Monthly Archives: August 2019

Koral: The Beauty of Our Seas.

One of the many reasons I keep doing these reviews is that I enjoy charting the journeys of the various developers that I come across, especially the smaller indies. For some they create an IP and expand on it, like Frozenbyte with Trine or Moon Studios with Ori and the Blind Forest, whilst others like Supergiant Games continually experiment, almost reinventing themselves with each release. Carlos Coronado, who previously brought us Mind: Path to Thalamus, falls into the previous camp having experimented widely over the many years he’s been a game developer. Whilst I wasn’t able to experience one of his previous titles due to it being VR only when I saw Koral, a casual puzzler with a strong environmental message, I was very interested to see what he’d be bringing to the table.

Koral is a self-described love letter to the ocean, created by the developer whilst he was onboard a sail ship in a marine sanctuary in Northern Catalonia. The game’s core is quite simple: you’re an ocean current that can bring life back to the reefs that have been devastated by humanity’s impact on them. Along the way you’ll be peppered with facts about why many coral reefs are currently under threat and some of the positive actions that have taken place to restore them. When it’s all said and done the game will likely only take you a couple hours to get through, maybe one more if you’re looking to 100% it.

The puzzles aren’t particularly difficult although they do get awfully repetitive as they all share the same core base mechanic: explore to find the little light things and then bring them somewhere to unblock the way forward. The challenge ratchets up mostly through adding in more ways to hide the lights from you or by adding a timer to certain challenges. None of them would be out of reach of even beginner games I feel but there are definitely some that felt a little more tedious than others just because they had an arbitrary time limit placed on them, forcing you to do them over again if you fail.

The pacing could also be a little tighter as there’s numerous long sections where there isn’t any music or something particularly interesting happening on screen. Part of this is probably due to the game’s creation (more on that in a sec) but still I feel like these games live and die by their pacing, tying together the various visual and auditory components together so the game effortlessly flows between stages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled too much by games like The Turing Test which showed me just how great a game like this can be when all those disparate elements come together well.

Probably one of the most interesting parts of the game for me was the credits when it was revealed that quite a bit of this game was created with assets from the Unreal store, including the music. I mean, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that all those kinds of assets are available on there, but it certainly demonstrated to me just how far that ecosystem has come of late. As time goes on it seems the barriers to creating something worthy of playing are getting lower and lower which, whilst it has increased the incidents of shovelware and asset flips, does mean that creators are now free to focus on the much more important aspects of game development.

Koral does exactly what its developer wants it to do: it shows his love for the ocean and the want to preserve it for all to enjoy. It’s construction might not be the best, suffering from slight pacing issues and repetitive puzzles, but it still manages to get its message across. Perhaps most interestingly for me is the amount of things that went into it that were already prebuilt, I honestly would not have guessed that any of it wasn’t created for this game directly had the developer not mentioned it in the credits. So, in summary, Koral is a great distraction even with its rough edges.

Rating: 8.0/10

Koral is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 59% of the achievements unlocked.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood: Heir to Blazkowicz

There’s been few IPs that have managed to achieve the same level of success that Wolfenstein series has. Each new instalment went from strength to strength, refining their formula for old-school inspired corridor shooter action whilst simultaneously working to improve their storytelling by leaps and bounds. So, as you’d expect, my expectations for Wolfenstein: Youngblood were high as I felt Machine Games had really locked their sights on what mattered. However that’s not the case with this instalment in the Wolfenstein franchise as it’s instead this kind of semi-open world co-op hybrid that’s light on the story and, frankly, pretty much everything else I’ve come to expect from this new breed of Wolfenstein games. I don’t appear to be the only one thinking this either and I think there’s a lot of us questioning the idea behind releasing 2 spin off games (the other being Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot) rather than a single, fully fledged one.

It’s 20 years since the events of The New Colossus and most of the world is now free of Nazi control. BJ and Anya have returned to America and have spent their time raising their twin girls, Jessica and Sophia, out on their ranch, teaching them the skills they’ll need to survive in this still hostile world. However one day BJ mysteriously disappears. Fearing the worst Jessica, and Sophia search for clues about where he might have gone and discover a hidden room in the attic with a map indicating Blazkowicz traveled to Nazi-occupied Neu-Paris to meet the French Resistance. Believing that American authorities will not follow Blazkowicz to Nazi France, the girls steal an FBI helicopter and a pair of powered armor suits and head for France. So begins your Nazi killing adventure as one of the twins.

Youngblood is still on id Tech 6 (the debut id Tech 7 game will be DOOM Eternal) and looks as good as it ever did. Much like my previous experiences with new Wolfenstein games though there was a lot of tweaking needed to get it looking good and performing well initially, only for me to discover that I hadn’t yet updated to the newest drivers again which made everything work perfectly. It just goes to show just how much optimisation the respective driver teams must do as it was a complete mess before I updated, chugging constantly no matter what settings I changed. Afterwards it much like I remembered although there was a noticeable decrease in environment detail, I assume due to the fact that it’s supposed to be more open-worldy. In any case it has me excited for what DOOM Eternal will look like though as it’s been a little while between drinks for id Tech engine upgrades.

Deviating significantly from the series’ formula so far Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a co-op, open-world-ish FPS game. After a few short initial missions you’re then left to run around Nazi occupied Paris to your heart’s content: exploring the world, picking up side missions, following the main story lines and all of the usual stuff you’d expect in an open world game. You can play co-op or solo, with the latter granting you an AI partner who’s not completely useless but not for the reasons you’d first assume. There’s a much heavier focus on levelling with the more powerful skill and gun upgrades locked behind levels which don’t come easy as you start to creep up in power. All being said the changes really don’t feel like they’re for the better, even in a spin-off game that might’ve just been some overwrought experiment meant to buy time between Wolfenstein 2 and 3.

Combat has also taken a more RPG bent, trading off the rapid pace of its predecessors for a more bullet-spongy kind of affair. The AI of all enemies, and I really do mean all of them, is complete pants as all they really do is shoot whilst they walk towards you. Nearly all of them can be cheesed in some way most often by positioning in such a way you can hit them but they can’t hit back. This even works for the brother tower protectors who go from being these scary mecha-nightmares to simple bullet soaks with just the right angle through a doorway. Probably the worst thing though is the lack of ammo, even with the upgraded ammo talents, as you’ll constantly run out of it for your weapon of choice. This is made all the more painful by the armour matching mechanic, requiring you to flip between guns when you come up against enemies with certain armour types. So if you, like me, try to min/max you’ll only have a handful of weapons properly upgraded and once those two are out of ammo you’ll be fighting long, slow battles until you can find some more.

Progression comes in a relatively steady stream at first and then seems to slow down considerably past level 30. That doesn’t matter a whole lot since it seems that most enemies will be matches to your level type with only a handful having strict higher levels set. Even those are still defeatable, they’ll just take that many more bullets to take down. None of the upgrades, both skill and weapon, feel particularly impactful however as most of them are just incremental upgrades to things you already have. To be sure there’s definitely a vast difference between a level 1 player and a level 30 one but with auto-scaling enemies and only minor upgrades between levels it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re really that much more powerful.

I didn’t get a chance to try it co-op (even though one of my mates has it) but in all honesty I don’t think it would’ve changed much of the experience. There’s nothing really in the game that would make it better with a friend as all the co-op mechanics amount to are your usual “you need 2 players to do this” kind of thing. I mean sure, there’s always a bit of fun banter when you’re playing with mates, but given the rather mediocre state the game is in you’re likely going to spend most of your time laughing at the game rather than with it.

The game appears to have been built with grander aspirations in mind as it comes bundled with things I really didn’t expect from the franchise. For starters there’s microtransactions which admittedly are limited to just cosmetic items but as far as I can tell there’s no other way to acquire them through playing in game. Further there’s daily and weekly missions which would indicate that the devs think this is the kind of game that you’ll keep coming back to often to progress your character. I really don’t know what kind of person would either spend money on a co-op only game or come back to level after multiple weeks as there’s really no reason to.

I was level 30-something by the end and whilst it wasn’t exactly a breeze to get through most sections (mostly due to the aforementioned issues) I certainly didn’t feel like I needed to go back and grind out a bunch of missions in order to move forward. Indeed the last boss could be cheesed in much the same way as the other bosses so it wasn’t like there was a lot to challenge me there. So who the heck are these mechanics, copied directly from the looter-shooter playbook, built into this co-op game? I really have no clue.

Co-op and open world games invite jankiness and Wolfenstein: Youngblood is absolutely no exception. Throughout the game I had all sorts of weird and wonderful things happen, most notably: enemies clipping through walls (and sometimes getting stuck there), my AI partner teleporting randomly around the room whilst refusing to press a switch to move forward, interacting with objects causing me to get stuck there and so on. It certainly feels like the id Tech 6 engine wasn’t built with this kind of purpose in mind as from playing previous games built on it I know it’s not exactly prone to having issues like this.

Whilst Machine Games and Arkane Studios would have you believe that Youngblood is a spin-off it’s really anything but as the events that happen in it are part of the core story. The narrative functions mostly as a time warp to move everything forward 20 years for the upcoming Wolfenstein 3 whilst also adding in a few more characters which I’m sure will make an appearance. Indeed for all the time you’ll spend in the game nothing much of consequence really happens. Sure, Jessica and Sophia get fleshed out, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that they won’t be the main characters in Wolfenstein’s final instalment. For a series that had been actively improving its storytelling I had hoped we’d get something from Youngblood but it seems that wasn’t to be.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is an unfortunate misstep for the franchise; an experiment that I hope the developers see really didn’t pay off. All of the changes made don’t do anything to make the game better than its predecessors and, in many cases, actively makes it worse. I don’t think any of my gripes really bear repeating in my closing statement so I’ll just leave you with this: if you were looking for another juicy instalment in the Wolfenstein series than this isn’t it for you. You’re going to (hopefully) be far better served by Wolfenstein 3 when it comes out.

Rating: 6.5/10

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $49.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.

Vane: Where The Wind Takes Us.

Yeah I know, I have a type.

Take some kind of high concept, wrap it in an intriguing art style, throw in a few interesting puzzle mechanics and back the whole thing up with a semi-decent soundtrack and you’re almost guaranteed to get a look in from me. Part of my penchant for these kinds of games was born out of my time being consumed by other things but over time I’ve grown to quite like the genre and all the weird titles it seems to produce. Vane, as you’ve likely already guessed, fits that description almost perfectly and was the second title to come to me via the new Steam recommendation engine. I’m glad to say that this time around it was bang on the money, directing me to an incredibly surreal and intriguing experience that I had not come across before.

In a ruined desert, a strange golden dust transforms a free-spirited bird into a determined young child. You are not the only one to have undergone this transformation however and the world around you is littered with evidence of a world that was once far more than what it appears to be today. Your transformation sets in motion a chain of events that will reshape the world, hopefully for the better.

Vane’s art-style is quite unique with its direct influences coming from the Team Ico games of old. That’s combined with a weird glitchy aesthetic, which gives it this strange sci-fi overtone. Indeed the styling of the world is equal parts fantastic and high-tech, giving you this feeling the environment is stuck between the fantastic and the real. Given I’ve played far too many low-poly indie games of late it’s nice to see a developer take a different angle with it instead of simply using the aesthetic as a way to get out of needing to texture too much. There were a few poorly optimised areas, mostly the larger open areas when the heavy particle effects were going, but other than them the game ran perfectly smooth.

You’ll encounter a wide variety of puzzle mechanics whilst playing Vane as it starts off as a kind of walking-simulator-esque experience as you soar around the desert looking for places to land. From there the game evolves into a kind of puzzle platformer, requiring you to explore the level to figure out how it works, look for where you need to transform and so on. Later on the game then adds in what I’ll call the “rebuilding” mechanic which appears to reconstruct the destroyed world around you. It makes for an interesting progression in terms of mechanical complexity, gradually ramping up the challenge over the game’s short length.

None of those mechanics are well introduced unfortunately, making figuring them out a rather laborious endeavour of trial and error. There’s hints around, of course, but it can be hard to tell when the game is trying to nudge you in a direction or if it’s just something that looks like it should be investigated. Vane isn’t the first game to suffer from a problem like this and it’s one of the more challenging elements to get right; making exploration worthwhile by challenging the player and not just filling the world with random rubbish to seek out.

I’d probably be a bit more lenient on Vane if it weren’t for the absolutely god awful controls that it has. Flying is honestly a major chore and it’s far too hard to perch on something, especially considering that’s one of the core mechanics. Indeed I managed to spaz out the physics engine multiple times by flying too close to something and it not being able to figure out if I should land, bounce off or do something else. This continues with the controls on the ground which feel far more wonky than they really should be. This is most aptly demonstrated in the part of the game with a procedurally generated level, often resulting in you getting stuck on geometry or sliding around randomly as the game tries to figure out how to place you. For a game that gets so much right to get a basic thing like controls so utterly wrong really perplexes me.

The story is interesting, even if it’s so hand wavy in what it shows that you could really make anything out of it. It’s obvious that you find yourself in the ruins of a once prosperous world, one that’s ravaged by what appears to be a never ending storm. However from there everything is pretty much up to your interpretation. On a hunch I just checked and there are 2 different endings although really it seems either of them are as about as satisfying as the other. All this being said I don’t think that the story of Vane was the developer’s overall focus and, whilst it’s somewhat interesting to contemplate, it’s not really the main thrust of the game.

Vane is a weird dichotomy of excellent craftsmanship in some respects and down right negligence in others. The art of Vane’s world is an eclectic mix of old world fantasy with sci-fi overtones all built up beautifully in low poly detail. The puzzle mechanics grow organically throughout the game, ramping up the challenge gradually. However the lack of any direction with the puzzles coupled with the absolutely trash controls means that the game experience is far more frustrating than it needs to be. I’ve dealt with vague puzzle mechanics before, and I can somewhat forgive them, but controls that are that wonky just makes everything worse. Hopefully future titles from Friend & Foe Games don’t incur this penalty as what they’ve built here has the makings of something truly awesome.

Rating: 7.5/10

Vane is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.7 hours playtime with 39% of the achievements unlocked.

Epitasis: Alien Shapes.

Everyone who’s tried to use Steam’s various recommendation engines over the years knows that they’re more miss than hit. Indeed most of the examples I’ve found diving through the “New and Trending” section or using the Discovery queue have usually been mediocre, if not downright terrible. So when I saw that Valve had put up a new type of recommendation engine, one that allows you to play with a few of the parameters that drive it, I was very intrigued. Setting the timeline to recent and turning the popularity to niche put up quite a few examples that looked good on first pass, Epitasis among them. Whilst this particular game might not have hit the mark, owing to its incredibly basic implementation, it was still a title that I would’ve never come across if not for the new engine.

The setup for Epitasis is done through a couple pages of text on screen, telling you that you’re a scientist combing through deep space signals for signs of intelligent life. One day you get one and it points to a set of coordinates on Earth. A team, led by yourself is put together to go and investigate whereupon you find out that the location houses a portal to an alien world. In there is a strange world of shapes and puzzles laid out before you, almost like some kind of test. It’s then your job to solve the puzzles of this world to see where they lead.

Right off the hop you can tell that Epitasis was built in the Unreal engine as it has that certain feel about it that most bargain basement games made in it have. The environments are sparse and lacking in detail, seemingly built to have a lot more put into them than what’s currently there. Some of the lighting effects are done well but honestly I don’t believe there’s anything there that isn’t built into UE4 by default. The trailer basically shows all the best looking parts of the game with the rest of it being a dull, lifeless landscape. The game world really didn’t need to be as big as it is and a lot more effort should’ve been spent on making the area that mattered tighter in its implementation and adding some detail.

Mechanically Epitasis is a simple puzzler, mostly consisting of making sure switches stay on or juggling boxes between gated sections. They weren’t particularly well playtested as some of them require an inordinate amount of legwork to complete, pinging back and forth between puzzle sections in order to complete them successfully. Then there are other sections which are quite obviously not intended to function together, allowing you to completely bypass the intended mechanic. The logic of the puzzles is also quite bizarre, with some of them giving you the impression they should function in a particular way but work completely differently, making some puzzles challenging as you try to work out the developer’s internal logic. All in all it feels like a decidedly unfinished game; barren and simplistic, falling short of what I feel was the creator’s intended dream.

Indeed looking at the game’s Kickstarter campaign which finished some 2 years ago it looks like a good chunk of what’s in the game currently was already there and the intent was to flesh out the world a lot more. Like nearly all Kickstarters it delivered late, over a year past the initial forecast date, showing that the developer must have been a lot further away from an actual game than they thought. Of course I understand the challenges that face a single developer but too often I see newcomers try and make something grander than they can ever accomplish. Games don’t need to be long or great in scale to be good, they just need to be enjoyable experiences. Epitasis could’ve done a lot more with the time invested if it pared back its ambition and focused on the core of what it wanted to achieve.

I will admit that it does have a good soundtrack however it’s decidedly out of place for the environment you’re playing in and is often out of kilter with what you’re doing on screen. Games like this live and die by their pacing and a key part of that is how the soundtrack ties into on-screen events. Epitasis doesn’t really appear to have much of that, leading to a very weird atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on a university student whose only real world experience in the games industry is being a QA tester but even if I simply judge this game by how well it achieves its own vision it still comes up lacking. The environments are far too large for a game like this where exploration is beyond pointless, serving only as a monument to ambition that was never realised. The simplistic puzzle mechanics aren’t going to challenge anyone for long, even the ones whose logic are somewhat mystifying. Finally, whilst the game does have a good soundtrack it feels disjointed and out of place, lacking the tight coupling that these kinds of puzzler/walking simulator type games require. As a first title for a nascent game developer it’s not completely terrible but even among peers it’s not much to write home about.

Rating: 5.5/10

Epitasis is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 104 minutes with 90% of the achievements unlocked.