Monthly Archives: February 2020

Speaking Simulator: GREETINGS, FELLOW HUMAN.

You really have to marvel at the thought process of developers who make games in the frustration genre. I’m sure a healthy portion of it is done “for the memes” as kids say these days but at the same time you need to figure out how you’re going to make something that’s a) funny, b) somewhat approachable so people just don’t give up on it straight away and c) actually masterable in some way so the streamers have a goal to shoot for. I’ve seen many, many games that meet 2 out of 3 of those criteria crop up in the Steam store and you’ll likely never hear of them because they’re missing one of those 3 key pieces. Speaking Simulator manages to tick all those boxes, managing to keep the comedy up the entire time whilst also giving you the impression that, should you try hard enough, you could very well 100% every one of the levels.

Not that I’d want to though, of course.

You are our representation in the human world however we’re not ready yet to conquer them so you must blend in. We’ve discovered that humans communicate by wagging their tongue and flapping their lips so you too will do this in order to convince them that you are DEFINITELY NOT A ROBOT. Unfortunately, there were some corners cut on your safety features. If you make errors your systems will overload and your AI will be forced to relieve pressure by triggering one of the various array of facial explosions and mechanical glitches. Since you are a perfect AI however this should not happen and we shall conquer the humans in no time at all.

Speaking Simulator has that distinct default Unity game feel to it with a healthy dose of b-game styled art thrown in for good measure. All of the visual effort has gone into your face, with good reason as it’ll be the thing you’ll be starting at for most of this game. Everything else in the game is very bare bones with minimal animations or work on the background environments. Of course you’re never really playing these kinds of games for the visuals and what Affable Games has done here fits in with the overall theme of this particular genre.

There is a core of frustration game in Speaking Simulator (mostly related to the tongue mechanics) however it’s more akin to something like Bop It! or Whack-a-Mole as you’re constantly tweaking a bunch of different things in order to say the next word. It starts off with you just needing to click buttons with your tongue (which is very hit and miss) and moving your mouth around. However from there you’ll unlock your eyes, eyebrows and whether your expression is happy/sad/neutral. You’ve got about 8 seconds to say each word and should you not manage to say something in time or, should you miss a cue, whatever part of your face you were meant to manipulate will start malfunctioning. This only serves to make it even more challenging as you might not be able to be sure if you’ve moved everything into the right position, triggering even more chaotic facial expressions.

At the start it’s actually pretty fun and not particularly challenging. It’s even pretty fun to mess up a couple times just to see what will happen, although sometimes the consequences can be rather annoying (nothing like continuous lip smacking to set the mood, amiright?!). However it quickly becomes quite the challenge, so much so that I ended up only playing a mission or two most times because it was just such a mentally exhausting experience to manage all the different mechanics. It is pretty rewarding though when you manage to pull off a couple words in a row quickly but that quickly wears off as you have to adjust a dozen things just to get the next one out.

This is definitely a game that could heavily benefit from multiplayer. Whilst you could kinda do it now (one person on the tongue and the other on…well all other bits of the face) I think there’s a great party game hiding in here for up to 5 people, each one controlling a different aspect of your robots face. I’m not sure if that’s something that’s on the dev’s TO-DO list but I know a couple of my friends would love to give this thing a crack if that option was ever made available.

With these kinds of games it’s always hard to tell what’s something that’s in need of patching/fixing/polish and what’s been deliberately left like that as part of the game experience. There’s definitely a little more work to be done on some of the UI elements as they tend to blend into the background a bit, making it hard to know what you need to do next. There’s also a log ticking over in the top right hand corner but you’ll barely ever notice it, which can lead to you not being completely sure if you’ve actually completed a move or not. Having the text from there pop in saying “perfect!” or “good!” or something DDR like would go a long way. I could complain about the lack of precision in some things but honestly that cuts both ways as quite often there were times where I got something right when I really had no reason to. Overall it’s pretty much in-line with what you’d expect for a game of this genre.

Speaking Simulator is a great example of what this genre can be: fun and challenging but not in such a way as to deliberately punish the player. The dev team has focused all their efforts on what matters: making a robot face contort and bend in all sorts of whacky ways for our enjoyment. That means that the rest of the game is very basic but that just means you’re clearly focused on the core game play. If you’re just after a lark or are a fan of the frustration game genre then there’s really no going past Speaking Simulator.

Rating: 8.25/10

Speaking Simulator is available on PC right now for $17.50. Total play time was 2.5 hours with 63% of the achievements unlocked.

Greedfall: Good Day. I’m De Sardet, Legate of the Congregation.

Oh my word would you look at that, it’s another RPG from our good friends over at Spiders. If you are unfamiliar with them (although how could you having read every single one of my reviews!) they are a small developer who has aspirations of being the next Bioware but not where near the prestige nor funding to achieve it. Their previous run of games, which are all startlingly similar in their construction, have all been firmly in the B-grade category; having many of the trappings of its AAA brethren but nowhere near the same level of polish, finesse or integration of mechanics that would make it seem somewhat similar. Over the years then I’ve grown to love seeing Spiders releasing things because it means that they’re somehow still making money despite peddling some of the most mediocre titles for years on end. However, and I feel strange for saying this, their latest game Greedfall actually manages to be a half decent game, even if the spectres of its past are still very much visible. So this may be the first time ever that I say I’m actually looking forward to seeing what Spiders comes up with next.

You are De Sardet, legate of the Congregation of Merchants and you’ve been tapped on the shoulder to accompany your cousin to a newly discovered island called Teer Fradee. He’s to be the governor there and it’s your job to assist him in ensuring that the will of the Congregation is executed over there. At the same time you’ve been tasked with trying to find a cure for the terrible sickness that has been plaguing everyone on the content, a disease that has been named the Malichor. Your journey is not simply one of bashing heads and saving those in distress; no instead you’re there to ensure political stability on the island, including finding a way for those of the continent to get along with the natives of the island. That’s going to be something of a challenge considering the number of different factions, all of whom have their own ideas of what this new island should be used for.

The graphics of Greedfall are brought to us by Spiders’ own game engine called Silk which itself was based off the free Sony engine called PhyreEngine. The graphics it delivers though are more akin to the best we’d seen out of the previous generation, although when compared to previous Spiders titles it’s definitely a major step up. Whilst there’s a healthy dose of asset reuse the environments are still more detailed than they ever have been before. They will start to blend into each other after a while as all the forests look pretty much the same as do the towns save for the few custom designed areas that each of them has. Heck even the various governor houses are basically identical save for the texture jobs. There’s also some noticeable differences in the game’s framerate and the physics engine’s rate which is probably most notable in your cape which stutters along rather than flowing like you’d expect. Credit where it’s due though this is a pretty big step up for Spiders and I’m not one to chide someone for making progress.

It seems that after making ostensibly the same game 4 times over Spiders has finally managed to streamline it to the point where they’ve actually managed to make most of the systems work properly. You’re still going to have to choose to main one of three character classes, each of which largely fits into the regular RPG tropes. The multiple different attribute and talent systems make a return although at least this time around there’s a respec facility that gives you the ability to tweak things if you happen to make a wrong decision early on. You’ll still be saddled with AI companions that you have zero control over however and their AI hasn’t really improved much in the years since the Technomancer. Crafting once again makes a return although it suffers from the same problems at it always has. Overall whilst the theme of “put everything in that the AAA guys do” is still very much prevalent in Greedfall at least this time it’s a lot better done making for a game that’s actually kind of fun to play.

Combat is still a very simplistic affair, being mostly focus on you whacking at enemies and dodging their more obvious telegraphed attacks whilst waiting for your abilities to come off cooldown. The game asks you what archetype you want to be at the start and, for a change, I decided to see what being a spellcaster would be like. To their credit this was actually quite a viable build although, unfortunately, it still meant that I’d spend about half of most combat encounters meleeing things as I waited for my mana to regen. However there were also times that I could completely wipe out an entire group with 2 spells, something which I sorely needed to do later in the game when I was over everything and just wanted to complete the story. I still have the feeling that going for the warrior tree might’ve been the smarter move overall as it seems all the good weapons and armor require you to invest in points that that tree makes use of. Having to split my points a bit between things to support my spellcasting whilst also wearing armour that wasn’t total shit was a bit of a pain, although it wasn’t too much of a drag for the last 5 or so hours of my playthrough.

Like most things in Greedfall though the combat gets extremely repetitve after not too long. The enemy variety is very low and doesn’t really change much throughout the game. This unfortunately means that the increased challenge usually comes from the game throwing more of those enemies at you or simply giving them a truckload more health and armour. This turns most fights into drawn out slugfests and with an unfortunate late of variety in spells and skills there’s not much to really keep you interested. To be sure I could’ve easily respecced between any of the 3 trees anytime I wanted to (you’ll pick up more than enough items to cover them all off) but I shouldn’t have to completely up-end my build just to keep things interesting. The games that Greedfall aspires to be (Dragonfall: Origins should I take a wild guess) managed to keep me interested without the need for me to change things up so I definitely feel like it’s a lack of time and/or resources on Spiders’ part here.

Pro-tip: there’s basically no reason to invest any points in crafting as there’s NPCs who can craft everything for you. Not only that but all crafting recipes are available to you right from the get-go so there’s really nothing else for you to do but to go and find the required mats. This is made incredibly easy by the fact that every time you travel you have to camp, which also brings with it a vendor who always has every crafting item in stock. It’s probably still worth picking up various mats along the way as you’ll sometimes need to craft something or use them to complete a quest but other than that you’re going to end up with a bunch of materials that you’re not going to have any use for. Thankfully they don’t weigh particularly much so you can still indulge in your packrat ways if you so wish. Once I’d found a good set of unique armour and an associated weapon I maxed out crafting to upgrade everything to the fullest and then respecced into something more useful right away. I think I ended up using that setup for over half the game.

Progression is a muddled affair as you’ll get skill points every level (and can even find “skill shrines” that give you additional points) but will only get attribute and talent points every so often. This means that if you find a sweet piece of armour that needs endurance 2 it’s not going to be 2 levels to use it, no more like 5+. Whilst this does mean that the early game is a bit of a balancing act to get the most out of the loot you have it ends up being a pretty big source of frustration later in the game. This is most apparent when all the good loot requires the higher tiers of attributes unlocked or not having a particular skill (like say vigor) levelled up enough means taking the very long way around something. Of course I totally get the idea that this is meant to make you specialise in something but given the loot isn’t particularly diverse it kind of means that non-warrior builds are less viable than their melee focused counter-parts. This is honestly par for the course with Spiders games though so I really shouldn’t be surprised.

There have been some major quality of life improvements over previous Spiders games like, finally, a fast travel system. Unfortunately this is tied up with a completely unnecessary (but mandatory) “camp” intermediate level which basically means you’ll always see 2 load screens unless you’re travelling within a current map. It would be so, so much better if you had the choice of camping or not as later in the game there’s really not a lot of reason to spend any time at camp. Other improvements include item comparison, so you can see if what you’re looking at is an upgrade, a useable map and a UI that isn’t complete garbage. It’s still probably about 5+ years behind what I’d call AAA but at the very least we’re streets ahead of what I’ve come to expect from this developer.

Of course the game is still riddled with issues, some of which may be due to their continued use of the Silk engine or perhaps just straight up lack of polish. Pathing is a major issue and you’ll routinely get cornered or stuck by NPCs or your companions alike although they’ll usually figure out you’re trying to get past them after a 30 seconds or so. There are missions in the game that are obviously related to each other but haven’t had alternative voice lines recorded from them so you’ll often have your character experiencing weird bouts of amnesia about things that they really should know about. Whilst the level of the jank in the combat is certainly decreased the same issues in Spiders’ previous games still exist, like spells or melee hits just straight up not connecting for no reason at all and enemies straight up ignoring terrain to get at you. A lot of these things can be patched out though and hopefully Spiders does invest some time between this game and the next on improving the overall experience.

The story is passable as it’s rather predictable but at least many of the characters are given time to develop and there appears to be a much richer world behind everything than previous Spiders’ games had. Even with that said though there were a good number of characters I was just straight up not interested in talking to, including 2 of the companions that are introduced much later in the game and as such feel like strangers in your tightly knit crew. I will admit that I played for much, much longer than I would have otherwise just because I wanted to see how everything panned out but even that became quite the chore towards the end. Overall it’s a vast improvement but there’s still a lot of room to grow here.

After 7 years of not really improving at all it’s heartening to see signs of life from the Spiders team. Whilst Greedfall is certainly still in B-grade territory it’s very, achingly close to tipping over to into A. There’s still tons of room for improvement here and a “less is more” approach could still help immensely in focusing more on what matters to the core game rather than trying to emulate what others deliver in the same kind of experience. Still I hope that the success that Spiders has found with Greedfall either gives them bigger budgets or allows them to attract more top tier talent as it’s clear there’s something going on there, they just need the right guidance and resources to make something truly AAA worthy.

Rating: 7.0/10

Greedfall is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and XboxOne right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.

Control: Welcome, Director.

Ever since I started keeping a list of games I’d like to review (some 6 years now) it’s become clear to me just how many I don’t get around to playing. Still I try to make time for the ones that everyone seems to enjoy or have seen wide critical acclaim. Which is why I went back to play Control as it has managed to snag many Game of the Year awards and nominations from many of the top game reviews websites. My opinion differs significantly to those as whilst I think Control is a very competent and novel game it’s far from game of the year material. Perhaps the most grievous sin it commits is to follow in the footsteps of the many Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft open world titles that came before it, introducing the concept of grind into a single player game. Combine that with a game that’s still needing some polish 5+ months after its release and I really have to wonder why so many think Control is a better game than the numerous other contenders for the 2019 release year.

You are Jesse Faden and have arrived at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a place called the Oldest House. However upon your arrival you find it practically deserted the only person around being an old man called Ahti who appears to be to be bureau’s janitor. He then points you towards the director’s office for your interview, commenting that he could really use a new assistant to help him out. Upon arriving in the directors office you find his body, apparently dead from suicide. As you grab his weapon from the table you’re transported to another realm where it becomes clear that there’s much more to the bureau, and the world at large, than you first thought.

Control uses Remedy’s proprietary engine called Northlight which was first used with Quantum Break back in 2016. Back then I commented on how good the game looked but it seems like Control hasn’t really improved much on the visuals that the engine is able to offer. I think a large part of this is the fact that the vast majority of Control takes place in smaller spaces, making the lack of detail in some areas a lot more apparent than they otherwise would be in a more open setting. There also isn’t a great amount of variance in the environments either which makes the blandness stand out even more. This isn’t to say Control is a terrible looking game, more that it’s a half step or so behind what I’d consider to be the norm for a AAA title. No doubt part of it is also my now 5 year old rig which seemed to struggle in some places, even at 1080p, but given I had similar troubles 3 years ago with Quantum Break I have my suspicions that the engine could use a few more optimisations.

Control is a third person shooter/RPG hybrid with a healthy dash of open world elements thrown in for whatever reason. Whilst there’s a main campaign mission to follow there’s dozens of side quests, tasks and other errands for you to run that’ll reward you with varying amounts of resources, crafting materials and, if you’re really lucky a skill point or two. You don’t technically find new weapons instead you craft new forms of the “Service Weapon”, most of which fall into the typical archetypes we’re familiar with (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, etc.). Progression comes in 3 different ways: skill points, weapon mods and personal mods. The former is granted on completion of some, not all missions, and feels like it’s mostly tied to the main missions and a few of the longer side missions. Mods can drop from basically anywhere and are randomly generated, meaning it’s quite possible to pick up a mod with a god like roll that won’t get replaced for some time. This is where the game starts to tend towards endless grind territory as you attempt to seek out the best mods to tweak your preferred build. There’s even endgame level activities if you’re so interested although honestly I can’t really see why you’d bother.

Combat is typically medium paced as pretty much every encounter will have a couple waves of enemies and whilst your ammo and powers are unlimited they’ll need recharging pretty often, slowing down how many bad guys you can dispatch in any one go. After the first couple hours you will have seen basically every enemy archetype there is though and so after then it just becomes a matter of numbers and how many waves get thrown at you for any particular combat encounter. For the most part if you take your time there’s not much in the game that can kill you, especially considering that most encounters you can simply just walk away from and leash the enemies, giving you time for round 2. This makes for an overall combat experience that’s OK but somewhat boring after a while as you’re literally just doing the same fights over and over again.

It probably doesn’t help that the progression in the game is kinda meh for the most part. All of the upgrades you get, apart from the 3 or so new abilities and new weapon forms granted to you over the course of the game, are percentage based stat increases and so don’t feel particularly impactful to how you play the game. To be sure there’s a couple skill upgrades which make can change things a little, but even then not by much. Really the only one I got any kind of use out of was the levitating enemies when their health was low perk and even that was only useful because the enemy bodies were usually bigger than the other bits of crap I could hurl around.

If I was able to stack a ludicrous amount of mods then I could see myself having a lot of fun with some really stupid builds but unfortunately you’re limited to 3 weapon mods (per weapon type) and 3 personal mods. Whilst that makes for a large amount of build variety I don’t feel many of them are particularly viable as you’re going to want a health upgrade and, by consequence, the upgrade that makes the little health thingies that the enemies drop more effective. Either that or waste your valuable skill points on the same things which would limit you to the vanilla base skills. Really I feel like Control could’ve been a lot more fun if they just let you go hog wild with these things and become a complete wrecking ball like many other RPGs do.

Control also suffers from a few issues which at this late juncture I would’ve expected to have been ironed out by now. Switching from the menu to the game triggers a good 3 seconds of single digit frame rates which is a real pain in the ass when you have switch in and out of it all the time to read the various files strewn about the place just so you understand at least the basics of the plot. Since a good chunk of the game is physics based you’ve got the usual emergent behaviour issues that goes along with it, something that becomes readily apparent when you say, walk through a room with stuff strewn everywhere and Jesse seemingly forgets how to walk around or over things. In the grand scheme of things these are minor issues but given this is a AAA title, from a big name house and it’s been out for a while now I figured it should be basically issue free.

The story is interesting enough, being a kind of X-files meets the Twilight Zone kind of deal. The game does go out of its way to be especially obtuse with the various plot elements it introduces you to directly, forcing you to sniff around all the various files to find context and detail that you’ll so desperately need to have any clue about what’s going on. The main character’s inner dialogue also started to grate on me after a while as I didn’t feel like it added much and almost felt like a remnant of a choice system that was implemented and then scrapped halfway through the game’s development. If anything it’s reflective of the game as a whole: well built but just lacking that hook to really get me to buy in to the whole thing.

Control is a well constructed game that’ll tick a lot of boxes for many people but seems to lack that certain something to bind everything together to make the concept really sing. Indeed all of the individual elements are good to begin with but fail to evolve or improve over time. So the experience you get at the start feels largely the same as the one you have at the end which, for 10 hours invested, does make you question why you’d bother in the first place. I’m sure there’s some out there with dozens more hours invested in the game’s various end game and open world activities but, for me, I just couldn’t get invested enough to want to keep playing. Just goes to show that what makes something game of the year material will be different for everyone and, for me, it seems that I simply can’t find what others see in Control.

Rating: 7.75/10

Control is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time.

The White Door: At a Loss.

The journey through mental illness is a deeply personal one, intertwined with the life events that lead to the eventual manifestation of symptoms that we label depression, anxiety and so on. I think that’s why exploring these themes in games is often done in a highly allegorical way that, on the surface, appears to be completely disconnected from what the stereotypical experience of these health conditions are. In that sense whilst games like The White Door would in one view be seen as a surrealistic exploration of the grieving and trauma process it could very well be exactly what it was like for someone to go through it. In terms of an actual game it’s definitely not bad and likely best enjoyed on your mobile platform of choice over many, small sessions.

Your character, Robert Hill, wakes up in a Mental Health facility and suffers from severe memory loss. The facility enforces a strict routine to help patients remember their past and what led up to them being there. Scattered throughout the room are remnants of your past, little details that’ll help jog your memory and, hopefully, bring about some resolution to the troubles of your past.

The White Door splits your screen down the middle, the one on the left being a kind of interactive map whilst the one on the right being what your character is currently focused on. That, combined with the simplistic graphics consisting of mostly bold outlines and limited coloured panels, gives The White Door a comic book like aesthetic. The use of colour (and the lack thereof) is one of the game’s primary storytelling mechanics, highlighting the difference between the past and the present, the times of emotions and feeling and the times of emptiness and thoughtlessness.

Mechanically the game is pretty simple, requiring you to go through the day’s routine step by step so you can progress to the next day. Whilst there’s no tutorial to speak of the game does guide you in the right direction should it see that you’re taking quite some time to finish a particular puzzle. That being said there were a few times I had to consult a walkthrough guide as I just couldn’t figure out exactly what the game was driving at. Still the game’s logic is consistent enough that once you’ve figured it out for the first time the deviations from there on out are relatively easy to understand.

The story, at its core, is a simple one although the heavy use of surrealism does lead you to question just exactly what is real and what isn’t. There are some parts of the narrative that are obviously completely disconnected from reality but making the connection back to real world events isn’t really possible since you don’t have much of a reference point. To be sure, as I alluded to in my opening remarks, some of these things are certainly allegorical elements reflecting a personal experience and are most likely representations of feelings more than they were actual events. Suffice to say it’s interesting even if it does leave you a little dazed and confused throughout.

The White Door is an interesting experiment in surrealistic storytelling, combining various narrative elements together to tell a much larger story than what it’s few words put forward. Its simple mechanics get out of the way for the most part leaving ample room for the story to develop. Apart from that there’s not much more to say about The White Door and, should this short review piqued your interest in it, then it’s likely worth investing the couple hours to explore it yourself.

Rating: 7/10

The White Door is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $5.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 102 minutes play time and 6% of the achievements unlocked.