One of the most critical factors in a game’s success is the ambition driving its creators. It’s not a simple case of more is better however, instead ambition needs to be tempered with the ability to realise it. I’ve often chided developers for reaching beyond their grasp, attempting to emulate others with far better means and ending up harming their game in the process. There have been many great examples, even recently, where a focused vision results in a much better experience. Omensight is one such game where the concise focus on what makes this game unique has produced a well rounded experience.
You are the Harbinger, a mythical warrior who only appears in times of crisis. The land of Urralia is torn by war, and as night falls, you witness its destruction at the hands of a dark God. As the eyes and the sword of Urralia, it is up to you to reverse this fate. All you know is that it started with a mysterious murder of the Godless-Priestess, a deity whose soul is destined to return upon her passing. This time however her soul has failed to return and it is up to you Harbinger to find out why.
Omensight presents a highly stylized cell shaded aesthetic, lavished with bright colours, numerous glow effects and particle systems galore. It may not be a particularly unique art style but it’s certainly one of the better crafted examples I can think of in recent times. The environments are absolutely swimming in detail from the large vistas that show wide cityscapes to the closed in dungeons littered with various miscellania. This is undoubtedly helped by the fixed camera angles, allowing the artists to focus more time on what the player will see and leaving out detail where they won’t. My internal bias initially made me think that it was built on Unity but it is in fact running on the Unreal 4 engine, something which the developer Spearhead Games has some experience with. This, coupled with the low-poly art style, ensures that this will run pretty well on nearly anything you care to throw it at.
Billed as an action-rpg murder mystery Omensight could have easily made the mistake of trying to include far too much but, thankfully, the developers instead chose to focus on a few key mechanics. The combat is reminiscent of the Arkham series, a kind of tempo based beat ’em up style that rewards combos and utilising your environment to pull off flashy fighting moves. Gaining levels is done in the usual way and each of them either grants you a new ability or improves one you already have. The upgrade system allows you to further refine those abilities as well as base things like health, stamina and damage. Whilst there are a few simple puzzles in each of the level the main one is the overarching murder mystery. This takes the form of deciding which one of the main character’s day you want to relive in order to gain more information about the death of the Godless-Priestess. There is, of course, an optimum route but it seems no matter which path you choose you will get closer to your end goal. Overall Omensight might not be the most complex or comprehensive game I’ve played but for the things it does it executes them well.
Combat is a largely enjoyable experience although rarely is it a challenge. Even in the beginning (and on the hard setting no less) most of the enemies can be dispatched pretty easily and since there’s not a lot of them most encounters are over pretty quickly. As you level the difficulty does increase but so do your abilities with some trivialising some encounters. For instance the time warp ability coupled with the speed up from one of your NPC friends can make quick work of basically any group of enemies and even bosses. Considering the amount of replay you have to go through this probably isn’t the worst thing though as there’s nothing less fun than repeating the same encounter a dozen times over, especially if it takes forever to do. One thing that I was never quite clear on though was what counted as being a “flashy fighter” to get the XP bonus at the day end. I had many encounters where I pulled off multiple combos and got nothing, whereas there were other days when I did nothing but left click all day and got it. I’m sure the exact requirements are out there somewhere, but the game never explains it to you.
The platforming in Omensight, whilst not the weakest point of the game, is certainly one of the less great parts of it. Like all 3D platformers there’s a bit of awkwardness when it comes to jumping around which is helped a little bit by the dim shadow showing where your character will land. The real issue though is the fixed camera angles and how they interact with your movement on screen. You see it’s hard to tell just which direction you’ll move in when the camera starts to move on you and sometimes this happens just after you’ve jumped. This leads to some frustrating moments when you’ll try to course correct mid air and end up dying because of it. Similarly it can be hard to control your character along narrow ledges and other obstacles because the camera reoriented (and thus your controls did too), leading you to walk off a ledge when you thought you’d walk along it. Once you know the level layout, and by extension the camera changes, it becomes less of an issue but I’d be lying if it didn’t make the first couple hours of the game a real chore of trial and error.
Progression comes with a nice cadance, ensuring that you’ll either level up or be able to buy an upgrade or two at the end of each day. This also means that if you find yourself struggling for whatever reason you’re never too far off being able to remedy it. Indeed there was one point where I noticed I was taking a ton of damage from certain enemies and all it took to counteract that was a few choice defense upgrades I got after finishing the level. Omensight rewards those who explore the levels, hiding a lot of upgrade currency and XP in chests strewn throughout hidden pathways and passages. It starts to get a little ludicrous towards the end once you have all the seals, giving you enough upgrade points for 3~4 upgrades per run. I didn’t bother trying to max out my character as past a certain point the upgrades are just for convenience sake more than anything else.
Omensight’s greatest weakness however is the repetition of each of the levels. There’s about 5 or so main levels you’ll visit in your travels and you’ll visit each of them multiple times throughout your playthrough. Not much changes between visits: maybe an additional path is unlocked, different dialogue since you’re there with a different NPC or the environment changes slightly, but by and large they’re much the same each time. The game does grant you some small mercies if you’re replaying a day by allowing you to skip to the critical moment but for most of them you’ll have to trudge through the same areas time and time again. I’m all for focusing effort where it will be best utilised, and indeed the environments they have crafted are fantastic, but asset reuse on this scale is something that’s pretty hard to ignore.
The story does make up for this somewhat though with the additional bits of narrative revealed to you on multiple level completions aiding in your understanding of the overarching plot. There are some holes that appear due to the game’s non-linear nature and depending on which paths you choose when some elements will make sense whilst others won’t. It’s slow going at the start where you seem to be treading already well worn ground but it does start to pick up as you’re allowed to change the flow of each days using your Omensight. I could do without the trite revelations (Oh that thing you saw happen, that wasn’t exactly what it was! groan) though, especially considering the major ones are all basically exactly the same. Overall whilst it might not be the most emotionally engaging narrative it’s still enjoyable, even with its flaws.
Omensight executes well on its vision, focusing in on the things that matter to the core game experience. The graphics, level design and combat are all well executed making Omensight a game that’s easy to play for hours on end. It falls down in a few key areas though, namely the extreme reuse of each of the levels and the platforming, both of which significantly hamper the otherwise enjoyable experience. Still for those who, like me, are struggling to find titles worth playing in the yearly AAA draught that plagues us Omensight is a great game to fill the gaps until your next big title fix.
Omensight is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 74% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.
In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.
Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.
The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.
There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.
However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.
It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.
Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.
The last couple months have been a little barren in terms of releases which, whilst it gives me some time to plunder the vast depths of the numerous indie releases, does leave me hungering for a more traditional type of experience. During my usual stumble through the new releases on Steam I happened to come across Bound by Flame, an action RPG that managed to impress me on its trailers alone. However it was hard to miss the rather damning Metacritic review score on the store page that indicated that this title was probably less than stellar. Still the short bits I had seen seemed to indicate that it was worth playing and so I sat myself down to see if I was right.
The world is under siege, a massive army of the undead shambling its way across the land and devastating everything in its path. Each battle with this terrible army, under the command of powerful magic wielders called Ice Lords, only serves to swell their ranks even further. There is not much hope for humanity however a group of scholars called the Red Scribes believes they have a way to turn the tide of the war. You are Vulcan, member of the Free Born Blades, a mercenary group who has been hired by the Red Scribes to protect them while they attempt to complete the ritual. However not everything goes as planned and suddenly you find yourself being far more involved in this conflict than you’d first anticipated.
Visually Bound by Flame has the look that many similar previous gen RPGs did with an extremely muted colour palette and somewhat simplistic looking graphics. The screenshots are a little misleading as on their own they look quite good but once you see everything in motion it becomes apparent what the limitations are. Indeed the whole thing feels like a fantasy version of Mars: War Logs, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s from the same developer, but this means that all the issues that plagued that game are present in Bound by Flame as well. Considering their close release dates I’m assuming that they didn’t have much time to take the lessons learned from their previous title and apply it to this one, which is rather unfortunate considering they seem like a studio who wants to make a decent game.
Bound by Flame is an action RPG at heart, taking the majority of the traditional mechanics and wrapping them up in a real time combat system in order to keep the pace up. All the usual elements you’d expect are there: levels, a skill tree system that you use to get new skills and improve old ones, various perks that can be unlocked, loot galore and a crafting system to augment items you’ll find. There’s a main story quest that will be your main way of progressing forward but there’s also a handful of side quests to do should you feel the need. You’ll also have a variety of party members to choose from, each with their own set of skills and story lines which you can pursue at your leisure.
The combat is reminiscent of Mars: War Logs as you’re just whacking on an enemy until they try to attack, at which point you’ve got to block or somehow get out of the way. Bound by Flame differs through the use of “stances” which are essentially different ways of doing combat. The warrior stance lets you use your 2 handed sword but stops you from being able to quickly dodge attacks. The ranger stance on the other hand is focused on quick attacks but the ability to parry incoming attacks is greatly reduced. Just like any RPG you’d better focus on one or the other as trying to mix the two will likely lead to a sub-par experience. There’s also the pyromancer abilities which are essentially augments to the other two as the game doesn’t seem to have the itemization to support someone being a full time mage.
Unfortunately the wild flails in difficulty that plagued Mars: War Logs remains in Bound by Flame meaning that you’ll likely struggle at the start of a section until you find an upgrade or two at which point the game becomes a breeze again. The bosses are also on a completely different difficulty scale to the rest of the encounters you’ll have meaning you’ll likely blow through most of your stash just to get past them. I understand the need for challenging the player, hell I’ve criticised games for not being able to do this, but the disjoint in difficulty isn’t a challenge to overcome, it’s poor game design. This is made all the more obvious by the final boss fight which is, in all honesty, an absolute travesty as unless you’ve built your character specifically for that fight you’ll likely be unable to do it without sinking an disproportional amount of time into it.
The crafting system seems well thought out on the surface however it only serves to highlight just how little differentiation there is between most items in Bound by Flame. In the beginning you’ll have to carefully choose your upgrades in order to get the maximum benefit however about half way through you’ll be drowning in materials, allowing you to get the best upgrade for each of your items. The game seems to hint at the idea that you should change your gear constantly to fit the situation but even if you do that you’ll still find yourself with more materials than you know what to do with. Honestly if they had a crafting system that let you make weapons and armour I think the amount of materials that drop would be justified. Maybe then I could craft myself a pair of boots (seriously, I had to buy an upgraded pair of boots in the second to last chapter because I never found any).
Bound by Flame is also riddled with bugs and strange quirks that mar the whole experience. I had several occasions where, if I dragged a NPC out of their normal roaming area, the enemies would flit between being invisible and invulnerable to being visible but disinterested in me. Other NPCs would sometimes inexplicably face the walls or get stuck on things which would incapacitate them. This is not to mention your party members AI which is beyond useless most of the time, even when you use the order commands to try and modify their behaviour. Reading over my Mars: War Logs review reveals that many of these issues were present in that game as well, something that Spiders needs to fix lest they be forever labelled as a B grade RPG developer.
I could forgive pretty much all of this if the story was passable however it’s not. The core idea is solid, you’ve got to choose between your humanity and power, but the execution is sorely lacking in character depth, motivation and just general coherency. Hell even the developers themselves can’t get it completely straight as I note several differences between the story on their main site and the one in the game. Worst still are the romances, if you can call them that, as many of them come down to just choosing one right dialog option at one point, rather than actually cultivating any kind of meaningful depth between the characters.
Bound by Flame continues Spiders’ unfortunate history of producing B grade RPGs, seemingly being unable to learn their past mistakes to make their future releases better. It has all the makings of a good RPG, the combat system works most of the time (despite it’s wild changes in difficulty), the levels are meaningful and the crafting system is halfway to being worthwhile. Still the story is well below mediocre and Bound by Flame has numerous glitches and behaviours that do nothing but ruin the experience. I’d love to say I’m looking forward to what they’re doing next but it seems that they have no interest in learning from their mistakes.
Go on Spiders, prove me wrong.
Bound by Flame is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $39.99, $79.95, $89.95 and $79.95 respectively. Total play time was 10 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s been a while since a good stealth game has crossed my path with many of the games that I’ve played recently including stealth as a tacked on aspect that doesn’t add much to the game play at all. Indeed stealth mechanics are notoriously difficult to get just right as it’s quite easy to make it completely ineffective or, by virtue of making the stealth so powerful, nullify other aspects of the game. The Splinter Cell series of games might never have been considered the pinnacle of stealth game play (I think Deus Ex and Thief take the cake there) but they were most assuredly one of the few games that got stealth mechanics right and Blacklist is no exception.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist puts you back in the shoes of Sam Fischer, long time black ops agent who’s regularly tasked with missions that require the utmost discretion. On what seems to be a routine trip out of Andersen Air Base quickly turns south as an unknown assailant lays siege to the entire base, taking down the chopper that Sam and his old friend, Victor Coste, were in. It’s soon revealed that the people behind the attack are calling themselves The Engineers and their goal is nothing short of the USA pulling all their troops out of every foreign country. Should the USA not comply they’ll have 7 days before the next attack will occur, that is unless Fischer can stop them.
Right off the bat Blacklist impresses with its top class visuals, easily surpassing many titles of the same generation. Whilst you’ll be predominately spending most of your time in the dark (should you choose to play that way) there are numerous times when you’ll find yourself gawking at the lush scenery or the incredible amounts of detail in the environments. This plays heavily into the fact that the environment is as much of a weapon against your enemies as your large arsenal is as these detail environments will provide you with dozens of paths and opportunities to complete sections as you see fit. This is only made better by the solid voice acting by all of the characters, adding another level of depth that I honestly wasn’t expecting from Blacklist.
Whilst Blacklist is primarily designed as a stealth action game its essentially 3 different games in one, all of which are available depending on how you want to play it out. Blacklist does encourage you to take the hardest road (fully stealth, don’t kill anyone) by making that the most rewarding path however if you’d prefer to play it a bit quicker by switching to lethal take downs that path is also quite viable. Then, should your inner Call of Duty fan be rattling his cage, you can then switch to full out run and gun mode leaving a trail of destruction in your wake. This path comes with the least rewards however but you’d rarely find yourself wanting should you decide to play it this way.
As a fan of the stealth genre I tried my best to stick to the fully undetected, non-lethal take down approach which is by far the most challenging way to play the game. It takes a little while to get used to the way enemies react to you, figuring out how long you can stay in their line of sight before you’ll be detected, but once you’ve got a feel for it the system provides enough challenge without making it feel like you’re against a race of super soldiers with heightened senses.However you’re more likely to make the game far more challenging if you’re trying to stick to a couple goals (no kill, completely undetected) as one mistake can lead to you needing to use tactics that will go counter to your plan.
Although your job does become a lot easier as you start to unlock better gear, especially when it comes to the tactical goggles on your head. They start off just being your run of the mill night vision goggles but after a couple upgrades they give you see-through-the-wall capability which turns you into a super hero like agent. It’s balanced by the fact that they don’t ping out when you’re moving, so you can get yourself into tight situations if you don’t take the time to stop and look around, but if your aim is to go full stealth then you’re best bet is to drop as much cash as you can into the goggles early and look to upgrading other things later.
If you’re going to take the Panther approach (stealth killing rather than stealth knock outs) then you’re probably better off investing in some of the more powerful weapons so that you can take out enemies more efficiently. It’s in this aspect that you’re somewhat spoiled for choice as there are literally dozens of alternatives for the 2 primary slots which will be candy to those achievement hunters who love to unlock everything. Personally since I was going for the min-max approach there was really only a couple weapons that would suit me and by far the best ones are the prototype weapons that are unlocked by upgrading the weapons lab. Some of the others might be better for other situations but considering how powerful the prototype assault rifle was you’d be hard pressed to find anything better, honestly.
I’ll admit that I skipped all but the story missions as they seemed to be the most interesting out of the lot. There’s a bunch of co-op and multiplayer missions that you can do for extra cash and gear unlocks however the gear I had as part of the game bundle I bought meant I didn’t find myself wanting for a lot of it. This is probably my main criticism I’ll level at Blacklist as the fact that I spent a couple extra bucks on the game meant I was able to skip a lot of content because I didn’t feel compelled to pursue any of the additional unlocks. I understand this won’t be the case for everyone however it does bring into the question of single player balance and the use of potentially game breaking rewards for those who elect to pay a company a few dollars extra.
The story of Blacklist isn’t going to win any awards but I did feel that it had a depth to it that many comparable FPS or stealth games lacked. Instead of simply being sent on a mission to take out person X or stop terrorist attack Y from happening all the missions have a wealth of background behind them, with many of the characters being acutely aware of the impact their actions could have on the wider geopolitical landscape. It’s probably even better for those who’ve played the previous Splinter Cell titles (I can only vaguely remember playing one, Pandora Tomorrow I think) as many of the characters were featured previously.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an excellent example of a modern day stealth title, giving the player a great degree of freedom in playing the game out how they see fit. The stealth is done exceptionally well with every level having dozens of alternative paths so that you can craft your own way through. Even the sections where you’re forced into run and gun combat feel great which leads me to believe that even if you played Blacklist as a traditional FPS it’d still rate up there as a great game. Blacklist then is a title I can help but recommend especially if you’re a fan of the stealth genre.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist is available on PC, Xbox360, PlayStation3 and WiiU right now for $59.99, $78, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC on Normal difficulty with 10.7 hours of total play time.