Monthly Archives: April 2020

Bright Memory: Proof of Concept.

The level of content coming out of one person studios these days is frankly astounding. Part of that is definitely due to the great level of community developed IP available for anyone on their engine of choice as well as the host of ancillary tools and assets available that can make some challenging tasks trivial. I’m also a fan of short concept games that are then used to garner interest from the general public or from publishers as they’re much, much better than a short Kickstarter video which always writes more cheques than the developer could ever cash. Bright Memory is the latest one-person studio wonder to hit Steam and whilst there’s only a morsel of a game here what’s there is good and worthy of being developed further.

The game opens with a rapid fire of what I assume are relevant plot details but they’re largely forgotten in the unrelenting combat that begins pretty much immediately. The best way to describe it would be Bulletstorm meets a JRPG (I’d say Devil May Cry but I’ve never actually played it, just seen a few vids). Whilst the mainstay is the gunplay there’s a trove of abilities to go along with it, all the while you have a points meter ticking over up in the right hand corner, grading you on your every move. You’ve also got something resembling a talent tree powered by XP that drops from all the enemies you defeat. Honestly even taking into consideration the game’s short length the amount of stuff crammed in here is pretty darn impressive.

The combat is ridiculously fast paced and thoroughly enjoyable. From memory there’s only 2 guns to choose from: your standard assault rifle and a somewhat disappointing shotgun. You also seemingly have a limited ammo supply with no drops in sight but even if you miss every second shot I doubt you’d run dry. The guns seem pretty effective although there’s a couple types of enemies which don’t seem to really react to the numerous bullets you put into them which is why, of course, you have your magical abilities to fall back on.

The abilities follow the standard RPG tropes pretty closely, giving you all the kinds of choices that wouldn’t be out of place for a caster class in another game. None of them drastically change how combat encounters play out but there’s a couple of them that will make your life easier at some points (like the giant dome of slashy things that basically levels all the low level enemies for you). The combination with the gunplay makes for a great experience, even if it’s not exactly an original concept. Being fair of course though games that have done a similar kind of FPS/RPG hybrid like this have usually had a few more developers on the books.

Of course there’s a ton of rough edges but they’re mostly forgivable. Enemies can get themselves stuck in all manner of places which can make for a rather frustrating time as you try and track them down so you can trigger the next section to open up for you. The double jump is a bit finicky in its implementation which isn’t a problem for most of the game but when it’s part of a platforming puzzle it does become a little frustrating. There’s also some really wooden animation, not to mention the fact the dev apparently nicked a bunch of models from other games to bolster his game a little more. All these are sins that can either be fixed or made up for when they start working on the full game, something which they should be able to do given the’ve sold almost 200,000 copies of it.

When all is said and done Bright Memory is mostly just a testament to how far one person can go these days when they’ve got an idea and time to see it realised. There’s nothing particularly novel or new here but the game’s short play time manages to demonstrate the majority of core mechanics that we’ve come to expect from AAA developers. The experience could use a couple layers of polish and a fleshing out of the core ideas the dev wants to explore to make this concept really shine but honestly, at this point, I think it’s probably done its job. Should you buy it though? That I’m less sure of as at this point it’s really only for those who’ve bought into the concept in one way or another. If you’re looking for the next game to really sink your teeth into this isn’t it but hey, if you’ve got a few dollars and 30 minutes to kill well there isn’t much else out there at the moment.

Rating: 8.0/10

Bright Memory is available on iOS and PC right now for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 37 minutes play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

LOST EMBER: The Sins We Carry With Us.

If you’ve been reading my game reviews for any length of time it’s probably quite clear that I have a few…types that I like. Of course there’s the usual mix of must-play AAA’s and the long running franchises that I’ve become a fan of but mixed in between all that is a subset of games that I’ll dub review-bait. Basically any indie/small studio title that’s pretty looking, has a good narrative or is experimental in some way is likely to catch my eye. LOST EMBER fits into that subset perfectly and was on my to-play list last year but I just never got around to giving it a go. It seems I wasn’t missing out on too much as whilst it’s a competent game in many respects the overall experience is decidedly middle of the road; the sum of its parts not being anything greater than its whole.

The people of the Inrahsi believe that those who follow their religion faithfully are rewarded with entry to the City of Life upon their deaths. For those that stray from the path however they’re cast back down into the world as beasts, forced to roam the world once again. You are Wolf, a beast of this world who appears to have the uncanny ability to see the spirits of the Inrahsi people and to possess all other animals in this world. You’re approached by a wayward spirit who’s become lost on his way to the City of Light and seeks out your help. What follows is a journey through the memory of the world that you live in and the spirit’s journey to the life hereafter.

The hallmarks of the Unreal 4 engine are all over Lost Ember from the various particle and lighting effects to just that overall “feel” you get from Unreal games that don’t muck with the underlying engine code too much. Lost Ember is at its best when you’re playing in the wide open spaces, able to soak in the seemingly endless vistas in front of you. That facade disappears quickly when you get up close to anything however where the lack of detail in both the modelling and the textures becomes readily apparent. Some of this can be explained away by artistic choices but in reality it’s more an artefact of trying to make large environments without spending an inordinate amount of time populating in the detail (something indie/kickstarter funded devs rarely have the opportunity to do). Worse still it’s clear that a lot of the animal is hand done with a lot of the animals seeming stiff or incredibly unrealistic in their motion. Lost Ember certainly has its moments, as my screenshot directory will attest to, but it’s very middle of the road when all is said and done.

Lost Ember is effectively a walking simulator, not really requiring much from the player in order to progress to the next section. There are some levels which will require you to possess a certain animal in order to progress but every time that animal will be right there next to the puzzle, making the challenge of figuring out what to do rather moot. There is an exploration aspect to it as well with a bunch of collectibles and “legendary” animals to find but apart from getting an achievement or two there’s really no reason to track them down. Checking out its Kickstarter page it’s clear that the gameplay was supposed to be mostly second to the narrative but what they’ve delivered here is pretty far from that original vision.

The exploration, for instance, is absolutely not worth your time at all. The collectibles are either “artefacts” which are random things that are partially related to the memory that you’ve just seen/about to see but they don’t include more than a sentence or two about them. For instance one item, which would be pretty central to one of the main characters, is given a single sentence simply restating what was said in one of the memories. At the very least the collectibles should give you something you can’t get elsewhere to make seeking them out worthwhile. Collecting the mushrooms is 100% pointless as far as I can see as the game doesn’t give you an indication of whether or not anything will happen should you collect all of them. Finally the “legendary” animals are simply glowing versions of the ones you already had access to, giving no benefits or deeper insights into the story.

The game also could use a couple layers of polish as there’s some unrefined edges that make themselves apparent far too often. The controls feel mushy and unwieldy most of the time making it rather annoying to control the majority of the animals. This is exacerbated by the camera which gets a real mind of its own in certain places and will routinely clip through the level, especially in tunnels or when you’re underground. The platforming controls are also incredibly wonky, often taking several attempts to get them to register what you’re trying to accomplish. Many animals will also get stuck in animations for seemingly no reason at all, some will even get stuck in animations that seemingly affect your input keys as well. The levels are also not 100% vetted as there’s numerous places where you can get yourself into a situation which you can’t get out of (save for hitting a checkpoint). All of these issues are fixable of course but we’re 5 months post-launch now so I can’t say my confidence is high to see them remediated anytime soon.

The main issue I have with Lost Ember’s narrative is that it’s all delivered via endless exposition from your spirit companion and the various cutscenes. The Kickstarter page billed it as a joint exploration that led to a deep bond between you both but in reality all it boils down to is your spirit telling you what you’re seeing. You, as the Wolf, have absolutely zero to do with anything that the story is putting forward and the relationship you have with the spirit is really only skin deep. Now to be fair there are some emotional moments later in the game but they don’t feel like they’ve been earnt, instead relying on cheap narrative tricks to make you care about the characters put forward in the game. All said and done it’s a very mediocre story, made all the worse by the fact that the overall game experience does nothing to add to it.

Lost Ember certainly started out with all the best intentions but it’s lack of polish, uninteresting core game loop and mediocre story make for a rather lackluster experience. On the surface it has all the elements of something that I’d thoroughly enjoy: pretty (even if simplistic) visuals, light gameplay mechanics and a focus on storytelling. But whilst all those elements are there none of them are interlinked with each other, nor is any one of them a standout in its own regard. To sum it all up: Lost Ember is neither good nor bad, it’s just rather forgettable. Fixing up some of the core gameplay issues would push it more towards the good end of things but there’s some serious rework needed if it could ever be considered great.

Rating: 6.0/10

Lost Ember is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.9 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Kentucky Route Zero: Everything Changed When the Power Company Showed Up.

You know how there’s always a few games or a series you missed when it came out and just never got around to playing? One of them for me was Kentucky Route Zero as ostensibly it’s right up my wheelhouse: indie, story heavy adventure with a bent for the experimental. Heck I even had a friend of mine recommend it to me when it first came out but still I just let it slip by. Then as the years rolled on I kept hearing about it, learning that it was an episodic adventure that’d be released over the course of many years. So I resolved myself to play it end to end when it finally finished and it just so happened that the final episode was released this year. Imagine my surprise too when I found out that I already owned it, picking it up over 4 years ago. What’s followed over the last week has been an incredible journey, witnessing nearly a decade of work and experimentation unfold before me.

If I’m honest though, I’m glad I waited.

Conway, a truck driver, works as a delivery man for an antique shop owned by a woman named Lysette. Being hired to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, Conway travels the roads around Interstate 65 in Kentucky to locate the address, accompanied by his dog, Blue. After searching around, Conway elaborates that he is lost and stops off by a gas station, Equus Oils. It’s here where your surreal journey into this slice of the rust belt begins as you try to track down the elusive address which apparently can only be found by taking the road that can’t be mapped, the Zero.

So much of the recent indie fare I’ve played has utilised similar low poly stylins and if I’m completely honest I had a hard time seeing where they would’ve drawn the inspiration from. Given that Kentucky Route Zero is nigh on a decade old (and extremely popular in the indie/experimental game scene) I feel somewhat confident in saying it’s likely that it is the one who popularised this art style. There are some trademarks that are unique to it though, things like the low poly foliage that appears to be 2D or the slow fade to black of the background as you dive deeper into a text block. Backing all this is some solid foley work and an absolutely stunning soundtrack, the highlight of which is each of the act’s bluegrass standards performed by one of the developer’s bands, the Bedquilt Ramblers.

Kentucky Route Zero fits firmly within the point-and-click adventure genre although most of the usual mechanics (like inventory management) aren’t present. Instead the game is more of a wandering adventure, inviting you to explore around, see what’s what, and carve out your own path through the game’s surprisingly large world. Whilst most of the traditional mechanics aren’t present there are numerous progression blocking puzzles that you’ll need to solve although, thankfully, they are all self contained. Each of the acts has its own…theme so to speak, constructed in such a way to change how you interact with it and, by extension, how you view the story. Played as they came out it certainly would’ve been quite the whirlwind of different styles but played through from start to finish the various elements actually blend together rather well.

The adventure game elements are pretty basic, verging on walking simulator territory given that there’s not a whole lot of puzzles to solve. However there’s exploration aplenty to be had, both in terms of actual exploration around the map (in the many forms that it takes) and through the various dialogue choices that the game presents to you. This does then beg the question of whether or not the exploration is worth it and the answer is: well it depends. At a nuts and bolts level most of the exploration you’ll undertake will build out the world first and, only if you’re lucky, give you a little more insight into the characters. However herein lies the rub for pretty much everything that goes on in Kentucky Route Zero: none of it really matters.

The game has an inordinate amount of dialogue choices for you to pick through however I’m 99% sure, bar for a few choice sections, your choices have basically no impact on how the story plays out. There are various dialogue options which are obviously in direct contrast to each other but often they’re backstory elements or other things which don’t really matter to the core narrative per se but, in a larger sense, are part of the who the characters are to you in the story. For instance the dog that accompanies you for much of the game could either be your loving pet which you confide in regularly or simply that mangy mutt you keep around for whatever reason. Does that change how the story plays out? Not in the slightest but it does change what you think about that character, how they interact with others and ultimately the kind of person you want them to be.

Digging more into the construction of the narrative it’s interesting to try and figure out which parts are allegorical and which parts are true to the world. Obviously quite a lot of the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero is surreal however the game bills itself as being “magical realist” which would then lead you to believe that much of what you’re seeing is 100% true to (this world’s) life. Much like the game’s namesake trying to figure this out is likely to lead you in circles which, I gather, is pretty much the point of the whole thing. I can’t say much more before I dive into spoiler territory but suffice to say the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero has a lot to pick through no matter which way you look at it.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

With the benefit of only just finished my full playthrough a couple days ago, completed mostly in single chapter per night stints, I went through a lot of different emotions over the course of the game. The initial chapter hooked me into the concept, giving me just enough to want to see where things led from there. The second, with its proper introduction and implementation of the Zero route, piqued my interest further. However Act 3 (and to a lesser extent, the last few sections of Act 4) began to drag somewhat, the game dwelling a little too long on some of the more esoteric narrative concepts that I simply didn’t find that interesting. However Act 5 brought everything back home, giving the game the emotional climax that I think many had been seeking but may not have appreciated the brevity in which it was delivered.

Though had I played this before it was completed I don’t think I would feel the same way I do now. Back in the day episodic content was all the rage to keep players coming back time after time, but it’s fallen out of fashion lately and for good reason. Many gamers, myself included, simply don’t come back around when the content is drip fed to us over a long period of time. Played all the way through Kentucky Route Zero feels like a masterpiece, an experience that’s been carefully crafted to elucidate a particular feeling. Played over the better part of a decade? I would’ve forgotten character’s names, the reasons they were there and all sorts of other things that made Kentucky Route Zero as enjoyable as it was. I know this opinion will run contrary to most who’ve enjoyed every morsel they’ve been able to savour but I know myself, and I’m glad I didn’t cave into it beforehand.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Kentucky Route Zero is an exceptional storytelling experiment in the medium of games. The craftsmanship is absolutely top notch and played as an entire experience it’s amazing to see their progress as developers over the over 10 year journey it took to bring this vision to life. It may be a little simplistic and slow for some but for those of us who relish the opportunity to play something truly different to the norm there’s not many other titles that can be thrown in the same basket as this one. If you are like me and have snoozed on Kentucky Route Zero for all these years then I’m glad to say that now is the time to get into it, you won’t regret it.

Rating: 9/10

Kentucky Route Zero is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $35.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours play time and 54% of the achievements unlocked.

DOOM Eternal: The Only Thing They Fear is You.

This blog is basically just my gaming journal at this point but that serves an important purpose for me: capturing what I felt about a game at a particular time. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about a game many years after I’ve played it, figured I had kept the same opinion about it only to then go back to the blog post I wrote to see how differently I actually felt. This has taught me an important lesson about a lot of things, chief among them is that time brings with it new experiences, opinions and it tends to colour our past with its own brush.

I tell you this as with DOOM Eternal, as it has been with many games and genres of late, I felt that I had drifted away from the intense action that I seemingly loved in the original DOOM in 2016. Talking to my mates about it they were all loving it, whilst I was struggling to really find something to enjoy. That changed over the course of my playthrough but even after finishing the game I feel like something fundamental has shifted in my tastes over the past few years and I don’t find myself agreeing with my opinions of the past.

DOOM Eternal takes place 8 months after the original and Earth has been overrun by demonic forces, wiping out two thirds of the planet’s population. What remains of humanity has either fled Earth or have banded together as part of ARC, a resistance movement formed to stop the invasion, but they have all gone into hiding after suffering heavy losses. The Doom Slayer, having previously been betrayed and teleported away by Dr. Samuel Hayden, returns with a satellite fortress controlled by the AI VEGA to quell the demonic invasion by killing the Hell Priests. These priests serve an angelic being known as the Khan Maykr who seeks to sacrifice mankind in order to save her own world from destruction. So continues the saga of a man too angry to die, hellbent on saving humanity no matter the cost.

This DOOM, like many before it, brings with it an update to the id Tech engine, taking it up to version 7. The list of improvements in brings in are mostly focused on the backend for the most part although it does claim to bring with it 10 times more geometric detail and higher texture fidelity than when compared to the previous engine’s iteration. Comparing some of my screenshots against each other the differences are pretty hard to spot, save for things that honestly could just be down to aesthetic choice. The addition of “destructible demons” is definitely noticeable although it’s honestly a bit of a gimmick considering you’re not going to be spending long looking at them. To id’s credit the game runs perfectly well on my now aging hardware, something I didn’t really expect without having to make a few tweaks to it. I’m sure there’d be a more stark contrast between the games if I’d upgraded my rig in the interim. All this being said DOOM Eternal is still a very good looking game, especially some of the later levels like Urdak.

At a fundamental level DOOM Eternal is very similar to its predecessor, copying and pasting all the core elements that made the original as good as it was. The progression system has been revamped significantly though, breaking up various elements into their own systems most of which can be progressed through simply playing the game and doing the usual hunt for secrets. There’s definitely been an investment in quality of life improvements to take the edge of the original’s more frustrating elements, making overall progression a bit more predictable. All this being said that if you liked the original then you’re probably going to like this one as well, that is unless you’re like me.

Fundamentally I think keeping the same combat loop was probably a good thing as it shook up the established formula enough to make things interesting and that hasn’t really changed in the interim. I couldn’t tell you of any other games that have tried to emulate DOOM’s style with most corridor shooters instead keeping true to their namesake. So DOOM Eternal then still feels like a fresh perspective even though it isn’t given that everyone else has stuck true to their roots. However for me I think there’s one key element that made the first 30% or so of my playthrough not as enjoyable as I would’ve liked it to be.

That would be the game’s unrelenting intensity.

I remarked in my review of DOOM 2016 that I couldn’t really play for more than one level at a time due to how exhausting it was to play and nothing has changed in that regard. My first few hours with DOOM Eternal were split between multiple sittings because I was mentally exhausted at the end of them and I didn’t really feel like putting myself through another level until I’d had some time doing other, less intense activities. Perhaps it’s an artefact of the times we’re living in now as it’s far more common for me to be mentally exhausted at the end of the day, what with all the video conferences and calls I have to be on given that we’re now all working remotely. Whatever it was this meant that I struggled to a) spend time with the game which meant that b) I just couldn’t find much about it to like.

This steadily changed as I was able to progress a little more and gain a few more upgrades, things that didn’t make the game that much easier but did make me feel like I had more options available to make up for any mistakes I might make. This got me through the middle third of the game pretty easily and for a good while I figured it was just that I wasn’t used to the real challenge that DOOM Eternal was throwing up when compared to other FPS titles of recent memory. However after a while the addition of certain enemy types (like the Marauder and Doom hunter) and the extended fights which were just more waves of the same enemies made the game a right chore to churn through. The final boss is probably the best example of this, effectively making you repeat the same bullet sponge fight twice over.

This was made all the worse by the fact that the various progression mechanics don’t feel as effective towards the game’s latter points. Half of the suit upgrades are effectively just quality of life improvements and once you’ve settled on a decent rune combo you likely won’t be changing it at all for the rest of the game. The weapon mastery upgrades are also pretty lacklustre, the initial upgrade points necessary to offset the downsides of the particular mod and the mastery usually just making things a little more convenient to use. At a base level there’s really no way to increase a gun’s overall effectiveness, meaning that every enemy is basically as challenging from the first time you meet it until the last. I get why that’s done from a game design and challenge perspective, but it would’ve been nice to be able to more easily deal with trash monsters rather than them being an continuing annoyance throughout the game.

There were no noticeable bugs or glitches in my playthrough, even in the few times where I was trying to deliberately break things in order to cheese my way through a section. I do have some qualms with some design decisions made about certain interactions (like not being able to dash past certain enemies or terrain of a particular height) but those are obviously intentional so I don’t really count them as a bug. The id Tech 7’s focus on simplifying the codebase seems to be paying off in spades here as I remember the original DOOM needing a little more polish than Eternal does.

Now the story is, to be blunt, completely opaque should you not spend an untold number of hours reading through all the in-game lore pickups. To start off with it’s not made clear at all how you ended up hovering over earth in a spaceship that’s built like a castle and it’s even less clear as to why (or how) the demons are invading earth. To be sure your character’s motivations are made clear enough but there’s no reference I can recall to the 8 month gap between the end of DOOM and the start of Eternal. Towards the end of the game they do a better job of revealing the game’s plot elements without resorting to walls of text but it’s honestly too little too late. Of course you don’t need to understand the story to enjoy the game but it certainly doesn’t help if the game’s narrative is actually detracting from what’s happening on screen.

This puts me in a bit of an odd spot with DOOM Eternal. On the one hand there’s dozens of improvements made to the original DOOM that I think are for the better and the core elements that made it great are still there. On the other though I really struggled to enjoy a good chunk of this game which made those improvements feel less innovative than they really are. Even looking at reviews things are mixed with no real agreeance as to whether or not DOOM Eternal is as good, better or worse than its original. For me I’m definitely in the worse camp, but the things that made that experience worse for me are the same things that I thought were great all those years ago. So honestly I don’t know and all I can really say is that those who enjoyed the original seem enjoy this one too. Objectively I think it has all the hallmarks of a great title, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as the review score might indicate.

Rating: 8.0/10

DOOM Eternal is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $99.95. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours of total play time.