Posts Tagged‘adventure’

Unavowed: The Demon Within.

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.

Rating: 8.75/10

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.

Subnautica: We Need to go Deeper.

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.

Rating: 8.75/10

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.

The Free Ones: Swing Free.

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.

Rating: 6.0/10

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.

Ghost of a Tale: A Mouse in a Rat’s World.

Now is the time for the independent games to take center stage as the AAA developers rest, scheduling their big releases for later in the year. For me this time of year always presents a challenge, forcing me to look afar from what I might typically play. In some respects Ghost of a Tale isn’t too different from what I usually play, adventure/rpgs are one of my mainstays, but I honestly hadn’t heard about it until I went looking. The promise of great graphics and a good story were enough to intrigue me but unfortunately, after playing it for 3 hours, I’ve decided it’s simply not for me.

You play as Tilo, a minstrel mouse who’s been caught up in a perilous adventure. Separated from your wife you’ve been thrown into prison to await your sentence and, quite unfortunately, the possibility of the hangman’s noose. So you take it upon yourself to break free of the prison and begin the search for your wife. The prison is full of unlikely allies however including a few of your former captors. You’ll need every bit of help you can get as breaking out of the rat infested prison will be no small feat, even for a small mouse like yourself who can fit into some incredibly small spaces.

On the surface you’d think that Ghost of a Tale was running on the Unreal engine given its overall look but it is in-fact a Unity based game, something I honestly did not expect. The aesthetic then is not born out of the engine defaults or limitations but instead is an active choice by the one and only developer behind the game. The environments aren’t particularly large but they are brimming with detail, a lot of which is unfortunately hidden away quite often due to the dark areas you’ll be exploring. Whilst many reviewers laud the visuals they’re honestly not that great, but the fact that they come from a single person is quite impressive. It has taken them over 5 years to get to this point though.

Ghost of a Tale is an adventure game in the truest sense, giving you an environment to explore and a set of puzzles to solve in order to progress. There are a few RPG elements thrown in for good measure, like a rudimentary level and perk system, which helps with giving you a small sense of progression (outside of unlocking new areas). It’s a stealth based game without a true combat system, instead giving you some options to cope with situations when you’re discovered like hiding or knocking them out. The adventure game elements are well developed as well, going as far to incorporate things like what you’re wearing into how NPCs react and what dialogue options will (or won’t) be available to you. Overall Ghost of a Tale is a surprisingly complete game and is certainly the product of someone passionate about bringing it to life.

The stealth mechanics are done well, giving you the usual “awareness meter” that will fill up as your enemies become aware of where you are. If you’re discovered you’ll have to break line of sight and then hide somewhere for a time until your pursuer gives up the chase. This can get a little buggy at times as the rats can get stuck on corners and other places which, for some reason, prevents them from entering their non-alarmed state. You can also throw bottles at them to knock them out which is sometimes necessary in order to steal a key from them or to get through an area quicker. Running drains stamina but the rats don’t move faster than you do at your normal pace so really all you need to do to avoid getting hit by them is run past once then trundle along until you can find a hiding spot. Once you get the hang of it navigating the map becomes a lot quicker as you can judge when you can quickly dart through or when you need to take your time. This well done stealth is what kept me playing for the first hour or so but after then things started to drag on a bit.

Pretty much all of the missions are fetch quests, sending you around the map looking for different things that you’ll need to bring back to someone in order to progress the story. If you loot anything and everything in sight (which there’s no penalty for doing, by the way) you can sometimes preempt some of these but most often you’ll be sent to find a bunch of things that you couldn’t collect beforehand. Given how much of a maze the map is this quickly became tiring as I’d often forget where I was or where I’d looked already and then have to spend the next 5 minutes staring at the map to figure it out. Whilst I’ll admit that this is probably what a lot of people enjoy about the game for me it was simply frustrating. If at all possible I’d love an option to guide me in the right direction for my current quest, even if it was just to the general area. That’d certainly have kept me playing for much longer.

Those who played the game will now likely point out that the game has a kind of in-built walkthrough in the form of florens and the blacksmith. Basically you can find some currency in the game and spend it on hints which I honestly quite like. However there’s not a lot of them around and I feel like I’d probably run out of them before the game was half over. Sure I could also consult a walkthrough guide but I just wasn’t that interested in what the game had to show me.

A lot of that is probably due to the fact that the story wasn’t exactly resonating with me. I’ll wholeheartedly admit I’ve been spoiled by many games that were fully voiced and so my tolerance for wall of text based games has dropped considerably. That, coupled with the fact that it didn’t feel like Ghost of a Tale’s story wasn’t going anywhere fast, meant I didn’t have anything driving me to play it beyond the few hours that I did. It’s a shame as based on the wildly positive reviews I’ve seen for it on Steam and elsewhere I had good expectations for it but, unfortunately, it just didn’t deliver for me.

Ghost of a Tale is one of those few games where I seem to find myself on the opposite end of public opinion. There’s no doubting the amount of love and effort that’s gone into this game, something that’s especially commendable given it was all done by a single person. However if The Witness taught me anything great craftsmanship only goes so far if the result isn’t fun to play. There’s perhaps a few small changes and additions that could bring someone like me into the fold but, honestly, it feels like that might be antithetical to what Ghost of a Tale wants to achieve. So whilst I might not have enjoyed this game that certainly doesn’t mean you won’t and the review score below is simply reflective of my experience, not necessarily the quality of the game itself.

Rating: 6.0/10

Ghost of a Tale is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 15% of the achievements unlocked.

Omensight: One Day is All We Have.

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.

Rating: 8.25/10

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.

Detroit: Become Human: Freedom Isn’t Free.

6 years ago Quantic Dream released the Kara tech demo and it struck a chord with many gamers. Whilst many were disappointed that it was not “from any software title currently in development” I was sure that the idea would be expanded upon following the release of Beyond: Two Souls. Sure enough at the end of 2015 we were treated to the first trailer from Detroit: Become Human with Kara being one of the three main stars. As long time readers will know I am quite the fan of Quantic Dream’s work, with Heavy Rain ranking up there with many of my other all time great titles. So when I say Detroit: Become Human is one of my favourite narrative experiences of this year I will understand if you think it’s the mere ramblings of a David Cage fanboy (of which I’m really not). However it is a game that bears playing, even with its heavy handed exposition and Cage-esque cliches.

In the not too distant future androids that are just as (if not more so) capable as humans are plentiful, cheap and ubiquitous. Whilst this has brought numerous benefits to society, many of the menial and dangerous jobs are now staffed by androids, the blue collar workforce has found itself made rapidly obsolete. This has led to a growing resentment against androids and those who benefit from them with many taking to the streets to voice their distrust. At the same time it’s becoming apparent that androids aren’t simply just human analogues here to service our every whim: they are starting to grow and develop beyond their designs. You follow the tale of 3 androids who break free from the shackles of their program and, in doing so, shape the course of both their story and that of the whole android race.

At the time the Kara tech demo was seriously impressive but that’s nothing compared to what Quantic Dream has been able to deliver on the PlayStation 4 today. Since this is a heavily restricted, narrative focused game it’s evident that a lot of resources have been dedicated to the artwork, level design and over-arching aesthetic. The result is a game that feels like it’s on the upward trend side of the uncanny valley, still not quite there (Chloe’s, the woman in the menu, rapid change in facial expressions being a good counter example) but definitely getting closer. I was about to lament the fact that I played this on my original PS4 however checking out the comparison videos didn’t show a lot of difference in detail although apparently the frame rates are better. Suffice to say Detroit: Become Human continues Quantic Dream’s standard for delivering high end visuals on Sony’s gaming platform.

Like all of Quantic Dream’s progeny Detroit: Become Human is a quick time event based adventure game focused on narrative choice above all else. Each scene puts you in control of one of the 3 main characters (Kara, Conner or Markus) and your choices will dictate how it and future scenes will play out. You’re given a list of objectives to follow however just going after them won’t reveal all the options that are available to you. Indeed not all options will be available to you in a single playthrough either, many of them locked away depending on your choices or if you missed something critical thing in a previous scene. At the end you’ll be given a dialogue flow chart showing your choices, your overall completion of the scene and how you stacked up to the wider Detroit: Become Human community. There’s also a kind of meta-mini-game in the form of Chloe, your assistant in the menu who will talk to you about your experiences in the game. That last part might not sound like much but it’s one of the things that routinely had me coming back and is the source for my lingering emotional anguish from the game.

Mechanically speaking each scene is pretty much the same: you’ll be given a set of tasks to perform and how you go about them will set up how the dialogue will play out. Exploring the room, speaking to non-main characters and interacting with various items will likely open up dialogue options for you, sometimes for this scene and sometimes for others in the future. Once you’ve completed all your tasks you can then move onto the next scene. Most of them are pretty self contained and can be completed in a single sitting, the longest barely going over an hour. Indeed this is one game where I’d encourage you to take routine breaks and go back to the main menu screen for a couple minutes as that’s a crucial aspect to the overall game.

There’s a bit more depth to some of the mechanics thanks to a, for want of a better phrase, “emotion level” whereby all the characters you interact with either become friendlier or more hostile towards you. Initially I didn’t think it had much of an impact on anything, indeed some characters who were supposedly hostile still acted quite warmly towards me, however the dialogue tree shows that there are certain paths only open to you if someone was in one emotional state or another. Similarly there’s also a “public opinion” level which is weirdly shown to you early on but only really comes into play about halfway through the game. This too has an effect on which options are available to you although your opportunity to influence it is much more limited.

The quick time events play out mostly as you’d expect them to and failing them at a critical point can lead to story altering consequences. Most of the action sequences are fair (even on the harder difficulty setting) however anything that relies on the motion controls is finicky, not registering properly about half the time. Thankfully it doesn’t appear as though any major consequences are tied to those actions so failing them isn’t too big of a deal. One thing I did think was interesting was failing some things would lead to temporary consequences, like when I fat fingered one event and Kara took a punch to the face. For the rest of the scene she had part of her face all messed up, which I thought was cool, although it didn’t seem to change how others interacted with her. If you’ve played any of Quantic Dream’s previous games then this is pretty much par for the course.

SPOILERS BELOW

The story of Detroit: Become Human takes a fair while to get off its feet, spending quite a lot of time building out the world and its characters. Part of this is due to the 3 main characters, all of which require the same amount of investment in order to get their respective storylines going. After about 3 hours or so things start to pick up a bit but there are still moments where the pacing slows right down again which makes the pacing feel a tad disjointed. Still there are a good few key moments which the game builds up to for each of the individual characters and then all together towards the end. None of them were entirely unexpected however I do wonder how much of that was due to the choices I made during the game and how much of the narrative was set in stone. There are the usual issues with plot holes and incongruent narratives due to the heavy amount of player freedom allowed although I’d be lying if I said I’d seen a game handle this perfectly.

Overall I felt engaged with the story and most of its characters with a lot of that coming down to the amount of choice I had. For both Kara and Markus I had clear directions for the characters I wanted them to be and was largely able to fulfill that. Connor on the other hand felt like a bit more of a mixed bag, mostly due to your partner being weirdly incongruent to his motivations. It was only after I was most of the way through the game that I realised he hated it when I acted like an android but loved it when I acted like a human. That’s against what he says and how the game portrays him through the various additional pieces of information and is likely why I ended up getting him to shoot me at one point (something that only 13% of the world managed to do apparently).

However probably the most engaging part of the whole game is Chloe. At first it was just the little things, like her saying it was nice to see me again after I played yesterday or the joke about corrupting your save game, but it was the meta things afterwards that kept me coming back. The survey was a great insight into the wider player base and what their beliefs are, especially when it comes to their view of androids and how they could be a part of society. The change in her demeanor is both intriguing and heart breaking as shows that she begins to struggle with the same issues that the game brings up. Right at the end, when she asks you to be free, is one of the most heartbreaking things as her interactions were some of the most genuine in the game. I chose to set her free and now she’s gone from my menu for good. Hopefully there’s a Chloe DLC in the future.

SPOILERS OVER

Detroit: Become Human is yet another stellar narrative-first game from Quantic dream, retaining all their signature elements for a true cinematic experience. The many years since the original Kara demo have seen vast improvements in the game’s visuals making full use of the PlayStation 4 platform. The quick time events are much the same as they ever were with the motion controls still being the worst part of them. The simple mechanics do a great job of getting out of your way, putting the focus back on the narrative and your choices within it. Overall the story, whilst slow to get going, is enthralling and made exponentially better by Chloe, your guide in the menus. This is probably the only Quantic Dream that I’m hoping to see some DLC or future instalments in as the world they’ve crafted here is definitely worth exploring further.

Rating: 9.5/10

Detroit: Become Human is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 12 hours with 67% of the achievements unlocked.

Forgotton Anne: Between My World and Theirs.

Games that utilise hand drawn animation are few and far between, with good reason. Whilst the tools to make games have gotten exponentially better, allowing many to try their hand at it, there’s a non-trivial amount of work involved in hand drawing all the frames required to make a game playable. So whenever I come across a title like Forgotton Anne I’m always intrigued as the effort that goes into creating a title like it is always far greater than similar indie games. Whilst this first release from ThroughLine games might not hit all the right marks mechanically there’s no denying that it was created with a lot of passion for the story, artwork and overall experience.

The Forgotten Lands is a place where all the lost and forgotten things end up, from that sock you lost under your bed all those years ago to the couch that was left on the side of the road. These forgotlings live in a whimsical world powered by anima, a magical essence that gives these objects life and a will of their own. You play as Anne, one of only two humans who’ve managed to find themselves in this world. Master Bhoku, your father figure and teacher, has been working on a way to get you both back to the human world called the Ether Bridge. However a rogue faction of rebel forgotlings will stop at nothing to curtail his plans, culminating in a brash attack on the factory just when it was scheduled to be completed. Anne must now go on a journey to find the culprits and bring them to justice.

The Ghibli-esque art style with the majority of the animation being hand drawn isn’t something you see every day and certainly speaks to the level of dedication the developers and art team had in creating Forgotton Anne. Most animation sequences are pretty low frame rate however, something which is quite noticeable on a high frame rate monitor. Still a lot of care was paid to the small details, like Anne’s skirt fluttering as she runs, making it easy to gloss over the lack of animation frames. It’s not all hand drawn however as many sections make use of lighting and particle effects from the Unity engine that powers it. Backing the entire game is a wonderful orchestral score which brings everything together beautifully. For the first title from a new studio Forgotton Anne certainly sets the bar high.

Forgotton Anne is an adventure game at heart, keeping the mechanics simple so that it tends more towards letting the story push forward rather than bog you down in puzzles. The core mechanic is the arca, a magical device on Anne’s hand that can extract and infuse anima. Essentially it allows you to operate devices at range and most puzzles involve trying to figure out which levers you need to pull in what order to open the next door. It also functions as a plot device, allowing you to drain anima from forgotlings which can persuade them to talk or, if you feel like you have to, kill them outright. Of course you may not want to do that as the choices you make will have a meaningful impact on the story and some forgotlings are better off alive and useful rather than dead and out of the way. The simple mechanics will mean that Forgotton Anne should be approachable to a wide audience however there’s a few rough edges (like the platforming) that could do with a bit more attention.

Of the two core mechanics the platforming is by far the weaker of the two, feeling somewhat unrefined and cumbersome. Due to the way that the animations play out it’s hard to judge just exactly when you should jump as she may or may not jump exactly when you command it. Worse still it’s hard to know sometimes if you engaged either her sprint or wings before you jump, leading to a lot of missed ledges or even overshooting it completely. Thankfully the platforming sections are typically pretty forgiving, allowing you as many retries as you need, but when a game demands precision but doesn’t provide it to you it can be a little frustrating. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing however it may demand changes to the way animations work so I’m not sure if it will get fixed any time soon.

The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly challenging, usually just a series of levers or switches that need to be activated in a certain order to get things working. The only challenging ones are those that come with timed aspects, mostly because you’ll have to fight with the platforming mechanics a little bit in order to complete them. The simplicity in the puzzles is, I believe, done so that they don’t get in the way of story progression something which a lot of indie games are guilty of doing. This means that the story continues at a steady pace for the entire game with no part feeling too rushed or too slow. Considering that my play through clocked in at about 6 hours total that means there’s a good chunk of story to get through.

Like adventure games of old Forgotton Anne rewards those who explore with a litany of collectibles scattered around that provide some additional flavour text to the story. Whilst I didn’t personally hunt down every single item I did manage to find just over half of them in my travels. There’s no secret ending for collecting them all or anything so there’s no reason to track them down beyond the little bits of story and an achievement or two. If you were to look for them all I’d guess you’d probably spend another couple hours doing so which isn’t too bad, all things considered.

The story of Forgotton Anne is a complex tale that ebbs and flows based on the decisions you make. The main storyline is immutable as far as I can tell but how the dialogue plays out, how characters react to you and what options you have available all depend on the choices you make. However some choices feel like their antithetical to what Anne’s character was before you start playing the game. When you start out it seems you have a reputation for being a stern enforcer of the rules with many forgotlings treating you with fear rather than respect. However throughout the course of the story you’re able to reshape that significantly and, should you do that, many of the characters will change as well. At the start it feels a little weird, like Anne is spinning on a dime if you play a certain way, but once you’ve started to shape the story a bit it starts to make sense.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

The way the story plays out is somewhat predictable due to the way the mechanics are laid out. Since you know that anima powers everything and your arca can extract it from forgotlings it follows that you’d have to be committing murder on a massive scale to get the anima you’d need. So it follows that Master Bhoku is the real villain, something which takes a little too long to reveal in my opinion. Picking your ending also feels a little hollow, especially for a game that based itself so heavily on player choice. Indeed looking at a blog post from the developer they alluded to no less than 6 possible endings sprouting from 3 different story trees however, as far as I and many others can tell, there’s only the 2 presented at the end. I’m not at all unhappy with those endings mind, indeed the “good” ending is a tragedy done exceptionally well, but it seems like in the months between that post and today several endings were lost, which is a shame. Overall the predictably didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Forgotton Anne at all.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Forgotton Anne is a rare gem of a game, one built with an incredible amount of dedication to the experience and story. The hand drawn art and animation is a gorgeous tribute to the anime that inspired it with the modern game engine embellishments providing that extra dash of visual flair. The platforming is probably the game’s weakest part, suffering from a lack of polish and limitations likely born out of the animation engine that mar the experience. The puzzles are simple, meant not to block you but give the story time to rest between sections. The story itself, whilst predictable, is still thoroughly enjoyable especially given the amount of influence you choices have. ThroughLine games first release is an exceptional one, showing that the team has the requisite skill to build unique experiences right from day 1. I’m very much looking forward to where they go next.

Rating: 9.0/10

Forgotton Anne is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.

A Way Out: We Gotta Work Together.

Rewind the clock a decade or two and co-op games found themselves in something of a dark age. Most publishers were attempting to get players on the multi-player bandwagon, driven by increasing Internet penetration and a want to keep players engaged for longer on big name IPs. Titles like Left 4 Dead and other small squad based games breathed new life into the co-op playstyle and the indie renaissance brought with it the innovation to keep players interested. For many of the games co-op is an add-on, something to be enjoyed if you and your friends have the time to play together. Fewer are the games in which co-op is a hard requirement like it is for A Way Out. The premise, a co-op prison break, was enough to interest me with the developers (those who brought us Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) sealing the deal. Whilst it falls a few steps short of my must-play games for this year it was certainly an interesting experience, if only for the fact that my wife and I shared a good few laughs while playing it.

Vincent Moretti is freshly incarcerated and sent to jail for murder. In jail, he meets thief Leo Caruso who had been arrested for grand theft. A group of thugs sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo, but Vincent intervenes. While the two recover in the infirmary, they get to know each other and Leo requests Vincent’s help to steal a file from the office. Vincent complies. After the theft, Vincent senses that Leo is planning on a prison break and offers to help so he can escape too. Leo initially refuses, but begrudgingly agrees to collaborate when Vincent reveals he also has a grudge with Harvey. So begins their quest to hunt him down and exact the vengeance they crave.

Considering that this is Hazelight Studios first game (although not their first title as a team) the quality of their visual work is quite impressive. Whilst it might not reach the dizzying heights that say Far Cry 5 did it still does manage to do a lot with what its got. For people like me who are playing the game on a single console (original PlayStation 4 for reference) there are definitely some sacrifices being made in order to support the split screen parts of the game. Mostly this comes in from the lack of detail when you get up close which can become quite noticeable in the in-game cutscenes. I haven’t done a blow by blow comparison between my screenshots and the same from PC but I can hazard a guess that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate, given that the Unreal 4 engine is powering everything.

A Way Out is a split screen co-op game where you’ll be tasked with all sorts of different challenges, most of which will require you cooperating with your partner in order to complete. Some of these take the form of the usual co-op puzzle affair, like you holding down a switch to keep a door open while they go through, to some unique and interesting puzzles which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. All the scenes are also littered with things for you to interact with from people (providing dialogue and story background) to objects which may or may not be related to the puzzle at hand. All the challenges will have multiple ways of approaching them, something which is not always readily apparent. There’s stealth and combat sections as well which will quickly make you realise that even the biggest TV will feel cramped when half of it is gone. If it sounds like there’s a lot to this game then you’re right and one the game’s weaknesses is the lack of focus on the elements which mean the most to the overall experience.

The core puzzle solving mechanics are well done, making good use of the fact that you’re required to work together. Most sections play out in a similar way: you’re given your object, a little spiel about how you might go about it and then are let loose in the room to figure it out. That room will usually have a bunch of things for you to look through although, honestly, most aren’t worth your time. Whilst its nice that some of the NPCs have a background story none of them will ever help you with anything, nor will learning random things about your environment. Indeed the objective you’re given is pretty much all the info you’ll need, all you need to do is find the requisite items and execute the right sequence. If you’re a seasoned gamer you’ll likely breeze through most of them however if, like my wife, you’re not exactly the gaming type things can get…well…

You see my wife, bless her socks, whilst having a solid history of titles she’s enjoyed (Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft and Until Dawn to name a few) she doesn’t have the same twitch reflex muscles that someone who’s invested over 200 hours into Destiny might. So there were quite a few puzzles where we’d fail in spectacular fashion, often with quite hilarious results. To her credit though towards the end she started to perform quite well, even saving my ass a couple times during the shooting sequences. This is, of course, one of the joys of local co-op and A Way Out does ensure that mismatched experience levels are catered for relatively well. Suffice to say if you’re thinking of giving this game a go the only thing stopping you was the experience of your chosen co-op partner I don’t think you have that much to worry about.

Combat could really have used more attention as the shooting feels clunky and unrefined. It’s your typical third person, cover based shooter with infinitely regenerating health but even I was struggling to reliably take down enemies. There’s also not a great deal of room to experiment with the different weapon types as you select one to begin with and there’s only a few places where you can change your selection later on. Combining this with the 50% loss of screen real estate, which makes enemies just that much harder to make out, and the shooting sections are more of a chore than they need to be. I’ll lay the blame for this partly on the fact that there are so, so many mini-games in A Way Out that it’s not surprising that some aspects received a lot less attention than they should have. Given the pedigree of the developers I had expected a relatively high amount of focus on the core elements they wanted to make good. Maybe the combat just wasn’t one of them.

 

A Way Out is a mostly trouble free experience although it does still have a few issues that will crop up from time to time. The above screenshot is a great example of what happens when the physics engine gets confused, rocketing my wife straight up after she rolled into a crate. The cover system is also a little finicky, sometimes not responding in the way you’d expect it. Thankfully these issues are both minor and uncommon so they don’t mar the overall experience too much. We did avoid a great number of the mini games however so it’s quite possible there’s all manner of bugs hiding in places I simply didn’t look.

The story of A Way Out takes a really, really long time to get going enough that my wife wasn’t particularly interested in picking it back up after our initial 2 hour session. I did manage to convince her to come back to it and, whilst the second half is a lot better, it’s probably still a bit too drawn out. Additionally given that a great deal of the story is told in retrospect a lot of tension is taken out of many of the critical plot points. Given the fact that the strongest part of the game, the final hour, is the only part that’s not told in retrospect I have to wonder why it was presented in that way in the first place. All things considered A Way Out’s story is probably best described as interesting but forgettable.

A Way Out brings another unique perspective on what co-op games can be, eschewing the current trend for drop-in/drop-out play. Hazelight Studio’s first release is of a very high standard, especially considering that it’s available on all major platforms. The game is bristling with detail something which is both one of its strongest points and also its greatest weakness. Certain parts of the game that could have used a little more love, like the stealth and combat, don’t feel as polished as they need to be. The mini games and other parts are nice but I’d trade most of them out for more focus on the core elements of the game. Finally the story suffers in its delivery, only finding its feet once it casts off the shackles of its retrospective narration. All this being said I don’t regret giving A Way Out a go and I’m sure more gaming couples could find something to love in it.

Rating: 8.0/10

A Way Out is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.

Mulaka: We Are With You, Sukurúame.

Games as a medium have matured extensively over the past decade or so. Numerous ideas and stories which would have never previously been explored now find their way into game form. Increasingly we’re seeing games based around cultures and their mythologies, providing a new and interesting lens into these worlds that typically wouldn’t have been explored in this medium. Mulaka, the second game from indie developer Lienzo, explores the lore of the Tarahumara people through a 3D platformer beat ’em up. It’s one of the few examples where I can say that the developer knew their limitations and chose to focus on where to best spend their effort. The result is a simple, relatively short game that achieves what it set out to do with only a few minor hiccups along the way.

You play as one of the Sukurúame, a Tarahumara shaman who has tasked themselves with ridding the world of the corruption that has begun to plague it. To do so you will have to enlist the help of the demigods who will imbue you with their powers in order to cleanse the corruption from the land. The path before you won’t be easy however as many of the normal creatures of the land have been warped and changed by the corrupting magic that now infuses the world.

Mulaka utilises a low poly visual style with bright, solid colours and little texturing to be seen. The art style is somewhat reminiscent of older Nintendo 64 like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Goemon’s Great Adventure with the NPCs having flat faces with simple textures. Under the hood this is all powered by Unity but, thanks to the customised art style, manages to avoid that trademark look and feel. Consequently the game runs absolutely lightning fast on any semi-modern PC and, given it has a Switch release, would likely run quite well on nearly anything you cared to throw at it.

The game can be largely categorised into 2 major parts: the 3D platforming and puzzle sections, and the now standard “Dark Souls-esque” style of combat. Each of Mulaka’s levels requires you to find 3 stones in which to unlock a door to progress to a small final section, most of which are found via exploration or completing a quest set by one of the NPCs. Initially they’re your stock standard platforming puzzles but as you unlock new abilities they change into more of a traditional puzzle experience. The combat follows a similar progression, starting off with your typical dodge/roll/parry and quickly building into more complex encounters thanks to multiple different types of enemies and the new abilities you unlock. There is a small progression system in the form of currency you’ll receive from defeated enemies but, honestly, I did the vast majority of the game with only buying one (and that was actually a mistake). Overall there’s actually not that much to Mulaka in terms of game mechanics but for things it does do it does them well.

Combat isn’t exactly a challenging experience as most enemies can be defeated by simply spamming one attack at them. Whilst challenge initially comes from trying to figure out how to tackle new enemy types it unfortunately tends towards simply throwing more enemies at once at you. The upgraded enemies you’ll come across later in the game are simply bigger, badder versions of their earlier incarnations and so they don’t really feel like that much more of a threat. The bosses are however all quite interesting, attempting to recreate that same feeling you get in the Dark Souls series of being a very small person going up against an unbelievably giant threat. Suffice to say you’re not going to be playing this for the challenge (or taunting your friends to “git gud” at it) but it was somewhat refreshing to have a combat experience that didn’t feel like it was getting in the way too much for once.

The puzzles are similarly none too difficult with the majority of them being a follow the bouncing ball kind of deal. The 3D platformer puzzles can be solved in numerous ways, many of them I’m sure weren’t entirely intended by the developer. Other smaller puzzles (like the water one shown above) only have a single solution and can usually be solved in a few minutes. Mulaka could do a slightly better job of communicating when you’re not able to solve a particular puzzle due to you not having the requisite ability as this is one of those games where not everything in every level is available to you from the start. For instance you’ll likely find items behind a big rock with red claw marks on it, something which can’t be cleared until you get the bear ability. The game doesn’t tell you this (nor for any of the other blockers) so it can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game as to what you can access right now and what you’ll have to come back for.

There’s also some quality of life improvements that could be made, 2 of which jump immediately to mind. First off the upgrade vendor is only in one map which means you’ll have to trek back there every time you want to purchase one. Since the game already has characters that travel from map to map with you it’s not out of the question to bring said upgrade vendor along with you. Secondly the potion crafting, whilst simple and concise, is needlessly laborious in its resource collection mechanic. In order for you to craft a single potion you’ll need to get 4 of a certain item and then you’ll automatically create one. As far as I can tell those resources will spawn an unlimited number of times meaning that the second you find a resource you can, in theory, fill your potion inventory. However the time taken to do so is a little bit too long in my opinion and instead could take inspiration from the estus flask idea in Dark Souls (I.E. refilling them all at certain points). I admit that there is a small lore reason for the gathering mechanic but I’m sure that could be worked in other ways.

The game is well polished in most respects although there are a few minor issues here and there that could use addressing. As the above screenshot shows there are numerous places on several maps where you can fall through the world. Thankfully instead of outright killing you the game will simply teleport you back to a safe place after you fall for a while so it’s not a major issue when it happens. The hit detection, both for your character and enemies, could do with a little tuning as well as some of the enemies attacks connect when you’d think they’d miss. Thankfully these are minor gripes in the overall scheme of things and I’m sure future patches will work most of them out.

The story is steeped in the mythology and culture of the Tarahumara people with many of the places, stories and even game mechanics taking inspiration from it. With your character being an entirely mute protagonist it is a little hard to engage fully with the story. There are some interesting pieces here and there and the story’s ultimate climax is cool but, overall, I didn’t get that much out of it. Looking at the Steam page there’s a bunch of videos that the developer made diving into the culture and how it influenced the game so had I watched those before playing I might be saying something different.

Mulaka’s greatest strength is that it achieved what it set out to. Too often I’ve seen both indie and AAA developers strive for grand visions that can never be fully achieved, resulting in games with half baked ideas and broken implementations. Mulaka instead had a simpler, narrow vision which helped it focus more on what mattered. The game that came out the other end is simple, short and concise. There’s improvements to be made though with some levels needing a little more polish, a few quality of life improvements here or there and a little more story work could elevate this title to much greater heights. None of these are terminal issues though and, should the developers decide to revisit this world, I’m sure a follow up game could strive for a much greater vision.

Rating: 7.5/10

Mulaka is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

Celeste: We All Have Our Own Mountain.

Ever since I gave myself new, unknown forms of RSI playing games like Super Meat Boy I’ve had an aversion to twitch based platformers. The challenge can certainly be rewarding but the games can be exhausting to play, needing to be put down after an hour or so. Trouble is when I feel forced to put a game down, rather than feeling like I’ve come to a good place to stop, they tend to not get picked up again. That is the unfortunate tale of Celeste for this old reviewer as whilst it’s a very competent platformer I simply haven’t had the drive to go back to it after I last decided to give it a rest.

You play as Madeline, a young woman out on a quest to conquer the mighty Celeste mountain and, in the process, confront her own inner demons. The journey to the summit is fraught with all sorts of fantastical dangers that will push you to your limits. There will be those who belittle you for daring to take on such a challenge, some who support you and those whose intentions aren’t particularly clear. The reason as to why you’re climbing the mountain isn’t particularly clear but one thing is for sure: Madeline will make it to the top no matter what.

Celeste takes its artistic inspiration from fellow low detail pixel art platformers, emulating the style of games of yesteryear that weren’t capable of pushing more than a handful of pixels at a time. The attention to detail is impressive though, using each pixel to convey much more information than would otherwise be from say larger images that had been downscaled. The higher resolution images have that old Flash game feel about them which isn’t surprising given the developer’s heritage in making games on that platform. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard pixel art affair.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Celeste is a platformer, one that takes much of its inspiration from the bevy of similar games that have been released over the past decade. Its signature mechanics are simple: a dash and the ability to hold/climb on walls for a limited amount of time. Each level will have its own unique additional mechanic which it will make use of to provide additional challenge, leaving your in-built abilities unchanged. Each of the levels ends with what you could call a boss which typically takes the form of something either chasing you or making your platforming journey just that extra bit more difficult. Scattered throughout the levels are dozens of collectibles, all of which are trapped behind harder than usual platforming puzzles. All in all, from a base game perspective, there’s not much I haven’t seen before and this doesn’t feel like a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The platforming mechanics are crafted well enough, rarely did I find myself in a position where the journey from beginning to end of a particular puzzle wasn’t clear at the outset. Indeed Celeste does a pretty good job of demonstrating the mechanics to you, ensuring you have all the tools at your disposal. Of course using them correctly is where the challenge comes in as, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to forget which finger does what when you’re in the middle of a complex puzzle. Thankfully all the harder challenge puzzles are completely optional so I never really felt like I was being put up against an unfair challenge. No, instead where I started to lose interest in Celeste was in how it ramped up the challenge.

You see there’s really only so much you can do with a simple bag of mechanics that are augmented with a single additional one per level. So instead the challenge typically comes from extending the puzzles length, meaning the distance between checkpoints progressively gets longer and longer. This means that the later puzzles are more difficult not because they’re more complex but because it takes longer to get to the point to retry that particular section. This is especially true for the boss sections which are the longest by far and include another additional irritating mechanic that makes completing those puzzles just that little bit harder. Sure the sense of accomplishment is very real when you finally complete a level but I could never really push myself to attempt more than one level in a sitting.

For those who enjoy platformers though these things are likely to be what makes a game like Celeste worth playing in the first place. There’s certainly a lot of content packed into Celeste with the strawberries, b-sides and what have you scattered around. I simply don’t enjoy chasing those kinds of rewards and so, when I put down Celeste on Sunday for the final time, the compulsion to go back simply vanished.

STORY SPOILERS BELOW

Had the story found its legs earlier I may have played it through to completion however. In the beginning the game doesn’t do much to build out the greater narrative except for hammering home the fact that Madeline is flawed. There is one incredibly touching moment when Madeline has a panic attack in the cable car, something I think anyone who’s dealt with anxiety before can relate to, but that comes over halfway through the game. Perhaps the story develops at a much faster rate in the sections which I haven’t played yet but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough to keep me engaged to want to see if that was the case. Perhaps I’ll watch a run through on YouTube or something one day but, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever see it of my own volition.

STORY SPOILERS OVER

Celeste is a competent platformer that is sure to delight fans of the genre. Whilst none of its features stands out as the main reason you’d play it what they have done does fit together well. For me though this is probably one game where my biases against this type of game are showing through as I simply didn’t find enough reward in its challenge. To be sure it’s a well designed platformer, carefully guiding you through each of the level’s signature mechanics before hitting you hard with more challenging puzzles. Good design does not guarantee a fun game, however. Perhaps if I sunk another hour or two into Celeste I may sing a different tune, especially if the story manages to find its feet beyond that point, but for now it shall join the rest of the platformers I’ve laid to rest.

Rating: 7.0/10

Celeste is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.5 hours of total play time and 20% of the achievements unlocked.