5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie scene loves a breakout hit; especially those that either defies or creates a genre. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a fantastic example of this creating a new genre of documentation review based games like Cart Life, This is the Police and Va11-Hall A. This always then begs the question as to how they’ll follow up the breakout hit: iterate on the formula, try something completely different or pursue a passion project. Pope appears to have gone for option 2, wanting to challenge himself with a lot of creative constraints to build something quite different to anything else he had done before. The result certainly achieves that, enough so that I didn’t even know it was done by him until I saw the developer name on the Steam page. I can certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship brought to bear here however putting a good 4 hours into the game I don’t feel much compulsion to go back.
The good ship the Obra Dinn disappeared some six months ago, taking with it 200 tons of cargo and all of its crew. One day however it strangely turned up in port, bereft of any crew. You are an insurance assessor, tasked with boarding the ghost ship and figuring out what happened. Your tasks are simple, identify the crew, how they perished and who was responsible for it. What follows is a tale of endless tragedy that befell the crew of the Obra Dinn, their journey seemingly cursed from the start to fail. That is of little concern to you however, you are merely there to document everything and report back to your superiors. You may never be the same again, though.
Obra Dinn utilises a 1 bit colour palette in the vein of computers from another era. You can even switch between different models of computers, although all that really does is change the 1 colour you’ll be staring at. It’s still a 3D game though so the effect is a really unusual one. Indeed I’m struggling to think of another 3D game that utilised dithering to achieve shading so from a visual perspective the game is truly unique. This also gives rise to some really interesting visual effects, like when the background fades away to an image (like the screenshot below). I’m typically a very visual person when it comes to games but what Pope has achieved with the Obra Dinn is quite astonishing, even with just 1 colour to work with.
The game play takes the form of an investigation whereby you’re tasked with figuring out who died (or didn’t) when and who or what was responsible for it. You do this by reliving the last moments of most of the crew through the use of your pocket watch. Reliable information is incredibly scarce and so you’ll have to rely on various other things in order to make your judgement calls. This can be things like someone’s position on the ship, their race, their relationship to others or even where they were. When you make 3 correct guesses the game will confirm them for you, preventing you from simply spamming the options and hoping for a hit. If this sounds like a challenge it most certainly is, one I’m not ashamed to say got the best of me.
You see as you relive the last moments of the crew’s life you’ll get to see the story of how the ship met its fate. Following this thread until the end probably lasts a couple hours or so when the game will indicate to you that you’ve seen everything and should get on with solving the puzzle. This will of course mean revisiting a lot of the memories, looking for clues and trying to figure out what information you can glean from where. For some this is going to be a great experience, following the chain of clues to find that one nugget that lets you seal away a fate or two. For me though? It became a chore, not least of which was due to the annoying way in which you have to go to find the memories in order to review them. I did give it the old college try though, solving 15 fates total, but after that point, knowing all there was to know of the story, I didn’t feel like there was much left for me to enjoy.
Perhaps my brain is currently wired for short term gain, thanks to the almost embarrassing amount of hours I’ve put into Black Ops 4 even after panning it, but I couldn’t help but feel much like I did when playing The Witness. The level of care and attention to detail is obvious but I just couldn’t find the joy in there that others seemed to. To be sure this is a game the creator wanted to make, not something that was driven by community or by a large customer research team. There’s beauty in that, and I wholeheartedly support developers attempting this if they have the means, but it also seems to have a trend where craftsmanship can sometimes overpower enjoyment. The usual line I’d quip here is that this game isn’t for everyone but then really, what game is?
The Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastically crafted game from Lucas Pope, showing the kinds of creativity that can blossom in the face of severe constraints. Everything about how the game was built is unique from the art style to the unique investigative mechanics to the wonderful sound and music design. However beyond the first couple hours, where the story drives you forward, the game peters out considerably and I could only manage to stick with it for another couple hours before putting it down. Credit where credit is due though there are a lot of people out there who are finding much to like about this title and an astonishing 31.5% of players have managed to fully complete the game. So this may simply be a case of this game not being for me but if the idea of playing a time travelling insurance assessor is apealing then it might just be for you.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s 2006 and I’ve just moved into a new house with 2 of my friends. It was all our first time living in a share house but we were convinced that we’d avoid the disasters that had befallen all those before us. That hubris lasted about 3 months before the expected happened but shortly after something happened: we started playing Soulcalibur III together. From then on we spent many nights and weekends battling each other, refining our skills on our chosen characters. We played so much that the edges of our thumbs callused over, which we nicknamed the Soulcallus. It was also the only time I’ve ever thrown a controller across the room in frustration after an appalling 12 run losing streak against one of my mates. So the Soulcalibur series holds something of a special place in my heart and the long time between drinks for the series (6 years since V was released) has left me very much wanting. Whilst that special ingredient of my mates sitting around the couch might still be missing it’s been great to see that the Soulcalibur series is still very much in form so many years on.
Soulcalibur VI takes us back to the beginning of the series, taking us back to the 16th century. The stories will be familiar to long time fans of the series although if you’re like me, joining the series somewhat late in the piece, the campaign missions give you a good insight into the background to the main recurring characters of the series. Similarly the Libre of Soul missions, which put you as an unknown character in the same world, explore some of the events that happened around the main plot. So whilst there might not be much added to the main plotline of the Soulcalibur series it does build out the history a lot more. It should also help to attract those who may have given the series a miss until this point, even though no one really plays fighting games for the plot.
As you’d expect from a fighting game, where framerates are key, the graphics aren’t cutting edge and the art style is reminiscent of previous instalments’ highly stylized art direction. There’s certainly a lot more particle effects and in-battle cutscenes though following the current trends among fighting games to make them feel grander in scale. It certainly achieves that as pretty much every fight feels like a scene out of a shonen anime. It follows then that performance is consistent across the board with even the most visual heavy moves unable to bring about a drop in framerates. This being built on the Unreal engine (just as Tekken 7 was) I’m sure the look and performance will be the same across the multiple platforms.
Soulcalibur VI builds upon the series’ long heritage by adding on a few new mechanics and reverting others. The largest addition to the core fighting mechanics is the reversal edge, a defensive counter that locks you into a kind of rock-paper-scissors mini-game. Guard impacts have reverted back from their change in Soulcalibur V, making them a lot more straightforward in their execution. The Soul Gauge remains but now has 2 levels to it and can be used to execute high damage attacks. The previous soul gauge mechanic, whereby blocking for a long time drained it, is still there although it’s decoupled from the gauge and will now show up as a red outline on your health bar. The changes follow the larger fighting game trend to make games faster, flashier and to prevent long beatdowns from which you have little hope of recovering from. For a mostly aggressive player like myself I like these changes, even if it means that I’m more open to counters than I ever was before.
The returning characters retain their signature styles and will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the series. My personal favourite character, Ivy, felt a lot more streamlined than I remember her being with the previous instalments making her feel clunky and slow when compared to previous instalments. Looking at the world leaderboards it’s quite possible that’s due to her being a current top tier pick so maybe I’ve just lucked out this time around. Raphael by comparison feels a little more unwieldy than I remember him being although I will admit I never really did get a good handle on his preparations. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test out Talim, a character I lamented the omission of in Soulcalibur V (I replaced her with Viola in my roster). Suffice to say Soul Calibur VI retains the tradition of keeping the cores of the characters consistent whilst mixing them up slightly, ensuring that it doesn’t feel like the same old game.
The main campaign is well done, following Kilik’s origin story with his quest to destroy the Soul Edge. Whilst I do appreciate that there’s been a bit more effort put in than what has been done in the past I’m still not a huge fan of the visual novel style. Sure, it allows a lot more content to be created for the same price, but it’s always a lot less immersive than in-game or cinematic cutscenes. Part of this is also due to the pace, which is a little stilted thanks to the numerous loading screens that you have to go through in order to watch the dialogue, load into a fight (which you only get to do a couple of in the first hour of the campaign, which was a little annoying) and then load again to see the post-fight scenes. Still once the pace starts picking up towards the end it stands out as the best fighting game campaign I’ve ever played, even if that’s a relatively low bar to jump over.
Libre of Soul is the ancillary mode where you can level up a character of your own creation. It has all the trappings of a light RPG game with weapon upgrades, XP and gold that you’ll need to gather to do things like travel, hire mercenaries to fight for you and buy food to regen health between fights. It’s a similar mode to what Killer Instinct has, essentially pitting you against an endless stream of enemies. There is a storyline in here but it’s pretty minimal and mostly serves as background to the main campaign mission to give you an insight as to why certain characters were there when they were. I played a decent amount of it and it certainly served well as a kind of extended tutorial, allowing me to get familiar with my preferred character whilst still making some progress. After spending some time in that I decided it was time to test my meddle against some real human beings and this is unfortunately where Soulcalibur VI is a bit of a let down.
Fighting games have always struggled to get online right, owing to their unique set of challenges in requiring low latency between players and the niche appeal of the games limiting the size of said playerbase. Perhaps it’s better in more populated countries but here, in Australia, I can’t name one fighting game where I’ve been able to get matches consistently. Soulcalibur VI is no exception as I’d often be waiting 5+ minutes for a ranked match, if I could ever find one. Worse still is the casual mode which takes the form of a King of the Hill game style. Essentially whoever won the last round is at the top and you have to wait your turn to beat them. If you lose, back to the bottom of the pile. When I did get in the matches were great though, the lag seeming to make little impact on my ability to pull off big combos.
What keeps me, and many others, coming back to games like this is a solid quickplay mode where we can drop in, play a few matches and then bug out. I mean sure, the ability to train while you wait is nice but it’s not enough to keep you coming back time and time again. This, coupled with the fact that I don’t live in a house with multiple other Soulcalibur players anymore, means that I haven’t put much more time into this one than I would have otherwise. It’s a bit of a shame really as I was certainly hyped for the release, hoping that I’d get suckered back into the fighting game world. Maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t splurge $300 on that Hori Real Arcade Pro N…
Soul Calibur VI revitalises the series that’s laid dormant for the past 6 years. I’d usually lament retreading ground but, as someone who came to the series late in its life, going back to the beginning has been great in order to see the game’s history that I was only vaguely familiar with. The campaign and its ancillary story mode are great additions, even if they’re not enough by themselves to keep me coming back. The online is, unfortunately, the biggest mark against this instalment, lacking the right mode to keep people coming back for that quick fighting game hit. Still I’m hopeful that it’ll improve and hopefully the dedicated niche of fighting game enthusiasts will mean that I’ll be able to get my fighting game fix for a long time into the future.
Soulcalibur VI is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.