games industry might eclipse other entertainment but it’s still doesn’t have the same level of penetration among the wider community. So when my non-gamer friends recommend games to me it’s always worth looking into as the design, objectives and mechanics are completely different than those I regularly play. That’s how Florence, an interactive story from the developer Moutains and published by Annapurna Interactive, made its way to me. I’m very glad it did too as the short experience is a great example of how simple mechanics, good story building and a wonderful soundtrack can come together into an emotional experience.

This review is mostly for people who’ve already played the game, so SPOILERS BELOW.

Florence follows the tale of a relationship between the protagonist (from whom the game draws its name) and Krish, a street performer. Whilst there are some bits of dialogue scattered throughout the game most of the communication is nonverbal, done through mini-games and graphic novel styled panels. The game has 20 chapters, each of which focuses on a different part of Florence’s life. You don’t have any real influence over how the story plays out, I believe, but you are able to put your own touches on some things, like a childhood painting that reappears in a couple scenes. This creates a narrative that, whilst guided by what you’re seeing on screen, is largely built out of your own imagination as you fill in the gaps between scenes. That’s what makes Florence’s story feel so personal to us all because, in the end, it’s us who’s building out her story.

The visuals are a simple, whimsical style reflective of our protagonist’s love of watercolour paints. The colours are usually solid with dark pen outlines, something that certainly felt reminiscent of a time when I used to dabble with them. Colour (and the lack of it) is also used to draw your attention to things or to reflect the mood of the characters on screen, with high tension moments taking on sharper, more aggressive tones and times of emotional lows reflected in the colour draining away. This is then all backed by an absolutely wonderful soundtrack by Kevin Penkin. This makes Florence an absolute joy to play just from an audio-visual experience which is then amplified tenfold by the narrative.

 

Florence starts of with a deliberately slow pace initially, reflecting the monotony of everyday life that everyone finds themselves in at some stage in their life. Then everything starts to pick up dramatically as a single event changes everything, in the case of Florence that’s meeting Krish. From there it’s a wonderful tale of seeing their young love blossom as they get to know each other at a much deeper level. The game mechanics start to come into play wonderfully at this point, like the conversations initially starting off difficult with lots of puzzle pieces but then, at its climax, turning into a single piece that just fits. Honestly I would’ve been quite happy with Florence if it just kept along that trajectory and never explored any of the more challenging aspects of being in a relationship. However I feel the developer wanted to explore relationships in a more realistic way, which is why the second half of Florence is dedicated to the breakup and how Florence recovers after.

For me personally this is where Florence started to really hit home. Not so much from the relationship perspective (although I’ve been there, but I’ve also been extremely lucky with my dear wife) but more in rediscovering something of yourself that you’d left behind and how sometimes tragedy is what leads you to rediscover that. That, I feel, is something universal to the human condition; we’re all pushed to pursue certain things in our lives and quite often a piece of ourselves might get left behind. Even when others recognise it in you and try to bring it out it can be hard to take the leap to begin the process of rebuilding yourself. The ending then is somewhat bittersweet, Florence has discovered how to be true to herself but only through gaining some emotional scars. Perhaps that’s why it’s stuck with me because it feels so true to life.

Florence is one of the best examples of a game that has universal appeal. The barrier to entry is low with it being available on iOS and Android and the mechanics being simple and easy to understand. The story it tells is one that I feel anyone can take something away from, whether it’s being stuck in a routine life, the joy of a new relationship, the pain of a breakup, rediscovering a lost passion or the process of rebuilding yourself up from your lowest point. On top of all of this it’s simply a wonderful audio visual experience with its whimsical art style and gorgeous backing soundtrack. Florence is hard to pass up because it asks so little of you yet gives so much in return, especially for lovers of a good story.

Rating: 9.25/10

Florence is available on iOS and Android right now for $4.49. Game was played on Android with about 45 minutes of total play time.

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.