It used to be that telling a story through the video game medium was an impossible task for those who weren’t versed in the multitudes of skills required to pull it off. However the development of game making tools like, funnily enough, Game Maker have enabled many brilliant stories to be told. Such games are often very simplistic in nature however complex game mechanics aren’t a requirement for a good story and the indie game industry has flourished by embodying this principle. Always Sometimes Monsters is one such game, putting the player in numerous morally ambiguous situations and letting the player decided their ultimate fate.
This is it, your big break. Ever since college you’ve known that you want to be a writer and finally you’ve landed a deal with a big name publisher. With the love of your life by your side it seems that nothing can go wrong and the future you always dreamed of is within your grasp. Fast forward a couple years though and everything has fallen apart, you still haven’t finished your novel and your soul mate is marrying someone else. What do you do? Do you wallow in self pity, pining for the future you could have had? Or do you risk everything to be with them, abandoning what remains of your life to pursue that dream you once held in your arms? Your decisions will shape your destiny and, ultimately, what kind of person the world thinks you are.
Always Sometimes Monsters was created in RPG Maker which has brought us other amazing based story games like To The Moon. Due to the limitations of the RPG Maker engine Always Sometimes Monsters has a similar visual feel to that other games based on it although it does have its own distinct style. The animations are extremely rudimentary with a lot of the actions just being the walk cycle repeated. It’s hard for me to judge Always Sometimes Monsters harshly on its simplistic nature as that’s not the reason you’ll be playing it but after playing so many similar titles it was one aspect that stood out to me.
At its heart Always Sometimes Monsters is an adventure game, one where you’re forever on the quest to get enough cash to move you along to the next location. There’s numerous ways for you to scrounge up the dough you need from taking odd jobs at the employment office, doing favours for people or even more nefarious means. Along the way you’ll meet many of your long time friends who fill in the backstory of your life and how you interact with them will determine how everything pans out. For the most part there doesn’t appear to be an outright good and bad choice, leaving it up to you to determine where your moral boundaries lie.
Indeed Always Sometimes Monsters prides itself on the ambiguity of the decisions you’ll be making and how they affect the final outcome of the story. You do have a lot of power to alert the story how you see fit however the mechanics of how it works is somewhat cumbersome. There are numerous points where you’ll be asked a question you would have no idea what the actual answer was (like how you and the love of your life broke up) and the answer you give actually determines what happened. I’d feel better about it if there was a “true” reason and the difference between that and your response determined how some characters reacted to you but actually determining what happened with a single response just didn’t feel right.
There were several moments in Always Sometimes Monsters where I felt myself being drawn in, where the characters started to feel real and their problems echoed with those I’d encountered in my own life. However those moments are few and far between as Always Sometimes Monsters seems intent on beating you over the head with repetitive, menial tasks in order to further the story. The long quest for getting money at each section often leads you to taking on jobs that are incredibly boring and take up an inordinate amount of time. Then, by the time you actually get to another one of these nuggets of brilliant writing, you’re either angry or bored and the impact is lost on you. It got so bad that I tried to find a way to crack open the save files to give myself unlimited funds, just so I could actually enjoy the game.
However the numerous choices in the game unfortunately don’t add up to a cohesive story and the ending feels like a grab bag of the results of the various events you were involved in over the course of the story. Indeed probably one of the worst things is when you go through your journal and are asked, explicitly, how you feel about every single event in the game. The heavy reliance on choice is obviously done to make the game experience more personal to you, as everyone’s experience will be different depending on so many factors, however it just makes Always Sometimes Monsters story feel confused, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. For a game that has not much else to rely on messing up the story means the core experience unfortunately falls flat on its face.
Always Sometimes Monsters strived to provide an experience where the player was in control of their own destiny but unfortunately delivered an experience that fell short of its ambition. I wanted to like it, I really did, as those moments where the story shone through were truly great but they were so few and far between that the larger flaws of the gameplay and storyline are what leave a lasting impression. Your mileage may vary however, as many fellow reviewers have noted, but unfortunately for this writer Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t a game I can recommend.
Always Sometimes Monsters is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s been 2 years since I reviewed Mass Effect 3 and whilst the burning need I once had to spew forth vitriol has long subsided there’s still a part of me that can’t let go just how badly they handled the way the game ended. I’ve been told several times over that the subsequent DLCs made significant inroads to improving the situation however, for me, the damage was done and I felt it was better to put the series to rest in my mind. Overall it was still a wonderful game experience, one I do not regret playing at all, and it was my fervent hope that Bioware (and the game developer community at large) took the criticism to heart and would do everything to avoid such a situation again.
Turns out, they just might.
I managed to get into the Bioware panel at PAX Australia last year and it was interesting to see what the panelists, most of whom were writers and producers for the Mass Effect series, had to say for themselves. It was clear that the room was much of the same mind as I was regarding the ending, much to the chagrin of the person who was asking the question, and it was somewhat disappointing to hear them write off the reaction as mostly “you can’t please everybody”. It seemed then that the community’s desire for Bioware to take the criticism in stride had been met with deaf ears even if the DLC response had been somewhat positive. However recent news, whilst not been a direct apology from Bioware, might be their way of admitting a mea culpa on this part by allowing the player to heavily influence their next title’s ending.
News comes through today that Dragon Age: Inquisition will heavily incorporate the player’s choices into the ending. Interestingly the span of choices isn’t simply from a couple of distinct endings it will in fact include minor tweaks dependent on your choices in the game (and previous ones too), major changes depending on choices made within the game (of which there are 40 or so) and a handful of completely unique endings. If memory serves me Dragon Age wasn’t exactly the heavily player driven narrative like Mass Effect was, although the heavy variation in the origin stories was amazing, so the inclusion of so many different factors does seem like a reaction to the community’s reception of Mass Effect 3.
This was the kind of variation that players were expecting for Mass Effect 3. So much of the game was predicated on choices that you made, many of which had lasting consequences that shaped the world to be uniquely your own. To have all that choice boiled down to a modifier on the RGB spectrum felt like all those choices were essentially meaningless, stripping any feeling of agency you may have built up through each of the titles. With Dragon Age: Inquisition Bioware might be on the right path to restoring some of the community’s faith in them delivering a player sculpted narrative, one that feels unique to them. Whilst I, as always, try to avoid the hype for things like this news of this nature does make me excited for what Bioware has in store.
I always get a little worried when I see a new instalment in a games series that has been on hiatus for a long time. Probably the best (or worst?) example of this is Duke Nukem Forever which after spending an eternity in what appeared to be an on again, off again development cycle it launched to much fanfare without a whole lot of substance behind it. Spec Ops: The Line, whilst not being in development for the entire time since the last release, comes as the first Spec Ops game to be released in 10 years and so I was weary when I dived into it. However the game touted itself as one that would push you to your limits and force you to make tough decisions, something which is rare to find in games outside RPGs.
Spec Ops: The Line takes place in an alternate reality world where Dubai has been slugged by a series of sandstorms, devastating the city and smothering the surrounding area making escape and communications next to impossible. You play as Captain Walker, a Delta Operatives agent (voiced by none other than Nolan North, the of Nathan Drake in Uncharted fame) who has been sent to investigate a distress call from the 33rd Battalion who were sent to Dubai to aid with the evacuation. Upon arriving however the situation appears to have deteriorated significantly and Walker takes it upon himself to see the evacuation completed.
Whilst Spec Ops: The Line might not have been in development for very long it still seems to suffer some of the same problems that long-in-development titles do. The graphics, for instance, aren’t particularly great when compared to other modern titles and this becomes especially clear in the pre-rendered scenes that are done in engine. The developers (there are 3 in total) could have done much worse however but overall there’s nothing that impressed me visually. You could argue that this was due to their choice of colour palette and location but I’ve seen that done well in other titles previously.
The core of Spec Ops: The Line is your run of the mill third person shooter. You get your standard 2 weapons that you can carry with you, an assortment of grenades to clear out small areas and every so often you’ll be handed the reigns of a turret or other unlimited ammunition weapon with which to dispatch hordes of enemies who throw themselves at you relentlessly. The health system is also your standard cover based regeneration model, allowing you to take unlimited hits so long as you take enough time to recover from each one. Overall there’s really nothing to distinguish it from other third person shooters of the day, save for the modicum of issues that will plague your experience.
For starters there’s the scoped weapons which in most games would make you far more accurate and they do to some extent in Spec Ops. However they don’t function the same way as you’d expect as upon zooming in you’ll find yourself staring at a part of the screen that you weren’t aiming at previously. Now this might just sound like me not getting the mechanics of it right but I’ve played my fair share of games like this and not once have I encountered zoomed scopes behaving like this. Whilst it sounds like a minor issue it did make several sections (read: anything with a sniper rifle) damn near unplayable as by the time I had righted the scope I had been used as target practice by every NPC that was on the field. Suffice to say then that I ditched the sniper rifle for good early on in the piece, sticking to 2 assault rifles instead.
The checkpoint system also seems to be somewhat unrefined. There are several long sections that appear to be quite well cut up into what you’d assume where check pointed areas. However it’s not consistent with some sections being well checkpointed and others seeming to ignore the game design completely, placing checkpoints only after extremely lengthy sections. It becomes rather irritating to have to repeat sections you can easily beat only to have to replay them again when some gotcha mechanic or little mistake gets you killed and was probably the sole reason why I found it rather easy to put this game down despite its relatively short length.
There’s also the inclusion of sections that are either entirely luck based or have 1 shot mechanics that aren’t completely obvious. One section that sticks in my mind is where you’re fighting off enemies only to be blasted from the side by an attack helicopter. The instructions are simply “RUN!” which I did only to find myself mowed down before I could get to the safe point. There’s no trick to it, as I found out on several attempts that followed, you just have to run in a straight line and hope that the spray of bullets misses you enough so you can make it through. There’s nothing wrong with making a section challenging, but something like that which is entirely based on luck doesn’t really add any challenge or enjoyment to the title.
Then there are the straight up glitches which will break the game completely, forcing you to reload at your last checkpoint, which could be a long way behind you. Shown above was one section where the next level section simply failed to load (that’s supposed to be a hallway, not a blue expanse of nothing) forcing me to reload. There was also another section where one of the heavy enemies just wouldn’t go down no matter how much ammunition I pumped into him. This meant I actually ran out of ammo completely which, I figured, wasn’t a problem since I should be able to melee him down. Nope, no go and so I was forced yet again to reload the section in order to progress.
Despite all this the game play is enjoyable for the most part, especially when you breeze through a section without so much as a second thought. If these issues were fixed it would rank up there as one of the more polished third person shooters out there, however when compared to other recent release like Max Payne 3 it’s hard not to focus on the faults rather than the things that Spec Ops does right. I guess what I’m getting at is that after 3 or so years in development I’d expect a heck of a lot more polish from a game like this and, unfortunately, it just isn’t there.
As long time readers will know I can forgive all sorts of grievous game play faults should the story be strong enough to carry it through. With Spec Ops: The Line touted as being a game that had you making tough choices I figured that there would be a heavy emphasis on the story and indeed there was a lot of development in the main characters and protagonists of the game. However the eventual twist and the ultimate conclusion left me feeling somewhat cheated and upon reflecting on it I can’t say that I’m satisfied with the explanation it offers.
SPOILER WARNING: Major plot spoilers below.
The problem is, as I see it, that the whole Fight Club-esque ending (it was you all along!) only really works if there’s no real indication that what you’re seeing isn’t the true reality. Throughout Spec Ops: The Line though you’re constantly thrown imagery that indicates that the world isn’t how you’re seeing it and this of course makes you doubt every single thing in the game. The final reveal then isn’t unexpected and unfortunately opens up a few gaping holes in the story that can’t be adequately explained based solely on the events in the game. They should be commended for attempting such an intricate story in a platform that doesn’t traditionally come with one but I feel it fell short of its lofty goal.
They did get the idea of choice right however as instead of putting up glaring buttons saying “PRESS X TO DO THE RIGHT THING” they instead make the choices based on your action, or lack thereof. Indeed most of the time you might not be aware that a certain choice was available to you, like in the area where you’re surrounded by civilians who will almost 1 shot you if you try to push past them, and end up making a decision you might not agree with because you didn’t think about it clearly in the heat of the moment. Whilst the ending is still a little like the endotron 3000 in Deus Ex in that you can get all 4 endings without having to replay the game and make different choices it at least retains that soft choices system.
Reading back over this review you’d be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t really like much about Spec Ops: The Line as I’ve spent the vast majority of this review listing its faults rather than its achievements. For the most part it was enjoyable although there were several times when I found myself getting frustrated with the mechanics. The story was incredibly ambitious and the soft choice system is by far my favourite aspect of this game. Sadly both these positives are marred by technical issues that only serve to distract from the core of the game. Hopefully the developers of Spec Ops: The Line recognise these faults and continue to develop the series as I believe they have an incredible amount of potential in this series and it deserves to be explored further.
Spec Ops: The Line is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and PC right now for $78, $78 and $28 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Suicide Mission difficulty with around 6 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.