Strap yourselves in everyone, we’re taking a feel trip today.
Ori and the Blind Forest took out my game of the year for 2015, beating out many other worthy competitors such as The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne. The reason at the time, and it still holds true today, is that there’s been no other game that’s made me care so deeply about the characters so quickly and then used that against me. From the early moments on I was hooked and all the other aspects of the game’s craftsmanship just served to amplify those deep feelings I had. So to say that I had high expectations for the sequel is putting it lightly; I was expecting the kind of near perfection that they had delivered the first time around and was extremely nervous that they wouldn’t be able to match it. Spin forward to the game’s first moments and suddenly I’m back there, 5 years ago, just after the game finished with all those feelings rushing back again. Now here I am today having finished the game and taking a good week to process it emotionally before I could write the review.
Suffice to say, Moon Studios has done it again and I’m an emotional wreck because of it.
SPOILERS FOR ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST FOLLOW
Picking up right where The Blind Forest left off you follow the story of how Ori, Naru and Gumo raised the lone hatchling of Kuro (the original’s protagonist) who they’ve named Ku. She was unfortunately born with a broken wing, rendering her unable to fly. However Gumo finds a feather which he then attaches to Ku’s wing, giving her the ability to fly. Her and Ori then set off on their first journey together and follow a band of owls to the old forest of Niwen. However before they can return a storm hits and the pair gets separated. This is how your journey begins, a simple quest to reunite with your little owling, but the destination is far more meaningful than you can possibly imagine.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps maintains the original’s art styling with a little more emphasis towards the 3D elements than the 2D ones. The environments still have that wonderful dreamlike quality about them with their lavish use of bright colours, unreserved use of bloom and lighting effects galore. The simple fact that I have a screenshot directory with some 34 screenshots in it is a testament to just how gorgeous this game is, every one of the frames it renders not feeling out of place in a concept art reel. The only downside with the heavier focus on the 3D elements is that during some cutscenes the resolution of some models becomes apparent which draws away from the impact those close in scenes should have. There are some solutions for this available thankfully although none of them natively supported by the in-game graphics options. I’m hopeful that these will become available in future patches however as I’d love to play this again in full 4K resolution with all graphics settings pushed right to their limit.
I also have to give a special mention to the soundtrack that Gareth Coker, who was responsible for the original’s as well, created for The Will of the Wisps. Once again he’s managed to create a brilliant set of emotional pieces of music that beautifully match the events happening on screen. For many games the sound track is an afterthought so it’s always great to see when it’s given just as much care and attention as everything else that’s put in.
The Will of the Wisps retains the same core game loop as the original with some of it’s newer elements borrowed some elements from some modern metroidvania titles. The progression system has been significantly increased in breadth and complexity, no longer being a simple choice between a couple different skill talent trees. Instead you’ve got multiple different paths to progress through, each of them with different mechanics for their progression. The level design has also been significantly improved as whilst it follows the standard metroidvania trope (I.E. unlocking new areas in already completed mission with new abilities) not once did I feel like I was missing a significant part of a level because I didn’t have a certain ability. There’s also a myriad of quality of life improvements as well, making the journey to 100% a run through something I actually considered doing for the first time in…quite a long time. With this release Moon Studio has proven that they’re dedicated to developing extremely high quality titles and aren’t satisfied with simply retreading old successes.
The game’s platforming starts off from the basics once again, a good thing considering it’s likely been quite a while for many players since they played the original. Some of my old muscle memory was still there, like expecting double jump and wall sticking from the get go, but it didn’t take long before I had those few abilities and the game started lumping on more things on me to make the platforming sections more varied and challenging. Each of the games…I want to call them biomes… comes with a new ability that will be the main trick that you’ll use to progress through it. That ability then also unlocks other areas in other biomes as well, typically granting access to upgrades and other collectibles that you couldn’t get ahold of. Towards the end of the game this will also get you into situations that were obviously not designed for, like skipping entire sections, but that’s mostly to your benefit. There’s also a bit of emergent behaviour you can exploit here too, like in the main Moki town which you can easily clear out of most of its collectibles before you complete the requisite side quests. Overall the platforming is as solid as it ever was.
Combat feels much the same as it used to although, I admit, this may partly be because I didn’t invest as much time in progressing the combat abilities as I did the other parts of the game. There are new abilities, some of which are also required for unlocking certain areas of the game, but for the most part it’s still a dodge/attack game loop. To be sure there’s going to be some broken skill builds out there that will have you wrecking all sorts of havoc but I played it safe for the most part, favouring instead being able to recover from my mistakes rather than going full glass canon. Still though for a few of the boss encounters I’d switch out to a different build that then made those encounters a lot easier going as without some kind of damage buff some of them could take forever to complete.
Progression comes at a pretty steady clip thanks to the multiple different progression mechanics. For starters you’ve got your simple life/mana orbs which you can easily find throughout the levels and most will be available to you immediately or soon after unlocking the biome’s ability. The main avenue for progression is spirit shards which modify your current abilities or attributes. Initially you can only equip 3 at a time but that can be upgraded to a total of 8 if you complete all the combat shrines. Most of the shards can be found around the place but a choice few will need to be bought. About half can be upgraded as well, although none need to be upgraded to be useful. You can purchase and upgrade new combat abilities from a vendor as well, a couple of which you’ll need to purchase in order to unlock some of the areas of the map. I tried the spirit surge initially but it’s pretty underwhelming. The spear was by far my favourite as it did an absolutely insane amount of damage and is pinpoint accurate. The downside is the mana cost but that can be made up for with the appropriate shard selection. There’s also a myriad of side quests which change the world around you although I don’t believe they have an appreciable impact on how the game plays out (apart from opening up more secrets to you).
There’s also a bunch of time trials scattered throughout the game, pitting you against a ghost Ori in a race to the finish line. I think originally they may have included a wide variety of rewards but they only now give spirit light, the game’s main currency. Whilst this is certainly helpful it’s not like you’re always scrounging for it. Indeed if you complete the side quests and find most of the secrets then you’re likely going to be rolling in it. I usually kept above 6000 as I wanted to max out the damage buff from a shard I had but even when I did go and splurge on something I don’t remember it taking that long to get it back up again. Regardless the challenges themselves aren’t too difficult, especially considering you can just follow the ghost and then overtake them quickly right at the end (doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, right?).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that all these mechanics would make for a game that’s too busy but they all work together to give the game a steady, moderate pace. There’s always something you need to do but the game doesn’t punish you for taking your time to explore around and uncover all the secrets they’ve hidden around the place. This makes it really enjoyable to simply take your time with the level, figuring out all the tells they’ve built in that lead to secrets or hint at how the current blocking puzzle could be solved. The fact that I only got stuck a couple times is a testament to how well the game is designed.
The same niggle I had with the original makes an unfortunate return in The Will of the Wisps; that being the use of long platforming sequences that must be completed in one shot. There’s more than one in this but they’re thankfully 1) shorter than the original’s final boss fight and 2) somewhat better designed so that you don’t feel like you’re running up against unfair mechanics designed to make you fail. That improvement is then offset by some slight…mushiness in the keystroke detection which makes doing some of the more involved platforming a bit clunkier than it should be. To be fair it could be that I was attempting things you weren’t intended to do as I distinctly remember this grumble coming to the front when I was clearing out the Moki town before I’d done all the plants and building improvements.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The game’s narrative follows a very similar trope to the original but god damn do they know how to find your heart strings and tug on them relentlessly. It wasn’t enough that the game’s opening moments made me remember the original’s tragedy with such vivid recollection that I needed a minute to compose myself before playing they then had to set up yet another tragedy after I had already bought into the game’s premise emotionally. To be sure the plot is simplistic and predictable but I couldn’t help but feel for each and every one of the characters. This is only made better by the fact that it didn’t rely heavily on the story that came before it either, the original’s characters only having a passing role in this game.
Probably the biggest thing that stuck with me, which is possible fertile ground for a sequel, is that they didn’t resolve Shriek’s storyline positively, instead condemning her to misery that she’s known her entire life. That honestly hurt me more than anything else given what you know of her backstory. But, having had some time to process it, I can see it for what it is: great storytelling that didn’t go the way I wanted to. That doesn’t make it bad, just sad for me.
Now I’d usually chide a game for hinting at a sequel but I’m happy with the way it was done here, for a couple reasons. Firstly it’s already established canon in the world and the current story threads (bar Shriek’s) are resolved. That means that any further games in the series will have to stand on their own and, quite likely, lose “Ori and” from the title. Whilst it’s beautifully sad how Ori’s thread resolved I’m glad it did as it’d be all too easy to keep riding that cute little spirit’s goodwill until all the money was squeezed out of him.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an exceptional sophomore release from Moon Studios, demonstrating that they’re exceptional craftspeople when it comes to the genre of metroidvania that’ll make you cry. If you’ve made it this far in the review then you know what I think about the game’s various elements and I’m not going to rehash them again. All I’m going to do is say that, no matter what kind of gamer you are, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is worth your attention. If you haven’t played the original then do yourself a favour and give it the once over so you can play its sequel immediately, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.95. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total play time and 43% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s that time of year again when the big name publishers start dumping title after title on us in an unrelenting wave until the end of the year. In the past this just meant I had a good amount of review fodder available, able to dump a good number of hours into each game as they came out. Now though? Not so much and so I still find myself on the hunt for short, typically indie titles to bridge the one game per week routine whilst I whittle away at 1 or 2 of the big name titles. This week’s title is A Short Hike, a title that came to me via the new discovery engine and is an interesting blend of exploration mechanics with light story elements that make for a wonderful casual experience.
You’ve gone to visit your aunt at Hawk Peak Provincial Park and, like any good remote location, there’s no cell reception at her hut. You’ve been expecting a call from someone though and so, on the advice of your aunt, you start the trek up to Hawk’s Peak summit. Along the way though you’ll meet a lot of interesting characters, all of whom have come to the park for varying reasons. Of course you can’t simply just climb to the top, no in order to make it to the very top you’ll need to complete a series challenges, often with the help of others. You also don’t need to rush to the top either as there’s plenty more to the park than just it’s summit.
A Short Hike has a unique visual style that’s reminiscent of isometric games of yesteryear. It’s deliberately down-res’d with the number of pixels on screen being artificially capped at around 640 x 480 and then upscaled to your screen’s resolution. This means that on the surface it very much has this retro feel to it but there’s also this undercurrent of other things that give away it’s modern underpinnings. Initially I was a little annoyed with it, the low resolution initially making it a little confusing visually, but it didn’t take long before I got used to it and then it’s really quite enjoyable. The visuals are also backed up by a great soundtrack which is only let down a little by the stock foley work. Still in terms of general craftsmanship A Short Hike is definitely up there in terms of quality.
Whilst the main goal of A Short Hike is to reach the summit really the main aim of the game is to just explore the park. The main mechanic is the golden feathers, a mechanic inspired by the stamina wheel in Breath of the Wild. Each feather allows you to do a mid air jump, run longer distances and climb any surface for a limited period of time. The game is designed in such a way that most places are accessible with a minimal amount of feathers and so the additional ones usually open up shortcuts that weren’t available to you before. Once you’ve got 6 or so you’ve basically got access to the entire island, including the summit, although I admit that having a few more does make it a lot easier to reach the summit as that final stretch doesn’t leave much wiggle room for mistakes. As you climb up you’ll encounter a bunch of NPCs, most of whom will have a quest for you or a small amount of flavour dialogue. This simplicity makes it easy to get into and enjoy the act of exploration.
Your view of the park is constrained a little bit more than what I’d like but this does make the world feel a lot larger than it really is. Initially this does make it a little hard to figure out exactly where you are in the world, especially considering that the camera is on rails and can sometimes whip around in an ungodly fashion that’s sure to disorient anyone. Still despite these two shortcomings it’s still very enjoyable to make your way around the park, getting familiar with all the locations and figuring out how best to make your way around. Once you’ve got a few feathers under your belt the island really starts to open up and it doesn’t take much to get anywhere. It’s at that point you’ll likely make for the summit which then gives you a really good opportunity to see more of the world.
The story is very light on, told through little scraps of dialogue between you and other characters in the game. There’s no real depth to many of the interactions, with them either being setups for quests or just commenting on the park itself, but there’s enough in there to give you the feeling that this is a well loved place. The small parts of the main storyline are pretty heartwarming too which just adds to the overall nice feeling that A Short Hike has.
A Short Hike is a wholesome exploration adventure, one that doesn’t ask much of the player but delivers a lot in return. The crudely rendered but artfully developed world is a lot of fun to explore and with the narrative kept light and brief there’s not much to distract you from doing just that. There’s a few small drawbacks, namely the constrained view and camera that could be a little better done, but overall the game and the world within it is realised well. If you’re suffering from epicness fatigue from all the AAA titles coming out of late then maybe it’s worth taking the time for A Short Hike.
A Short Hike is available on PC right now for $11.50. Total play time was 76 minutes with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are some rules of thumb in game development that can help ensure a studio is successful. The first is once you’ve discovered a successful formula, whether that’s an original title or say a deal with a publisher to make a certain type of game, stick with it and iterate on it. Another is to never build your own engine, lest you spend the majority of your budget developing it and not the game itself. Finally if you’ve got a publisher it’s likely best to stick with them, especially if you’ve had success with them previously. So for Asobo Studios to ignore all those rules in developing A Plague Tale: Innocence many would’ve thought them down right crazy, given the line of successful (albeit not exactly groundbreaking) titles they’d released in the past. The gamble has paid off in spades however as this game stands out as one of the more unique experiences of 2019; bringing together a beautiful world and great storytelling.
Set in 1349 France A Plague Tale: Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, a young noble in the rural province of Aquitaine. The plague grips the country but has thankfully yet to make its way to your lands. Things take a dark turn when the English Inquisition invades, taking your father hostage and demanding that you hand over your brother. When he refuses the Inquisition brutally murders him and anyone who stands in their way as they search the property for your brother. Your mother urges you to escape and seek out Laurentius, a doctor friend who has been treating your brother for a mysterious illness that has long plagued him. This begins your long and tortuous journey to find out why the Inquisition is after your brother and what they intend to do with him.
Asobo Studio developed their own in-house engine to power A Plague Tale: Innocence and I have to say the results are absolutely stellar. Building an engine capable of graphics like this from the ground up couldn’t have been easy, especially considering that this is also a cross platform release. Suffice to say the screenshots in this review speak for themselves, all of them taken from directly in game. Performance is also rock solid to, even when you have what appears to be thousands of rats on screen at once. The game does demand a bit of your hard disk though, enough that I moved it onto my SSD in order to play it. Still all things considered I’ve seen many more well funded development houses attempt to build engines and get nowhere near as good as what Asobo has put out here so hats off to them.
From a core gameplay perspective A Plague Tale: Innocence is a kind of stealth action game, starting off initially as a kind of stealth walking simulator before graduating more into a typical action-oriented game with largely optional stealth elements. Unlike other games which reward you more for taking the harder option (I.E. stealth) this game doesn’t really seem to mind if you go all out against every enemy, save for a few choice voice lines. Indeed the game’s progression system, whilst having a myriad of different options, heavily favours enhancing your combat abilities rather than your stealth. That being said whilst there’s a couple different routes to be taken for each level they are, for the most part, linear experiences that have a distinct right and wrong way of completing them. There are times when you can create some emergent gameplay opportunities but they’re rare and usually ill-advised. Overall it’s not a mechanically deep game but it doesn’t really need to be, the focus much more on the story and its telling.
Combat revolves around Amicia and her sling which is unfathomably accurate and ludicrously deadly. Once your combat abilities are unlocked you can one shot any unhelmeted guard which makes the stealth aspects so much easier. There’s a host of different types of ammunition you’ll be able to craft later on that unlocks the ability to get guards to take off their helmets, sick rats on them and all sorts of other abilities which have both combat and puzzle functions. About two thirds of the way through the game you’ll have all the required ammunition types and enough of them crafted to be able to take out all enemies in a level and, honestly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Most games would punish you severely for doing this so it’s pretty refreshing to play a game that has an obvious bent towards stealth but doesn’t really mind if you go on a murderous rampage. I’m not sure if that fits with the theme of the whole game but hey, it was fun.
Upgrades come through crafting, driven by finding various different kinds of materials around the world. Most of the upgrades rely on “blue” materials which aren’t particularly common and are shared with some of the more high end consumables. The game does try to play this off as some kind of a trade off, I.E. if you want to have that consumable (which usually gives you a second life, effectively) you might not have enough for that upgrade you’re lusting after. In my experience though you’re better off not crafting those consumables at all as all the times when you’d end up using them are encounters where you shouldn’t be needing them anyway. Hunting for these materials feels a little hit and miss as quite often most of the upgrade materials are clustered near the workbenches. There are some hidden elsewhere in the world but they’re mostly stuff you’ll already have max of anyway. I don’t think there’s enough materials in the game to upgrade everything but there’s certainly enough to get all the upgrades that matter.
It’s through these upgrades that the game slowly transitions from a game that requires stealth to one where it’s completely optional. Initially you have to be pretty tactical about who you take out and how with your limited ammo supply and the long time it takes to wind up the sling. However after a few choice upgrades you’re basically unstoppable as there’s more than enough ammunition and crafting materials around to keep you fully stocked pretty much all the time. I had figured that there might be some consequence to just taking out everyone I saw but as far as I can tell there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was the Dishonored-esque setting and gameplay setting that was making me feel that way.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is largely bug free and didn’t have any performance issues once I got past the incredibly long load times due to my RAID 10 array playing up. As I mentioned before there are some instances where you can do what appears to be something that wasn’t intended by the developers although most of the time that leads to breaking the encounter completely. The game also doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when you’re attempting something that is 100% impossible, leading to a few instances where you can think you’re doing the right thing and just failing at it when, in actual fact, you’re breaking the encounter completely. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these but there could be a few more dialogue cues or other things that would indicate when you were barking up the wrong tree completely.
The story is one of the stand out features of A Plague Tale: Innocence as it’s all fully voiced (save for a few bits of flavour text here and there) by some great voice actors. It’s somewhat confusing to begin with as the game doesn’t reveal much to you early on, leading to some slow pacing to begin with. However in the last half or so things really start to pick up and it became quite enjoyable to play through. I’m not typically one for period pieces like this but the story gave all the characters enough air time to build them up enough for me to care about them. I might not have come to like Hugo as much as other reviewers did, but I can at least see where they’re coming from.
A Plague Tale: Innocence was a nice surprise, coming out of left field in the middle of a deluge of AAA titles and standing out among them as one of the more well crafted experiences of this year. The graphics are phenomenal, brought to us by an in-house engine that I hope Asobo continues to make use of for future titles. The gameplay is an eclectic and evolving beast, one that transitions from a kind of stealth walking simulator to an almost full action RPG by the end. The story brings everything together, starting off slow but building up to a great ending that wraps everything up without committing the cardinal sin of teasing a sequel. There’s a few rough edges but nothing that’s beyond patching. So if you’re looking for a narrative focused game that doesn’t ask too much from you then A Plague Tale: Innocence could be right up your alley.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours play time and 57% of the achievements unlocked.
We sometimes forget just how young video games are as a creative medium and how far they still have to go as methods of expression. But that relative youthfulness brings with it an incredible amount of experimentation with the many centuries of artistic expression that preceded the medium suffusing themselves into the storytelling lexicon of game developers. When all those elements come together it can create some of the most beautiful experiences that we’ve ever created. Gris, by Nomada Studios, is a fantastic example of what games as a medium can be, combining stunning hand animated visuals, a deeply moving soundtrack and game mechanics that evolve alongside the game’s visual style. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful games of this year, both in terms of visuals and its story.
Your world is filled with beauty; fantastic colours swirl around you as you raise your voice in concert. But suddenly your voice leaves you and the world begins to crumble, dumping you down into a place drained of colour and life. As you begin to stumble forward you notice that the world reacts to the small points of light that have followed you, allowing you to move onwards. There’s no telling if the path forward will bring back the world you once knew, nor if your voice will ever return, but you continue on hoping that one day you’ll see the world brighten once again.
Gris’ is a hand animated game that uses a watercolour palette and art style, giving you the feeling of a children’s book come to life. The developers favoured a simplistic art style although they thankfully didn’t skimp out on the animation frames (unlike a recent, similar title). Each of the different sections has its own distinct visual style which forms a key part of the game’s mechanics. Supporting all of this is an absolutely amazing soundtrack done by Berlinist, a music group from Barcelona. The whole album is up on Spotify and is honestly worth a listen just by itself. Suffice to say from a craftsmanship level Gris achieves a level of refinement I wouldn’t expect from a first time developer, even if it was founded by 2 long time developers.
Mechanically Gris is simple, essentially being a platformer with a few interesting mechanics. Most of the puzzles you’ll encounter are fairly straightforward, only requiring you to figure out the right sequence of moves in order to get past them. If you’re chasing momentos though there’s going to be a slight increase in the challenge, often including a timing element that’s not present in most of the required puzzles. You’ll gain new abilities as you progress but unlike many other platform puzzlers they’ll always be used individually or in sequence. This means that puzzles towards the end of the game aren’t really that much harder than those at the start. Mechanical complexity isn’t really a focus of the game however and nor should it be. Far too many games have ruined themselves by letting the mechanics get in the way of the core story.
Exploration is usually rewarded through giving you a momento although they don’t do anything beyond playing a cool sound (at least, nothing I saw when I was collecting them anyway). If I was to level one criticism here though it’d be that in the larger environments exploration feels cumbersome and the lack of a good reward doesn’t motivate you to seek them out. This is especially true for some sections where the game takes you through a large spanning environment for minutes on end, making you wonder where they could’ve hid things. Thankfully not exploring at all doesn’t detract from the overall experience but it could be rewarded just a little better.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
Here’s where I step into pure speculation about what I believe the story is about because, well, I had a fun time speculating as to what each of the game’s visual elements meant. The colour leaving the world feels like an allegory for depression, something which I think many of us who’ve struggled with it can attest to. The bird that torments you is doubt, the thing that keeps coming back and screaming at you, threatening to knock you down if you don’t prepare yourself for it. The small lights are akin to hope, building the bridges you need in order to push on as you try to restore colour to your world.
So the story is one of succumbing to doubt and falling into a depression so deep that it drains the colour from your world and preventing you from doing the one thing that will bring it back. It might not be the most unique of stories but it’s relatable and told beautifully which is really all I can ask for from most games. I haven’t yet gone around yet to see if my interpretation lines up with anyone else’s so I’d be keen to hear anyone else’s thoughts on what the visual story of Gris means to you.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Gris is a masterpiece, telling a beautiful story through the use of wonderful visual artwork, a great soundtrack and simple but solid game mechanics. It came at the perfect time for me to, after having put a bunch of hours into no less than 3 different shooters I was ready for something that favoured beauty over action. Nomada Studio has set themselves a strong precedent with this and I’m very much looking forward to what they start working on next.
Gris is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 horus play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.
5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
Wadjet Eye Games have made a name for themselves in the adventure game space, not only for the numerous titles they’ve published but also the many they themselves have developed. With the closing of the Blackwell series, which had been their flagship series for the better part of a decade, many were wondering what would be next for them. Sure we could assume a few things, like it being a pixel art adventure game, but the rest was anyone’s guess. With Unavowed they’ve stuck to the supernatural theme, going as far as to use the previous protagonist’s abilities as a basis for one of the characters in this new title. The game prides itself on enabling the player to have a great deal of choice over most of the pivotal parts including your gender, origin story and the various ways in which you can solve the puzzles put before you. That freedom comes at a price however and it’s probably the biggest mark against an otherwise stellar release from Wadjet Eye Games.
The opening scenes of Unavowed will vary depending on which origin story you select but one thing is common throughout them all: you were possessed by a demon who set upon unleashing all sorts of mayhem around New York.Thankfully you were rescued by the Unavowed, a team of supernatural beings and those abilities beyond scientific understanding. Given that you’re now a wanted criminal they take you under their wing and enlist your help in figuring out where the demon had been and what its plans were. You’re also given a crash course into the world of the supernatural, one that the Unavowed tries hard to keep separate from the mundane. As you soon find out that doesn’t always work as planned and those two worlds are becoming increasingly intermixed.
Like all of their previous titles Unavowed comes to us via Adventure Game Studio and retains that nostalgic pixel art aesthetic of their previously published titles. It’s a true to the era implementation as there’s nary a modern visual effect or flair to be seen. This is even done to a fault in some parts with certain animations having incredibly low frame rates, like the walking or idle animations for the characters. Of course this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the game’s visuals as it’s clear there was a lot of time put into creating the various set pieces that you’ll explore throughout your time in Unavowed.
Unavowed is likely the most mechanically deep adventure game to date, incorporating many elements from other genres that must have been an absolute nightmare to program in. Whilst the different origin stories and genders would be easy enough to incorporate this is then multiplied 5 fold by your ability to choose your party each time you go out on a mission. This is offset somewhat by each of the missions being wholly self contained (I.E. you don’t need an item from one place to solve a puzzle in another) but it would still necessitate creating the requisite mechanics in each level to accommodate for that choice. If that wasn’t enough there’s also a bunch of banter dialogue between each of the party members which plays out during missions, something I’m sure the writers thoroughly enjoyed having to write out. Suffice to say that whilst the core game of puzzle solving might not be too different from your run of the mill adventure game the story mechanics surrounding it are second to none.
This narrative freedom does mean that your choice of party members is effectively pointless as each of the game’s levels can be completed with any of the two you’d care to pick. I honestly didn’t notice this at first but when I took the Fire Mage with me twice in a row it became pretty obvious that I didn’t just happen to make the right choice. This does eliminate a particular frustration that many people have with adventure games, making incorrect choices that get you stuck, but it does also remove a lot of the impact those choices would have. Indeed there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for choosing a sub-optimal group or a bonus for choosing the correct one, all of them will have the same number of puzzle elements you need to solve. To be sure the puzzle mechanics aren’t the game’s main attraction, that falls to the story, but it does highlight a big challenge in making a game like this. Choices are great, but only when they matter.
There’s also a few tiny areas that could use a bit of polish to improve the game’s overall useability. For instance dragging items from your inventory onto a character in the main screen won’t work the same as dragging it onto the icon in the inventory bar. This led to a few frustrating moments where I was pretty sure I had solved the puzzle but it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Reading a couple guides revealed the mistake I made but, honestly, it should just work as the interaction is the same from the player’s perspective. The game also doesn’t like being alt-tabbed, putting the sound on loop which makes for a rather annoying background when you’re trying to quickly do something else in the middle of your session. These aren’t game breaking but would make the overall experience of playing Unavowed just that much better.
Unavowed’s story takes a little while to get going, mostly because a lot of characters are introduced in rapid fire in the game’s opening hour. After that though it begins the process of building them all out, fleshing out their backstories well and building up a good pace of plot developments to keep you playing. Part of this is due to the overall story itself but the other half is most definitely due to the dynamics between each of the character pairs. I even ran one particular pair a few times in a row and still had new dialogue come up between them. Despite all this though the overall story didn’t leave too much of an impression on me. To be sure I think it’s well crafted and executed it just didn’t leave that emotional mark that adventure games of past have. I’ve said much the same about games with budgets far beyond Unavowed however so it’s not the worst sin a game can commit.
Unavowed is yet another treat from the team at Wadjet Eye Games and a great next step in their game developer journey. It’s a very ambitious title, incorporating multiple branching storylines and puzzle mechanics to give the player a lot of control over how it plays out. Whilst some of those choices are ultimately moot at a mechanical level it certainly does make for a much richer narrative experience. Indeed for the amount of choice given to the player the story of Unavowed is probably one of the most well rounded I’ve played in recent memory. Whilst it ultimately failed to resonate with me at an emotional level that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time with it. For those who’ve been left wanting this year’s offerings in the adventure game space you really can’t go past Unavowed.
Unavowed is available on PC right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek by Wadjet Eye Games for the purposes of review.
Survival sandboxes have never really been my cup of tea. I get the appeal, crafting your own story however you see fit, but if I’m going to engage in the kind of repetitive activities that most of them make you do I’ll go back to my MMORPGs (at least I can get those SWEET SWEET PURPLES). However I’ve long had a large group of my friends pester me to play some of them and whilst I’ve inevitably left most of them behind one managed to get its hooks deep into me. As you’ve likely guess that game was Subnautica, one I had avoided for its entire life until it came up in conversation once again. With my dumpster diving in the Steam new release section wearing me down I figured it was time to try something that had a better chance of capturing my attention. Boy, did it ever.
Subnautica takes place in the far future, putting you in control of an unnamed protagonist (well I never figured out his name, but apparently it’s Ryley Robinson) aboard the spaceship Aurora. As you’re approach a planet your vessel is struck by an unknown energy pulse, sending it tumbling down to its surface. You manage to escape aboard one of the ships escape pods and upon landing find yourself stranded in a vast ocean. The aurora crashed close by, its reactor heavily damaged and spewing untold amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. Your life pod has all the basics to keep you alive but you’ll have to draw on the resources on the planet if you’re ever going to make it off. What follows is a tale of survival that you’ll largely define yourself although it’s clear that this planet is hiding a secret that you’ll need to understand if you’re ever to get off it.
For a Unity based game Subnautica sure is a pretty one, making full use of all the features available to the engine. The level of detail could be tuned a little better as quite often you’ll see a lot of asset and texture pop-in. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t so reliant on those details to navigate yourself around and locate the things you’re looking for. There’s also quite a lot of simulation going on, even for stuff that’s no on screen, which means as your time in game stretches on your performance is likely going to start taking a bit of a dive (pun…yeah intended). I definitely enjoyed the slightly simplified, stylized art direction that they took for this game though, especially with the huge variety of different environments you can find yourself in. That’s only made better by the great voice acting, sound track and substantial foley work that went into rounding out the rest of the experience. Overall, whilst Subnautica might still have a few Early Access rough edges to polish out, it’s definitely one of the better looking games I’ve played this year.
In the heavily oversaturated sandbox survival simulator genre Subnautica stands out as the one that went full in on the nautical theme. Sure you’ve got the standard things that you’ll need to take care of like food, water and health, but all the progression mechanics are based around diving to deeper depths in the ocean world you find yourself stranded on. All the things you craft will either help you stay underwater for longer, move faster so you can explore more or craft vehicles that will allow you to go on longer and longer journeys. You’ll also build yourself a base (or twenty) to generate and stockpile resources, build upgrade stations and serve as a place of respite between your expeditions. All of this is in aid of exploring as much of the map as you want and by golly there’s quite a lot of it. More impressive is that it’s all hand crafted too and often updated so things aren’t always where you (or people on the forums) expect them to be. Driving all of this is a kind of campaign story that also entices you to dive to deeper depths whilst revealing to you the fates of your fellow crew and the efforts that are being undertaken to rescue you. Suffice to say there’s quite a lot to do, so much so that I lost almost 30 hours to it without really trying.
Exploration is the main aim of the game and for the most part Subnautica does it well. The game does a good job of giving you a safe area to explore around in initially, one that isn’t too demanding and gives you a decent intro into the main mechanics. A more directed tutorial would’ve been nice as it’s not completely obvious where you’d go about to find certain materials, making those first few items a bit of a chore to get done. Once you’ve got a few basics completed and some form of vehicle built though things start to progress a little faster and the campaign missions start coming thick and fast. Things can get really non-linear though as somethings will likely be easier for you to find than others. For instance I had a Seamoth fully completed before I managed to get everything together for a Seaglide, including having the blueprints for the powercell charger before I had the respective ones for my batteries. Similarly it took me quite some time to track down the multi-purpose room (yeah I know, I know, I didn’t explore the island enough) which limited my capabilities somewhat for a good few hours.
The crafting system is deep and rewarding, giving you ample things to shoot for throughout the course of the game. It’s almost always worth picking up as many crafting materials as you can carry as you’ll never know when you’ll next need them to craft the next upgrade. Probably my biggest gripe with the whole system is that the various drop rates for different materials doesn’t seem to be inline with the amount you’ll need. For instance diamonds, lithium and gold all drop from shale outcrops but always ended up with more diamonds than I needed and little of the precious lithium which seemingly all the higher end upgrades crave. Things only get worse with higher end materials, especially if you’re like me and built your base in the safe shallows near the escape pod (since that’s where I had all my stuff). Of course I could’ve built another base further out if I so desired but honestly the amount of times I had to dive back out to get more titanium meant that I’d probably be doing just as much travel no matter where I decided to put down my roots. If they ever add something like a mining rig which produces some of the minerals from that depth I think that’d make the whole experience a little better, at least for people like me who don’t really want to grind a lot in a single player experience.
I didn’t spend too much time on building out my base, basically just fleshing out the bare necessities I needed and a few other things to make my life a little easier. It took me a while to understand the whole structural integrity thing and how other modules affected it. I think that’s part of the experience though as there’s a whole bunch of mechanics based around not doing it properly (those who’ve played that will know what I mean and yes, I did do that, multiple times). I did engage in a little mobile base building towards the end of my play time though, keeping enough resources with me to be able to build a single multi purpose room, a hatch, two power cell chargers and a nuclear reactor. I only ever ended up using it once (and discovered a limitation I didn’t know of, you can’t remove the reactor rods) so it was probably not completely needed. Still it was a nice little safety assurance to have.
I almost gave up on Subnautica after I finally built my cyclops as I wasn’t particularly interested in the effort required to kit it out and transfer all my stuff into it for the long journey into the deep. However I just went and did that for a couple hours one night, fully equipping it with everything I’d need to make the long journey down. Honestly I think the amount of effort I had to go through to do it suddenly made the whole thing feel a lot more worthwhile; this wasn’t something that you could just blast your way through. No if you wanted to see the story through to the end you’d have to equip yourself with all the things you’d need as coming back might not be possible. Whilst I didn’t go as crazy as some people did I had more than I ever needed for the long journey down and boy, that was some intense gaming.
Going from piloting the Seamoth and Seaglide the Cyclops is an exercise is slow, steady precision. Of course the first thing I did was to put it up to full speed to see what it was capable of and promptly caused massive cavitation, damaging my propeller and causing a fire. It was then I realised that this vessel wasn’t built for speed but endurance and I’d have to be very careful how I handled it going forward. Once you get a handle for it though the cyclops is very maneuverable and is nigh on invulnerable to you bashing it around. Creature attacks are a different story however and once you’re in the deepest depths it becomes a real balancing act of movement speed, damage from creatures and how much charge you’ll lose if you don’t find all those fscking Lava Larva that have attached themselves to the outside of your ship.
Given that Subnautica has been out for about 4 years now most of the egregious bugs have been fixed but a few still remain. Lockers and other interactable items can glitch out on you if hit a hotkey when you’re interacting them, preventing you from interacting with anything and hiding your HUD from you. This can usually be fixed by walking away or just spamming buttons but it is rather annoying when it happens. Hitboxes can also be a bit iffy, like when you’re trying to say interact with a part of the Seamoth and end up entering it instead. Base building too can be a little weird, like when you place 2 multi-purpose rooms on top of each other. The green indicator would make you think that everything is fine but no, there is actually a wrong way to do it which will prevent you from putting in a ladder between them. There’s also the performance and LOD detail issues I mentioned before, something which I would have expected to be fixed by now. None of these things are game breaking experiences and all of them are things I think will be fixed in due course.
Subnautica was sold to me as the kind of survival game I’d be able to get into because of the story and, by and large, I’d agree with that. To be sure the first 8 or so hours were quite engaging because there was always an objective for me to go to, one that would show me a bit more about the world. After that though things started to get a little thin on the ground. Sure there were a few tidbits here and there but for the next 14 hours or so I was in something of a narrative hole. That picked up swiftly towards the end of the game with the last 6 or so hours filled with a lot more excitement, especially towards the end. If I was playing more efficiently I’m sure the story would have felt a lot better paced but even for a min-maxer like myself, one who was routinely consulting with the wiki and forums, I don’t think a genuine first playthrough could be done much quicker. With that in mind I’d like to see another 4~5 hours worth of story content to help drive things along as I’ve heard a lot of people drop the game as they get their cyclops which usually coincides with the dearth of story elements. All that being said though I thoroughly enjoyed Subnautica’s story and would happily recommend it to people who’d traditionally shy away from games in this genre.
Subnautica was one of those games I went into thinking I wouldn’t like it and was gladly surprised to be proven wrong. There’s always this sense of just needing to go a little deeper to find that next thing, whether it be story related or that item you need to make your life that much easier. The story that plays along helps to keep you engaged as you scrape together the upgrades you need to get to the next chapter. There’s still a few rough edges from its Early Access days, including a glaring lack of story for a good half of my time spent in it, but these aren’t things I think are beyond fixing. So it seems my friends were right, this is the kind of game for people like me who’ve given the whole survival genre a miss because we do like a good story that we don’t craft ourselves. Subnautica seems to strike the right balance here, giving you ample room to craft your own tale whilst giving you a trail to follow if you so wish. Whilst the AAA drought is soon to be over it’s still probably worth giving Subnautica a look in as it really is worth the time, especially if you can get through to the end.
Subnautica is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours playtime and 82% of the achievements unlocked.
This is the last week I go Steam new release diving, I promise.
I mean I’m sure there’s a ton of gold in there somewhere but the process for discovering new titles that are worth playing couldn’t be worse. Valve has made something of an attempt with their discovery queues but they rarely recommend anything new and I’ve yet to hear of a viable alternative (and no, I’m not going to try and put something like that into Completionist, that idea died when Valve killed the data I relied on). So it’s up to us, dear gamers, to churn through the hundreds of games released every week to try and hone in on something that might take our fancy. This week it’s The Free Ones and whilst I’m not about to throw it under the same bus as Elementium or NUMERIC it’s certainly not going to make any must play list anytime soon.
The Free Ones puts you in control of Theo, a captive who’s been working as a slave in the mines for most of his adult life. One day however a mysterious glove finds its way to him, accompanied by a note telling him that they can make him free. Soon after he comes across a group of escaped slaves, living on a nearby island away from the watchful eye of their captors. There he learns of their plan for escape and agrees to help them. What follows is a tale of his journey to regain his freedom and grant it to those who’ve known nothing but slavery their entire lives.
Graphically The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, being about a generation and a half behind the trend. The environments are definitely not made to be explored in detail and that’s by design, you’re meant to swing on through as fast as possible in order to get to the next section. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was a little more love given to the parts that you can’t blow past, like the cut scenes or some of the slower sections. It’s at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how basic most of the assets and other elements are which in this day and age is a big detractor from the overall experience. Couple that with extensive asset reuse and you’ve got a relatively bland, repetitive visual experience. Considering that it was only in development for 1 year and 8 months I can see why better visuals took a back burner to other things.
The one sentence overview of The Free One’s core mechanics is that it’s a momentum based 3D platformer akin to similar games like A Story About My Uncle or Valley. The main part is the grapple hook, allowing you to latch onto wooden objects in the environment and pull yourself towards them. This allows you to build up some momentum and fling yourself across the map. The challenge starts to build up as the things you’re able to grapple to start moving, forcing you to figure out how best to latch onto them in order to gain the greatest momentum. There’s also numerous challenges based on threading the needle through various tight spaces which aren’t particularly forgiving if you don’t hit the mark. There’s also a bunch of collectibles to get, ones that are only collected if you land back on solid ground, something which will provide an extra layer of challenge to those seeking it. Achievement hunters will also love the no death and time limited runs but I personally didn’t find them compelling. At a mechanical level I think The Free Ones is implemented well but it’s not the kind of challenge I’d typically seek out for myself.
For me the game excels in the large, open environments where you’re able to fly past large areas in a single go. It’s a pretty great feeling when you get on a roll and manage to clear a section or two without stopping, even if there is a couple desperate moments where you’re searching for the next thing to latch onto. The tighter, closed in environments are much less satisfying mostly because there’s usually a lot more that can go wrong, requiring a lot more attempts to clear a section which can be a little frustrating. This is made worse by the fact that the hit detection in the game isn’t as polished as I’d like, leading to a lot of furious clicking as I plummeted down to my death.
Indeed this lack of polish is present through all of the game and it becomes painfully apparent in the late stages of the game. There were numerous times when I fell through the world or got out of bounds, sometimes triggering a respawn and sometimes others requiring a checkpoint restart. There’s also a lot of sections where you can end up in places that the developers didn’t intend you to be, like on some of the levels with trains and the islands that surround them. If you manage to get on one of them accidentally you can walk around it but it’s pretty clear that the developers didn’t intend anyone to be on them. Similarly latching onto train tracks is a real hit and miss affair as there were times when it made the “clang” noise indicating I’d latched on while I fell back down to my death. Of course this is the product of only 2 full time devs so this lack of polish is somewhat expected and it’s not something a couple more months in dev would’ve fixed.
Unfortunately the story can’t make up for the game’s faults as it’s rudimentary, predictable and oddly paced. It’s pretty standard in terms of your motivation (I need to get out of here to get back to my real life) and follows the well trodden story path along that. The pacing is odd in that the characters go through wild swings of emotional development over what appears to be a couple days. If they’d broken the sections up a bit more and given it time to develop it’d be a bit more believable but as it stands today it just doesn’t have enough investment for the emotional outcomes it presents.
As a standalone game The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, as it doesn’t really excel in any particular category. The so-so visuals wouldn’t be out of place a generation or two ago, even for games that came from similarly sized development teams. The core game play works well enough although the lack of polish is quite noticeable, especially towards the later sections of the game. Finally the story does nothing to tie this all together nor make up for the more egregious missteps that the game makes, instead serving as another reminder that the game is decidedly mediocre. Compared to what I’ve been playing recently it was definitely a step above but that’s not saying much. I’m sure fans of these kinds of games will find something to like here but in all honesty if you haven’t heard of The Free Ones you really don’t need to worry about missing out on it.
The Free Ones is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.2 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.