Review

Gravitas: I’ve Been Waiting so Long For You.

Portal is mostly remembered for its mechanics, and rightly so given how revolutionary they were at the time, but its storytelling was just as influential. Nearly all of the games that seek to capture some of Portal’s mechanical magic will also attempt to put their own spin on the omniscient AI who’s running you through experiment after experiment, with or without the added sarticial element. Gravitas, whilst not really innovating or providing anything particularly new from a mechanical perspective, did manage to make its story lighthearted and universally appealing. In this age of endless soulless clones of every popular title it’s somewhat refreshing to see one that’s given some good thought to the kind of experience they wanted to player to have beyond just the simple mechanical level.

Gravitas puts you in control of a mute protagonist who finds themselves on their way to a space station that’s home to the Gallery of Refined Gravity. There you meet the Curator, a small floating robot who’s spent an unknown amount of time building all sorts of puzzles that involve manipulating gravity and he very much wants you to experience them. So begins your journey into the weird and wonderful world of an AI who’s been left to their own devices for far too long.

Developed on the Unreal 4 engine Gravitas’ visual style is pretty basic favouring simple textures, basic lighting elements and uncomplicated level design. It’s certainly not a bad looking game but it does feel like the majority of the assets have come from the Unreal store, which isn’t a bad thing per se, it just makes the game feel somewhat generic. Still I don’t think the main focus was on the mechanics however, with the story elements being much more fleshed out. Overall Gravitas’ graphics aren’t terrible and don’t distract from the experience.

Mechanically Gravitas is your typical platform puzzler that relies on a certain trick mechanic, in this case being the use of a “gravity glove” that allows you put down columns of manipulate gravity that pull things, including yourself, towards them. Puzzles consist of most of the standard tropes for this genre: getting blocks from A to B, moving things around so you can get to the next room or blocking off deadly obstacles so you can pass through. If you’ve played any of the multitude of games in this genre then none of the mechanics will be much of a surprise, or challenge, to you and you’ll likely be able to complete most on the first pass.

However it’s the story and its performance by the voice actors is what makes Gravitas worth playing. Whilst the narrative isn’t anything new it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, striking the right balance between its satirical and sinister parts. It’s also well paced with the only real breaks in the story coming when you’re working your way through the puzzles. Given that most of them can be solved pretty quickly this means the story keeps going on at a steady pace throughout the game’s short play time.

Gravitas is one of those rare short indie games that gets the storytelling right, ensuring that the core gameplay loop doesn’t get in the way unnecessarily. The mechanics are simple and unchallenging, ensuring that you’ll maintain a good pace through the game. It’s short play time works to its advantage too as much longer would see a lot of the comedic elements wear thin and the basic game play would then become more of a chore than anything else. Hopefully the success that Galaxy Shark Studios has found here with its first title will give them the confidence to try something more ambitious next time around.

Rating: 8.0/10

Gravitas is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 51 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.

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.

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.

Sea of Solitude: The Monster in All of Us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

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

BirdGut: The Hatless One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.0/10

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