Monthly Archives: September 2019

Remnant: From the Ashes: The Root of All Suffering.

Souls games are very much an acquired taste, one that I would have never sought to try if I hadn’t been pushed by several of my close friends to try Bloodborne. Since then I’ve tried my hand at the numerous Souls-like experiences that have came out and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. However none of them were the kind of game I’d recommend to people wanting to get into the Souls-like genre, all of them maintaining the same brutality that made recommending them to friends (especially those who’d shied away from things like MMORPGs for similar reasons) a fools errand. Remnant: From the Ashes though maintains a lot of core Souls traits whilst making it very approachable, especially when you’re teamed up with another friend or two. To be sure it’s still not going to be to everyone’s liking but I was honestly surprised at just how much fund I had in this not quite bargain basement souls clone.

The world has been overtaken by an alien presence known only as the root. For over 100 years its tendrils have spread out everywhere, wiping out most of life as we know it. The last few remnants of humanity have holed themselves up in wards, large fortified structures that have managed to keep the root out, giving the survivors a life that few would envy. You are a champion from outside those wards, risen with a single purpose: to defeat the root and restore the world to the glory that it once held.

Seemingly taking inspiration directly from the Souls-game for everything Remnant’s graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge, even though they come to us via the Unreal 4 engine. Part of this is due to the rather large and expansive procedurally generated areas that you’ll be trudging through, something which can be rather hard to optimise well. To be sure there is some great level and set design, like the screenshot below highlights, but for the most part it certainly feels like you’re playing a previous generation game. Performance for the most part is good, the only issue I encountered was in some of the earlier levels that generated some rather long sections which my nearly 5 year old rig struggled a bit with. Overall I’d rate the graphics as good but not great.

Remnant incorporates many of the usual tropes you’ll see in a Souls-like game including the punishing combat and a wildly opaque progression system with dozens of weapons, armour sets and skills to optimise. Remnant’s claim to fame is that co-op is an expected part of the experience right from the start, rather than being something you do if you need help with a boss or a particular section. The world is also mostly procedurally generated, even to the point of some parts of it not being accessible if you don’t get the right “roll”. Thankfully this is accompanied by the oh-so-welcome map which would have otherwise made the procedurally generated world an absolute nightmare to navigate. It’s certainly different enough from your garden variety Souls-like game that it stands on its own, so much so that it seems to be attracting quite a few players who wouldn’t typically give a game like this a second look.

At a basic level Remnant’s combat follows the Souls-like trope of having punishing combat that feels quite rewarding when you feel like you’ve mastered it. However instead of it being primarily melee focused with some ranged backup Remnant is completely the opposite, with most of the combat taking place at range. To be sure you can still build yourself up to be a melee powerhouse but anyone who’s played Souls games knows that if you can defeat an enemy without getting close to them it’s going to be far easier than if you try the same thing up close. This is, I feel, the reason why Remnant feels quite a bit easier than its other Souls-like compatriots as the amount of leeway you have when dealing with enemies at range compared to when you’re in melee is quite substantial. Of course the game is designed around this so many of the enemies have ways of quickly closing the gap on you but that matters a lot less when they’re just about to fall over when they do.

The weapon mods also provide for some rather game breaking mechanics that allow you to get away with things that trivialise many of the game’s harder encounters. One of the ones you get early on, the one that summons a tree that taunts all enemies in a radius, just so happens to work on bosses as well. This becomes incredibly valuable as launching one of those can easily net you a quarter of a boss’ health as they slap away at a random tree whilst you unload round after round into them. With 2 players the uptime is considerable but with 3 it can be nigh on permanent. Of course these things that make the game easier for souls veterans like myself are going to be the things that help new players immensely so I definitely don’t think they should be removed, and of course I could just not use them, but hey I’m not made of stone. Sometimes I do want a little fun with my challenge!

As I alluded to earlier the complex and quite often intentionally vague progression system that all Souls-like games are known for makes an appearance in Remnant. Whilst the basics are easy enough to grasp, like different armours being strong/weak against certain damage types, there’s so many different things to optimise that it can be quite a struggle to figure out how to best min/max your character. Traits, for instance, start off with simple augments that make sense but once you have 30+ of them it can be a real chore to think about whether or not having extra stamina is better than reducing stamina costs or whether you’re hitting diminishing returns with reload speed. I’m sure there’s calculators and guides galore out there, like there is always is for games like this, but it does feel like it’s more of a chore than it should be.

The progression system is auto-scaling meaning that all you need to do to unlock the next tier of upgrade materials is to upgrade an item all the way to the point of needing them. The old materials will still continue to drop which is a good thing since you’ll need them to upgrade any armour or weapons that you happen across or manage to craft. At the start you’ll be scrounging for every little bit but later on, as you move up the materials treadmill, you’ll find yourself quite flush with the older materials making any new pickup that you want to use viable. That being said I used the starter shotgun for most of the game and didn’t really struggle at all.

The boss fights are all pretty much standard DPS fights with a few interesting mechanics thrown in here and there. Unlike other Souls games where learning the move set is absolutely critical to beating the boss Remnant is usually pretty predictable, so much so that my friend and I one-shotted multiple bosses over the course of our play through. The only one that gave us significant grief was the final boss and that’s mostly because it’s the only one we did that had mechanical complexity on par with standard Souls bosses. Interesting fact too: nearly all the bosses have 2 ways of defeating them and doing the alternate kill will net you different loot. Some of them are pretty obvious whilst others are downright insane. That being said it’d be worth looking into what the alternate kill nets you as sometimes it’s really not worth the effort.

When I saw that Perfect World was the publisher for Remnant I jokingly told my mates that’d be full of jank and, unsurprisingly it is. Some of the more fun bugs we encountered along the way included me getting stuck right inside the door of a boss fight, meaning I couldn’t move from there and we had to just hope that the boss didn’t try and melee me. Bullets would simply not register on certain enemies sometimes, indicating that their hitbox wasn’t placed where you’d typically expect it to be. We had one boss bug out on us so bad that he just teleported around the room randomly, never stopping to attack us and would immediately teleport away again if we ever got close. The procedural generation also doesn’t have a ton of smarts built into it and you’ll often come across identical areas multiple times over in a single level. These are all fixable issues but it’s something to be aware of going in.

The story is nothing to write home about, being your generic hero’s adventure with you as the saviour of all humanity. Whilst it’s a lot more direct than other Souls games tend to be quite a lot of the lore is locked up in journals and other walls of texts scattered around the place, something that’s not exactly conducive to immersive and enjoyable storytelling. It probably doesn’t help that most of the characters are pretty one dimensional, usually vomiting exposition for a good 5 minutes when you first meet them then only giving you a sentence or two when you meet them after that. Its rare that you play these kinds of games for the story though so it’s unlikely to detract from your experience with Remnant.

Remnant: From the Ashes was a nice surprise, bringing with it a few new ideas to the Souls-like genre and, I feel, making it approachable to a much wider audience. The graphics might not be the greatest and sure there’s a load of jank to be found but the overall experience, especially when playing with a friend or two, is actually pretty great. It’s certainly a sum of the parts is greater than the whole kind of deal as individually the game borders on being a very B grade experience but combined they manage to stumble into A- territory. So if you’re looking for a lark with a couple mates or have been eyeing off the Souls genre for some time then Remnant: From the Ashes could well be for you.

Rating: 8.25/10

Remnant: From the Ashes is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $56.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 11 hours playtime and 55% of the achievements unlocked.

Telling Lies: Water is Life.

Games that include full motion video are still an oddity with the video elements often feeling out of place in the game world. This has gotten better of time of course, with the games in the mixed-media genre (Quantum Break being the most recent example that comes to mind) combining elements in a way that highlights the best of both mediums. The newer genre of interactive fiction, which takes away most game elements in favour of a predominately FMV or cutscene based experience, has also started to find its feet over the past couple years. Her Story, which I unfortunately never got around to play (even though it was on my to review list), was widely acclaimed to be a standout example of that and so when I saw Telling Lies, done by the same developers, I figured that it’d be worth diving into this particular brand of interactive fiction. I have to admit that whilst it’s a novel way of telling a story there’s a lot of room for improvement in just the base story exploration mechanics which would make the whole experience just that much better.

Telling Lies puts you in charge of an unnamed person who’s gotten ahold of an intel dump relating to a particular case. What you’re given access to is a database of videos, each of them fully transcribed so that you can search for certain words and phrases to find new videos. These videos have mostly been captured from one side of the conversation, meaning you’re only going to hear what one person is saying at any given time. So in order to find all the videos you’re going to have to listen carefully for clues that will lead you to other snippets so you can piece together the multi-layered puzzle that has been laid out before you.

Since this is supposed to be a kind of “found footage” experience a lot of the visual aesthetic is grainy cell phone style videos with muted colours. This is part of the experience of course and there’s not a lot of room for creative cinematography when you’re supposed to be viewing video chats between two people or footage from a hidden camera. It’s quite obvious in some shots that the pictures aren’t coming from equipment that the characters in the game would have (the shot below being a good example of being far too wide for a standard laptop camera) but unless you’re a cinematography geek that’s not likely to impact on your experience. For what it seeks to recreate Telling Lies does a good job of giving you the feeling that you’re peering into parts of normal people’s lives, even if the drama has been amped up a bit for effect.

The searching interface you have to use is pretty basic, giving you a keyword search box, the ability to bookmark and a log of your search history and videos viewed. The search is artificially limited to 5 results which prevents you from using very broad terms like “the” or “hi” to get a long list of videos to chew through. Once you’ve picked up on a particular element it can be pretty easy to then follow it through for a fair while, utilising snippets from the conversation to branch out to other videos which, in turn, provide you even more search fodder.

The game does actually provide you a notepad to keep track of things but honestly I actually enjoyed keeping my own physical notes that I could flip through as I was playing. I’d keep track of people, key words and other interesting items as they cropped up, ticking them off as I ran a particular vein dry. This strategy got me through the bulk of the game, probably about 130 videos or so, before the clock got stuck at 4:45AM and I couldn’t find a way to progress further. If you happen to get to this point just know that you’re not doing anything wrong, it’s just that the game has a hard stop at a few points where the timer won’t progress until you find a specific video. For the first few stage gates finding them isn’t a problem but the last one can be a real pain in the ass to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

This also isn’t helped by the fact that the interface for watching videos is total ass. When you search for a video you’ll be taken to where in the video your search term appeared which could be anywhere in the timeline. If you’re like me (and most of the people on the Steam forum) you’ll want to go to the start of the video to watch it. You can do that but you’ll have to rewind the video like it’s a VHS tape in order to watch it all the way through. I’d hazard a guess I spent a good 2~3 hours just watching video rewind which honestly serves no purpose to the overall story.

There’s also a lot of videos that don’t have good keywords in them, meaning that to actually find them you’re going to rely on a hefty amount of guesswork in order to find them. For example in one video it’s clear that one character has made a comment like “You’re huge!” or “You look big!” but it’s actually nothing like that and the other keywords you might think will give you the other side of the conversation don’t work either. This starts to become quite a chore later in the game when you already have the overall narrative down and are just trying to get through to the end, ploughing through video after video just to move the time ahead.

Indeed this is the problem with games that present their narrative out of order like this as once you’ve got the general idea of what’s going on all the other scenes just end up feeling like filler. I stumbled across some very late in the timeline videos early on in the piece and so was pretty sure of what was going to happen after an hour or so. To be sure exploring some of the different character arcs was enjoyable but after a certain point I was done and just wanted the game to end. Thankfully the developers are pretty junior when it comes to actually structuring these games and all the videos in the game are helpfully available in a single folder in the game directory. So it was just a matter of cycling through those, finding the right keywords and watching the videos in game to finish it off.

As for the story itself? Certain aspects are done well, like giving each of the main characters enough screen time to truly develop them completely (if you invest the time to find the videos, of course). The choose your own path storytelling does mean that the pacing is all over the shop, some search queries leading to intriguing veins of information that keep you going down the rabbit hole for hours on end. Other times you just find video after video that reveals nothing new nor provides anything interesting to go on and you just feel bored with the whole experience. Honestly I’d love to see all the videos stitched together, both sides of the conversation included, in chronological order just to see how it’d stand up on its own. In this format it’s interesting but a bit all over the place. As a cohesively told narrative I feel like it’d probably be a lot more.

Telling Lies is an interesting piece of interactive fiction that’s predominately let down by its exploration mechanics and the inherent pacing issues with navigating your own path through a narrative. The team behind the creation of the videos, from the actors to the tech guys to the audio engineers, have all done well to create the experience in this way as I’m sure it was a real challenge to create and capture moments like this. It’s just a shame that the exploration isn’t a little more refined, needing a few touches and perhaps a few mechanics to push the story along when it’s clear that you’re not getting to the points that they want you to get to. I still think it’s worth playing but would love to see a few patches to really tighten up the rather mediocre mechanics.

Rating: 7.5/10

Telling Lies is available on iOS and PC right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours playtime and 64% of the achievements unlocked.

Oxygen Not Included: Surviving is So Much Sorrow.

Coming into Early Access games once they hit the 1.0 stage has been a mixed affair for me. About half the time it’s when is really ready for prime time with the most glaring issues worked out, the core game play set and the last few iterations being spent on polishing up the overall experience for when the great unwashed will descend upon it. Other times, and this is typical of games that spend quite a bit of time in Early Access, the game has morphed into its own entity that exists by, for and of its community, sometimes to the point of being so niche that going 1.0 is simply a milestone and not much more. Lastly there are those which are 1.0 in version name only, usually being a horrid mess of half-realised ideas and sloppy execution. Oxygen Not Included, having been in Early Access for over 2 years (but coming from a veteran developer, Klei), has feet in the first and second camps with it having most of the trappings of a polished release whilst also being so incredibly complex with all the mechanics it gained over the years making it’s appeal quite niche. So much so, I’d argue, that I think most people who would ever have played it have likely already bought it before then.

You take the role of the omniscient AI who’s been tasked with ensuring the survival of your colony. Unfortunately it seems like your calculations on where to land weren’t entirely accurate and instead of ending up on the surface of an asteroid you’ve managed to find yourself on the inside of it, making the task of establishing a successful colony just that much harder. You’ll have to carefully balance every resource at your disposal if you want your colony to survive as without your help they’re sure to perish in this unforgiving subterranean environment.

Oxygen Not Included brings with it the trademark art style that Klei is known for, reminiscent of the Flash games of yesteryear with their bright colours, heavy outlining and simple effects. It can be a little visually overwhelming at times as there’s so much going on and it can be a little difficult to differentiate different things at a glance. The game does have tools to help with this of course however they only go so far. This kind of art style is also part of the game’s optimisation strategy as when your base starts to grow you’re going to need every single spare CPU cycle you can get. All this being said though the art style fits the tone of the game well, giving off serious AdVenture Capitalist vibes with its mix of happy overtones with a layer of dark humour bubbling away underneath.

The lead design for Oxygen Not Included cites games like Dwarf Fortress, Prison Architect, and The Sims as his inspiration for this game and their influence can definitely be seen in the mechanics they’ve developed. You don’t control your colonists directly, instead you set them tasks which they’ll do, if they’re able, and they’ll attempt to take care of themselves otherwise. It’s up to you to set up an environment for them to succeed by managing all of the resources that will impact on them. The list of what you’ll need to manage is incredibly long, ranging from simple things like food all the way through gas mixtures, plumbing and wrangling the local wildlife. Indeed this laundry list of mechanics is likely what will turn many newcomers like myself off it as it can be quite intimidating to get into them, especially with the tutorial really only showing you the basics before leaving you to figure everything else out.

That being said making a self sufficient colony isn’t particularly difficult, especially in the starter biome which is particularly friendly to your duplicants. Of course a colony like that isn’t really going to be doing a whole lot of much and so you’ll often turn your eyes toward new and shiny technology that you want to implement. This will mean that you’ll need to begin venturing outside the confines of your safe haven which is where things can start to get really tricky. Indeed the first lesson you’re likely to learn is that whilst it’s important to make sure all needs are met you also need to do that in an efficient way otherwise you’re going to struggle even harder as your base expands. So, if you’re like me, your first few colonies will likely get trashed and you’ll start anew rather than trying to fix a mess you created for yourself.

From there is when things start to get really complicated as your base’s needs grow and the means to meet them becomes ever more challenging. To be sure some of the complexities came from my own desires to do things that I didn’t totally understand how to go about but I lay a good part of the blame for that on the game itself. For instance I tried my hand many times at growing pincha peppers and try as I might I could never get the environment just right for them to properly grow. So I Googled my heart out and figured out how I could best approach the problem but even then it was a long hard slog just to do something a simple as growing a plant. This of course then extends into every aspect of the game as everything beyond the basics has requirements that can’t be met simply, often requiring a long chain of things to work properly for you to get your desired outcome.

That’s where the mental load of this game got to be too much for me as whilst small to medium bases were easy enough to manage once they got over a certain size the wheels starting coming off quickly. Often I’d set a task and then it wouldn’t get done due to some other requirement I hadn’t noticed which would then have a cascade effect on other things down the chain. Troubleshooting these long complex chains of behaviour becomes incredibly taxing, especially when you then have to go back to basics to fix certain things only then to forget what you were trying to do in the first place. I’m sure there’s numerous strategies to combat this but in the time I spent with Oxygen Not Included I didn’t stumble across any, nor did I really feel the inclination to after a certain point.

I’m sure for players who’ve been with the game since the start of its Early Access days these mechanics aren’t really that hard to manage or understand but for me it made playing the game a chore after a while. As my previous reviews of other games in this genre will attest to I usually enjoy these kinds of city building games but I like the complexity to be at a manageable level. If I have to spend a good portion of my time debugging a long chain of events in an automated system to figure out the problem I’m quite likely to get bored and simply give up rather than keep playing once I find the solution. In fairness to the game I’m probably not the ideal player for them either as a game who’s influences include Dwarf Fortress is likely to have a very specific niche in mind.

To be sure I can see why the game has the appeal it does and it’s pretty much the same for every game like it: the emergent storytelling. Looking at the screenshot above you can likely guess there’s a pretty funny story as to why one of my duplicants ended up drowning in a vat of urine. So my polluted water storage area was going to overflow so I tasked the duplicants with building out larger bottom for it which we’d flood and then block up the side once completed. The duplicant, of course, happily followed orders and then built himself a prison which he then filled with polluted water by unplugging the bottom. The first alert I get of this happening? His death note in the top left corner of the screen resulting in the rather darkly hilarious picture you see above.

Oxygen Not Included is a deceptively complex base building game that, if it was your kind of thing, is likely already in your Steam library. For those who enjoy building vastly complex simulations that take into account numerous variables Oxygen Not Included will provide endless hours of fun. For players like me though the complexity is a bit too much to overcome, making playing a real chore past a certain base size. Perhaps if I had more time on my hands like I used to I’d find the charm in Oxygen Not Included but today, even after putting a good 6 hours into it, I couldn’t find much else to keep me coming back.

Rating: 7.0/10

Oxygen Not Included is available on the PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 6 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.