Monthly Archives: July 2019

Sea of Solitude: The Monster in All of Us.

Exploration in games used to just be about finding the secret room or a hidden easter egg that the developers left behind. For many games now exploration is a key part of the experience, sometimes completely changing the narrative or mechanics leading to a whole different kind of experience for those who invest the time to explore deep and wide. Further the exploration of things outside of the game has also become an integral part of many titles, including Sea of Solitude which seeks to explore the emotions of depression, loneliness and loss. It unfortunately does so in a rather ham fisted, stereotypical way; it’s apparent metaphorical storytelling being far more direct than I think it’s creators intended. To be sure I’m not denying that the feelings that went into creating this story aren’t real, indeed the creative director states that it was due to a breakup of hers, but it’s clear that that experience has been workshopped and massaged into a very middle of the road experience.

You play as Kay who finds herself in a world that’s been consumed by the sea with only a few scarce buildings popping out over the waves. Her boat is her only respite from the deep waters that are inhabited by monsters who taunt her endlessly. Those monsters are of her own creation however, stemming from events in her past that she has yet to deal with fully. Your journey is then one of exploring her past, uncovering the trauma that has created the monsters that now inhabit this sunken world. It’s up to you to guide her through the pain and, hopefully, come out the other side healed.

Sea of Solitude’s art style is the ever-trendy low poly chic that nearly every indie game seems to be implementing these days. The wider world isn’t exactly filled out well with a lot of noticeable asset reuse, making a lot of the more open parts of the world feel very samey. However the internal level parts are brimming with detail, each which their own distinctive style (something which I’m sure the level designers are quite proud of). Animations are a little on the simplistic side however, feeling like they’ve mostly been hand cranked which makes some characters look a lot more stilted than they should be. Overall the games visuals are quite good for Jo-Mei’s first all inhouse, standalone title.

I’ve shied away from calling games like Sea of Solitude “adventure” titles as, in my mind, that’s games like the old school LucasArts titles and their more modern equivalents. Instead I feel that games like this are more akin to puzzle platformers as their puzzles are typically self contained and usually heavily blended in platform elements. Indeed that’s pretty much Sea of Solitude in a nutshell: you’ll move between various different platforms (quite literally most of the time too), working your way through until you hit a puzzle that requires you to solve before going on. There’s two sets of collectibles for you to track down although whether or not they actually change the game in any appreciable way is unclear. Altogether Sea of Solitude is a pretty simple game mechanically and isn’t likely to challenge most players.

With all the puzzles being self contained it’s usually not terribly difficult to figure out what needs to be done. Some of them are unforgiving though, sending you all the way back to the start of the puzzle should you happen to time something wrong. Many of them are platform based which, as anyone who’s played 3D platformers before will tell you, means there’s a certain unwieldiness to them. There’ll be times when you’re pretty sure you’ve made a jump or calculated your timing perfectly only to be slapped down unceremoniously. Thankfully the game doesn’t require frame level precision nor are any of the puzzles minutes long sequences that need repeating upon failing so you won’t be struggling for hours on end to get past something.

The game also has a few rough edges that could do with some sorting out. For starters it’s not completely clear on communicating its mechanics to you, most notably during the first light beam puzzle which tells you to “focus” with the mouse…somehow. I tried doing everything I could think of with my mouse and nothing seemed to work, until I started wiggling it wildly only to find that the game had dropped the sensitivity way down, requiring quite a few long passes across the mouse pad to get the beam moving. This then extends to the rather unwieldy controls which make most things a little more challenging to navigate than they otherwise should be. Most notably this happens with the boat which makes navigating around with it quite a pain. These things aren’t beyond fixing so I hope future patches will smooth these things out.

Sea of Solitude warns you straight up that it’s going to deal with some heavy emotional content but what follows fails to really deliver any emotional impact whatsoever. There’s no real one issue at play here, more the culmination of the various storytelling choices removed any kind of empathy I had for any of the characters. The voice acting isn’t particularly great, feeling devoid of emotion save for a few choice scenes that happen later in the game. The ham-fisted approach to working through the various emotional challenges, typically done by using stereotypical exposition of scenes associated with them (Bullied at school, career focused father, depressive boyfriend), makes it hard to truly resonate with the story. Given that I’ve been through most of the trauma that the game describes myself you’d think it’d be a slam dunk but, in all honesty, it felt like someone from the outside trying to tell my own story back to me. It simply didn’t hit the mark at all.

That is really the true failing of Sea of Solitude. For all the effort put into making a great looking game the substance needed to back it up, either in the form of great mechanics or an intriguing story (perhaps both, if we’re lucky) just wasn’t there. The CEO describes this as her most personal game to date but I just don’t really get that feeling. The story, even if born out of true events, feels like it’s done at arm’s length, almost as if there’s a fear that doing so would alienate those seeking to play it. Really that was done the second they decided to partner up with EA and therefore only be allowed to release on Origin, not exactly the platform known for its vibrant indie scene. For what it’s worth I’d still like to see more from Jo-Mei but only if they can take the lessons learnt from this and make something that actually achieves some form of emotional impact.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sea of Solitude is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 73% of the achievements unlocked.

BirdGut: The Hatless One.

Free to play used to be a taboo word for me, usually indicating that the game was some microtransaction infested hell hole that would do little more than soak up my time in an effort to get to my wallet. More recently though it seems a lot of developers, including a non-zero number of really talented ones, are choosing to release their games for free with no other strings attached. To be sure most of them are usually pretty short and light on other features you’d see in big name titles but I doubt most of them would lose many players if they’d asked for a dollar or two. Such is the case with BirdGut, a bizarre hand drawn platformer that is equal parts fun as it is weird and obtuse.

A bee hatches in the hive, but something’s wrong. Born different from the others, the bee is exiled from the hive and forced to survive the world on its own. That is, until a bird attacks and eats it. Inside the bird, all of the bugs that it eats are brainwashed and put to work in fantastical, mechanical factories that exist in the place of its organs, except for the outcast bee, whose very disability prevents them from being brainwashed. The bee takes it upon itself to destroy the massive bird from the inside out, and free all the enslaved critters within.

BirdGut’s visuals are all hand drawn in a greyscale colour palette. Honestly the amount of effort that went into putting these visuals together is quite phenomenal, even for a less than 2 hour game. Each of the screens is its own little unique world, filled with all sorts of random detail. The animations are buttery smooth too, something you don’t see often with hand drawn games. This is all then juxtaposed with ludicrousy that this is all supposedly taking place inside a bird’s digestive system, something you’re reminded about in the most weird and unusual ways. It was this weird styling that first attracted me to the game as it’s rare enough for a game to be done this way and rarer still for it to be free.

The main game mechanics are puzzle platformer based with all the usual tropes making a showing in BirdGut’s short play time. You’ll start off slow, just needing to jump your way past a handful of obstacles, and will gradually move up to more complicated maneuvers, many of which will require semi-precise timing to pull off. The game’s simplicity negates many of the opportunities for emergent gameplay to occur so if you find yourself struggling against a particular challenge it’s quite likely that you’re approaching it the wrong way. Other than that there’s not much more to the game other than trial and error.

That of course means that the main increase in difficulty comes from the lengthening of time between checkpoints and the game exploiting that relentlessly. The later platforming sections consist of minutes long timed encounters that will take you at least a couple tries to get past as there’s no way of knowing what obstacles are coming up before you hit them for the first time. I’m not a huge fan of these “fuck you player” kinds of moments as it just punishes you for not knowing something that you had no way of figuring out. That being said it’s not like these challenges waste a ton of time but it still feels like a kick in the pants every time you have to repeat the same section again.

BirdGut’s story is lighthearted and tongue in cheek, with some sparse bits of dialogue providing some comic relief between the longer puzzle sections. It’s not particularly deep but I didn’t expect to be so it did its job of providing a little bit of background whilst I stumbled my way through the various platforming puzzles.

BirdGut was a surprisingly fun distraction that I still can’t believe is free. The hand drawn visuals alone warrant a small entry price and the decent platforming with the lighthearted story make it all worth playing. Is it perfect? Absolutely not but even at $5 I’d say I got my money’s worth with it. So if you’re in the market for something quick, concise and a little weird then BirdGut is likely to fit the bill.

Rating: 8.0/10

BirdGut is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 88 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.

AMID EVIL: Back to the Present.

Reviving the old school 3D shooters simply can’t be done. Pixel art adventure games, point and click stories even old school styled platformers still seem to be able to work and be innovative in this modern day. Shooters in the vein of the original Quake or Duke3D however have just never really been that great, with notable examples like the Rise of the Triad¹ reboot and the recent Kickstarter disappointment STRAFE. I had thought that AMID EVIL might be different in that regard, seemingly having some small influences from the modern day in it, but they are unfortunately not enough to save the dreary and simplistic combat that was the 3D shooters of old. So I don’t blame the developers for the game they’ve created, no it is the idea that these kinds of games are still good when they are simply not.

Each level of AMID EVIL has its own little story, told through little nuggets of text that are scribed on the walls. It’s nothing particularly deep or meaningful, mostly just a kind of flavour text that gives you some insight into the various enemy types and the boss of the particular level. There might be more to it but honestly I don’t think it’s worth chasing down. If the devs really wanted you to engage with the story they would’ve done something more with it like, say, voice the lines or something like that. Still you’re not going to be playing AMID EVIL for the story so I’m not going to count that against it too heavily.

The graphics try to strike a balance between being old school and modern which makes it end up feeling more dated than anything else. The old school style UI elements overlaid on a low poly environment that has decidedly modern lighting effects removes any illusion that this was an old school game that never saw the light of day. Instead you know that it’s a modern engine (Unreal 4, although that’s easy enough to tell from the way it handles specularity) and it’s been implemented deliberately this way. If you’re trying to make me think I’m playing an old school game then you’d better try your darndest to avoid any cues that remind me I’m playing this in 2019.

As you’d expect the combat is pretty straightforward, you’ve got half a dozen weapons each of which is reminiscent of similar archetypes from games of yesteryear. AMID EVIL’s spin on the traditional shooter mechanics is the overdrive system whereby each enemy you kill fills up a meter that, when unleashed, changes the secondary fire of each of the weapons into a horrendously overpowered version of itself until the meter runs dry. That’s fun enough although after a while you’ll find yourself saving it up “just in case” and then find yourself rarely needing to use it at all.

Each episode has different enemies but they’re dumb as rocks, walking directly at you for the most part and not having more than a couple different attacks. The old circle strafe strategy works far too well here which, depending on what you’re looking for here, is either an extremely faithful rendition of what these old school shooters were like or simply a lazy way of implementing an AI. The bosses do exhibit some more novel behaviour but even then it only took me a couple tries to get past the first boss, his only real challenge being that you needed to DPS him as fast as you could before he had a chance to fill up the room with thousands of projectiles for you to dodge.

Similarly the game also has many opportunities for emergent gameplay, some of which are fun but others are clearly not intended by the developers. Like the games it’s inspired by quite often you can skip large parts of levels or find secrets by exploiting parts of the geometry. Indeed there were a couple sections with certain kinds of angles that allowed you to jump off them when you clearly weren’t supposed to be able to do so. Again if you truly are seeking an experience like the shooters of old then that’s going to be what you’re after but frankly I’ve come to appreciate my games working as intended more than I have come to want to exploit them. I leave all that up to the speedrunners.

Depending on which side of the fence you’re on you’ll either love AMID EVIL for its rather faithful recreation of the shooters of the early 90s or hate it for the exact same reason. If it isn’t already painfully clear I’m very much in the later camp, not really finding any enjoyment in revisiting that part of my gaming history. You might be different however, as are numerous people over on the Steam page who are loving the experience that AMID EVIL provides. So if all the issues I’ve been bellyaching about sound like a good time for you then please, be my guest, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Rating: 5.0/10

AMID EVIL is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 68 minutes play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.

¹ Upon reading the Steam page I see that the people behind this are also the ones behind the Rise of the Triad reboot. I really should have read further before I hit the buy button…

KIDS: Pitter Patter.

I am…truly at a loss to set the scene on this one.

In my regular dive through the dumpster that is the Steam new releases page I came across KIDS and, given that it was free, I figured it was probably worth the price of admission. What followed was a surreal 20 minute experience that could be a commentary on how we interact with each other or some kind of weird ASMR tech demo.

Suffice to say it’s the first game where I’ve felt that screenshots aren’t going to be sufficient to demonstrate the rather bizarre mechanics it brings to bear.

There’s not much to say about it from an art style or graphics point of view, it’s just hand drawn black and white sketchbook art. The sound design does stand out though with all the animations being accompanied by some great foley work. There’s nothing quite like hearing the footsteps of a few onscreen figures slapping around before it turns into an ungodly stampede of the buggers trampling across your screen.

Mechanically it’s like 2D walking simulator as all you need to do is click in places to make things happen. Given that it’s only 20 minutes it’s really worth just going and playing it to see them for yourself but some choice moments are: moving through what I assume is someone’s digestive system, throwing countless figures into bottomless pits and starting a mexican wave of claps.

Like I said before, truly bizarre.

KIDS feels like the kind of game you used to find on places like Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep. It’s a surreal experience that doesn’t really have a premise or a story to tell but it’s intriguing all the same. If I didn’t think it’d horribly scar children in some way I’d say it’d be a great little title for the iPad as the interactivity had a very tactile feel to it, even behind a mouse. In all honesty I have no idea if this game will appeal to you but for 20 minutes of your time I don’t think that’s a huge investment to find out either way.

Rating: 8.5/10

KIDS is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes.

APE OUT: Cold Train of Destruction.

I gotta admit, my backlog of games I want to play ran out a while ago. Sure there’s a few titles on there that I could catch up on but most of them have some barrier to entry (looking at you, Metro Exodus) which I can’t be arsed getting around. So I’m left to scour the Steam releases each week, hoping to see something that catches my eye. Unfortunately the pickings have been slim and so I’ve resorted to playing things that are somewhat interesting but usually not what I’d typically find myself playing. APE OUT, whilst having most of the trappings that you’d usually assume would be right up my alley, was just missing that extra something to keep me coming back. The concept and execution are both extremely well done however so it’s not for a lack of craftsmanship, more it just doesn’t have the mechanics I’d seek out in this kind of game.

You’re an ape in a laboratory and you’ve decided it’s time to get out. Of course the lab can’t have what appears to be a super-intelligent ape running about the shop so they’ll do anything they can to stop you. Of course you’re quite a bit bigger than them and can easily paint the walls with their corpses should they get in your way. Your goal is simple: find a way to escape without getting shot to bits. All this happens whilst a wild jazz soundtrack plays in the background.

Visually APE OUT is very striking with its top down perspective, lack of texturing and use of vibrant colouring. Whilst this does make it rather easy to distinguish foes from furniture the top down perspective could use a little work as quite often pillars get in your way when it feels like they shouldn’t. There has been a lot of attention given to making the visuals feel as chaotic as the background track with numerous overlays, changing colours and other weird and wonderful VFX making for a kind of visual bonanza I haven’t really come across before. I honestly would expect no less from the crazed mind of the great Bennett Foddy (you know, the one behind QWOP and Getting Over It).

The soundtrack deserves its own mention as it’s a reactive mish mash of jazz percussion. Each playthrough will have a slightly different track due to the generative nature of the backing track, even down to things like events on screen driving which part of a drum kit gets played. Each of the albums has its own theme so all those different samples do work together to produce something coherent but it’s still very chaotic. I’m not really a fan of jazz but I certainly appreciated the effort that went into building up the engine that drove APE OUT’s wild soudtrack.

The objective of each level is simple: just get to the other end. You’ll be met with a wide variety of enemies, themed to the current album you’re playing. The levels themselves aren’t particularly big but it’s never going to be as simple as just legging it from one side to another. Curiously you can do it without killing a single person as there’s an achievement to that effect. How you’d do that for some sections is beyond me though as there’s situations where I couldn’t see an easy route around flattening a few folks.

For the most part the combat feels fair as the enemies telegraph their moves and the AI isn’t particularly smart in how it approaches you. Of course when you’re cornered by more than a couple of them things start to get real tricky fast and many of the special types of enemies are designed to make simply crushing everyone more challenging than finding a way around them. Even with the short levels though I found the enemies to get repetitive pretty fast and I think that’s probably what made me give up in the end. I mean sure, part of it was also the difficulty of it, but since there’s no real progression system or anything else to keep you coming back (bar the new levels) I didn’t really feel like the challenge was worth it.

APE OUT is a finely crafted game that I just didn’t find myself enjoying all that much. The visuals, soundtrack and mechanics are all on point, delivering the exact game experience that it set out to achieve. However I felt that it was mostly a game for the speedrunner/Twitch crowd, something that people would love to watch but not necessarily play themselves. That’s why after just a paltry 36 minutes with it I decided to call it quits, lest I give this game a score that’s much further below it’s true value. If you favour that kind of reaction based, beat ’em up gameplay then you’ll surely enjoy APE OUT but for me it just didn’t hit the mark.

Rating: 7.0/10

APE OUT is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 36 minutes play time and 4% of the achievements unlocked.