We sometimes forget just how young video games are as a creative medium and how far they still have to go as methods of expression. But that relative youthfulness brings with it an incredible amount of experimentation with the many centuries of artistic expression that preceded the medium suffusing themselves into the storytelling lexicon of game developers. When all those elements come together it can create some of the most beautiful experiences that we’ve ever created. Gris, by Nomada Studios, is a fantastic example of what games as a medium can be, combining stunning hand animated visuals, a deeply moving soundtrack and game mechanics that evolve alongside the game’s visual style. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful games of this year, both in terms of visuals and its story.
Your world is filled with beauty; fantastic colours swirl around you as you raise your voice in concert. But suddenly your voice leaves you and the world begins to crumble, dumping you down into a place drained of colour and life. As you begin to stumble forward you notice that the world reacts to the small points of light that have followed you, allowing you to move onwards. There’s no telling if the path forward will bring back the world you once knew, nor if your voice will ever return, but you continue on hoping that one day you’ll see the world brighten once again.
Gris’ is a hand animated game that uses a watercolour palette and art style, giving you the feeling of a children’s book come to life. The developers favoured a simplistic art style although they thankfully didn’t skimp out on the animation frames (unlike a recent, similar title). Each of the different sections has its own distinct visual style which forms a key part of the game’s mechanics. Supporting all of this is an absolutely amazing soundtrack done by Berlinist, a music group from Barcelona. The whole album is up on Spotify and is honestly worth a listen just by itself. Suffice to say from a craftsmanship level Gris achieves a level of refinement I wouldn’t expect from a first time developer, even if it was founded by 2 long time developers.
Mechanically Gris is simple, essentially being a platformer with a few interesting mechanics. Most of the puzzles you’ll encounter are fairly straightforward, only requiring you to figure out the right sequence of moves in order to get past them. If you’re chasing momentos though there’s going to be a slight increase in the challenge, often including a timing element that’s not present in most of the required puzzles. You’ll gain new abilities as you progress but unlike many other platform puzzlers they’ll always be used individually or in sequence. This means that puzzles towards the end of the game aren’t really that much harder than those at the start. Mechanical complexity isn’t really a focus of the game however and nor should it be. Far too many games have ruined themselves by letting the mechanics get in the way of the core story.
Exploration is usually rewarded through giving you a momento although they don’t do anything beyond playing a cool sound (at least, nothing I saw when I was collecting them anyway). If I was to level one criticism here though it’d be that in the larger environments exploration feels cumbersome and the lack of a good reward doesn’t motivate you to seek them out. This is especially true for some sections where the game takes you through a large spanning environment for minutes on end, making you wonder where they could’ve hid things. Thankfully not exploring at all doesn’t detract from the overall experience but it could be rewarded just a little better.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
Here’s where I step into pure speculation about what I believe the story is about because, well, I had a fun time speculating as to what each of the game’s visual elements meant. The colour leaving the world feels like an allegory for depression, something which I think many of us who’ve struggled with it can attest to. The bird that torments you is doubt, the thing that keeps coming back and screaming at you, threatening to knock you down if you don’t prepare yourself for it. The small lights are akin to hope, building the bridges you need in order to push on as you try to restore colour to your world.
So the story is one of succumbing to doubt and falling into a depression so deep that it drains the colour from your world and preventing you from doing the one thing that will bring it back. It might not be the most unique of stories but it’s relatable and told beautifully which is really all I can ask for from most games. I haven’t yet gone around yet to see if my interpretation lines up with anyone else’s so I’d be keen to hear anyone else’s thoughts on what the visual story of Gris means to you.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Gris is a masterpiece, telling a beautiful story through the use of wonderful visual artwork, a great soundtrack and simple but solid game mechanics. It came at the perfect time for me to, after having put a bunch of hours into no less than 3 different shooters I was ready for something that favoured beauty over action. Nomada Studio has set themselves a strong precedent with this and I’m very much looking forward to what they start working on next.
Gris is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 horus play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve been staring at this page for far too long trying to figure out how to open up this review of The Red Strings Club. Sure I could take the easy route and direct you my review of Gods Will Be Watching, the previous game from Deconstructeam, but that feels disingenuous given how different this title is. I could mention that this is the first 2018 game I’ve played although that really means little in the grand scheme of things (except that I should probably do my Game of the Year post sometime soon). Even the fact that I was drawn to this game just on the mention of “cyberpunk bartending” doesn’t seem like good opening fodder. So instead you get an opening ramble of all of those things combined with my one line summary for this game: it may not do anything new but it is one of the more interesting adventure games I’ve played of late.
You’ll take control of several different characters throughout the game however you’ll mainly be playing as Donovan, the proprietor of The Red Strings Club. On the surface it’s simply a bar with amazing drinks, ones that are said to be tailored to your emotions. Under the surface however Donovan is a powerful information broker, holding secrets on anything and everything that goes on in the city. When a broken down android stumbles into his bar one night he becomes privy to some information that no one outside of an elite group of people inside Supercontinent megacorporation had seen before. This sets off a chain of events which will see Donovan pulling all the little red strings he has tied around his clientele in order to advert the subjugation of all mankind.
The Red Strings Club’s visuals are a blend of more traditional pixel art styles and the more modern high resolution versions of the same. It’s definitely a step up from the art style of Gods Will Be Watching which used the very low resolution style which I think was born more out of the game’s Ludum Dare roots. Under the hood it’s powered by GameMaker which honestly surprised me as games made using that platform typically have a very distinctive look and feel to them. Given that it’s been nearly 3 years since their last release I’d hazard a guess a good chunk of time has was dedicated to getting the artwork right and I’m glad to say it was time well spent.
Unlike its predecessor (which I’m very grateful for as I didn’t want to pray to RNGesus again) The Red Strings Club is more of a traditional adventure game affair. The game is primarily dialogue focused with most of the puzzles based around getting information from someone or influencing them to act in a particular way. The two interesting mechanics that the game brings with it are the bartending and what could be best described as bionic pottery. The former is the main mechanic of the game, allowing you to influence the mood of a person in order to pump them for the right kinds of information. The second is only done right at the start but cements some of the core aspects of the game, changing what options will be available to you. There are a few other mini-games but none that are different from your usual adventure game affair. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard experience which means most of the value comes from how well these things interact with the story.
Initially the bartending mechanics are simple, making it rather easy to figure out which emotion is the “best” one to use (it was usually the one that was hardest to mix up). However as more and more options are added it starts to become a lot more involved and it gets quite a bit harder to both make the drinks and judge which one you need to serve. There’s really no way to utterly fail, it seems there are certain pieces of information you’ll get regardless, but the better you do in these things the easier time you’ll have towards the end. There’s also a couple achievements dedicated to unlocking some special things through this mechanic but I couldn’t figure them out in my playthrough. It’s quite possible that some of my early choices precluded them happening however.
There are a few little annoyances in the 1.0 release of The Red Strings Club that I hope are addressed in future patches. Sometimes bottles won’t pour their contents for you, even if they’re tipped upside down. This appears to be related to how close the bottle is to other bottles, the shaker or the glass and if more than 2 of those kinds of objects are in the way it will refuse to pour. Additionally there seems to be something finicky with the “no spill” mechanic as I completed at least one drink without spilling a drop but did not get the achievement for it. The shaker will also sometimes mix drinks into a single one of their components, forcing you to redo it. None of these are game breaking but they can be a little frustrating. I’m sure these can be easily fixed in the next few updates.
All of these things are simply an aid to the overall narrative which, whilst thoroughly thought provoking, didn’t elicit much of an emotional reaction from me. The game does a great job of revealing information to you in a slow and respectful way, giving you just enough information to figure some things out whilst you have to guess at others. However whilst Donovan is given enough of a build up the rest of the characters don’t receive similar treatment, making it hard to empathise with them when certain events take place. Thinking about it more though the characters might be secondary to the overarching narrative itself which is why they don’t receive as much attention as you’d otherwise expect they would. It feels weird to say that the story is a great thought provoking narrative that has little to no emotional impact as that’s typically the basis upon which such stories will cement themselves in your mind.
Perhaps I just need a little more time to digest it.
The Red Strings club was a great game to open up my 2018 list to. Deconstructeam has evidently gone through a lot of growth over the last couple years, bringing everything that was good from Gods Will Be Watching and leaving everything else behind. At a technical level the game isn’t anything to write home about, feeling like a very traditional pixel art adventure game, but the overall experience feels well above par. This is most likely due to the strong narrative, one that manages to intrigue and provoke a lot of thought whilst, strangely, failing to drive a heavy emotional impact. If you had asked me after I played Gods Will Be Watching would I look forward to the next game from this developer I would’ve told you no but now, having played The Red Strings Club, I’m very keen to see where Deconstructeam goes from here.
The Red Strings Club is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
A sizeable percentage of the games I own are wholly or in part due to my feelings of nostalgia towards them. Some are originals, games I keep around because of the fond memories I have of playing them and have grand ideas of going back to replay them one day. Others are there because they invoke the feelings of that era, with simpler graphics and without all the trimmings that modern games bring with them. STRAFE got attention and Kickstarter backing because of the latter, promising to bring the best of what the 90s shooters had to offer. Unfortunately all it seems to have done is provide a strong reminder of how far we’ve come.
You play as an unnamed “scrapper”, a person who’s job is to collect scrap so they can get paid. Your corporation has sent you to the ship Icarus which is on the outer limits of humanity’s reach in space. No other scrapper has returned alive from the Icarus so, the logic goes, surely its littered with tons of scrap just waiting for collection. Of course the corporation takes no responsibility for what happens to you whilst you’re there so it’s up to you, dear scrapper to make sure you stay alive. That’s about all the motivation you’re given before being thrown back several decades to a low poly hell filled with monsters, scrap and a varying array of weapons.
STRAFE comes to us via the Unity engine which, for once, isn’t to blame for the way the game looks. The visuals are reminiscent of the early Quake era although its obvious that the textures are much higher resolution and the low poly models likely having several times more polys in them than they did back in the 90s. The aesthetics are quite confusing at times, making it extremely hard to work out things like what constitutes a door or an elevator at a glance. Due to the game’s fast paced action and use of semi-procedurally generated terrain this is a bigger deal than it would be in other games as it can make it quite hard to actually figure out just where the hell in a level you are. Overall it does a good job of emulating the 90s shooter experience, warts and all.
STRAFE is a fast paced FPS centred on clearing a level as fast as you can whilst discovering all the secrets and collecting as much scrap as you can. The levels are semi-procedurally generated, a random grab bag of rooms selected and then cobbled together every time you load a new section. What this means is that secrets will never be in the same place, enemies will never be where you expect them to be and, most annoyingly of all, the vendors where you can buy ammo/armour/upgrades are never where you need them to be. The variety of enemies is low and the challenge comes from the game throwing ever more of them at you whilst you struggle to find enough ammo to take them all out.
Now I’m as much of a fan of spammy, fast paced combat as the next person but STRAFE’s was just straight up boring and frustrating. Sure it was fun to line up a bunch of enemies and take them out with a grenade, but having to do that 20 times over per level meant it lost its lustre very quickly. The weapons also felt very samey, none of them feeling particularly unique or interesting in their own right. Couple this with the deluge of samey enemies and you’ve got a recipe for combat that’s uninteresting, repetitive and frustrating. I honestly couldn’t play for more than 15 mins at a time before getting horrendously bored and giving it up for another day or two, it was that bad.
Some may say that it’s simply too hard for someone like me or I don’t enjoy this kind of challenge. To counter that argument I’d point you to my reviews of games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls III both games which punish its players but I found far more rewarding than anything STRAFE had to provide. Sure, I’ll grant you those games probably had several times the budget that STRAFE did but the point still stands: I do enjoy a good challenge and I don’t believe STRAFE provides one. Instead it provides a samey, randomised experience that does far more to frustrate than it does to challenge and reward the player.
STRAFE had grand ideas of being the best 90s shooter ever but falls incredibly short of that mark. Indeed whilst STRAFE borrows a lot of elements from FPS games of yesteryear, like its visuals and fast paced action, it fails to do much with them in order to make a good gaming experience. The visuals, whilst staying largely true to the 90s formula, are a visually confusing mess that only serves to amplify the game’s less than stellar qualities. The combat is repetitive with a distinct lack of variety in weapons, enemies and level design. The Roguelike elements simply add another level of frustration rather than challenge, leaving this reviewer feeling that his time was better spent playing almost anything else in his library.
STRAFE is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.96. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours played.
Flying Wild Hog’s successful reboot of Shadow Warrior three years ago was a boon for the fledgling development studio. Their initial title, Hard Reset, was a good but not great release, one that failed to attract mainstream attention but was successful enough to ensure the studio could carry on. Shadow Warrior did a good job of revitalising the IP for a new generation, capturing that same 90s feel whilst bringing some fresh ideas and experiences to the franchise. Shadow Warrior 2 looks to expand upon this idea, again retaining that 90s shooter feel whilst mixing in even more mechanics. The resulting game is far more varied but unfortuantely the veins of nostalgia only run so deep and I think they were bled dry with the last title.
It’s been 5 years since your failed attempts at protecting the world from the Shadow Realm resulted in it colliding with outs. Now humans and demons live side by side, for better and for worse. Lo Wang, after the betrayal of his employer, has escaped to the woodlands far away from the cybernetic metropolis that Zilla has created. To make ends meet he’s been doing jobs for the local Yakuza, using his skills and charm to get by. However when a regular job goes wrong he quickly finds himself caught in a battle between a mad scientist, the demons from the Shadow Realm and a new drug called Shade.
Shadow Warrior 2 uses Flying Wild Hog’s own Roadhog Engine which has seen significant development work between titles. It’s still a step or two behind what I’ve come to expect from the current generation but with the game’s focus on fast paced action the sacrifice is understandable. The environments of Shadow Warrior 2 are far more expansive than its predecessor, often with many more areas to explore and much more detailed environments. The colour palette is also much more varied, the mostly red/orange tones of the predecessor replaced with neon cities, dark jungles and tormented hellscapes. Like it’s predecessor Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t a game that’s meant to be gawked at, you’re meant to use it as a canvas upon which to reap your destruction.
At a core game level Shadow Warrior 2 doesn’t change much from its predecessor. The focus is still on fast paced, gore filled combat with an arsenal of weapons that will fit any occaison. The difference comes from the progression mechanics which are more geared towards an open world, Borderlands-esque system. Now enemies will drop varies bits of loot including weapons, augments and even new skills for Lo Wang to use. You’ll still level up your character by killing enemies and earning karma but now you also have the option of earning skill points through doing missions. The missions come to you via a board which allows you to pick and choose what you do, even allowing you to free roam areas to find secrets, defeat boss for loot or just grind karma to level up. There’s also a crafting system that enables you to improve your upgrades by combining 3 lesser ones together, although that system is a little more hit and miss than I’d like. Overall in terms of scope Shadow Warrior 2 is a much grander game than its predecessor was, one that will certainly appeal to the completionists out there.
Combat retains much of what made the original great: fast paced action, waves of enemies to dispatch and numerous skills with which to deal unending hurt on them. The various weapons and upgrades feel a bit more balanced this time around with the swords no longer being the one and only weapon you should use. Part of this comes from the crafting/upgrade system which limits certain augments to certain kinds of weapons, making some vastly superior for some fights. Shadow Warrior 2 also brings with it an elemental combat system with some (initially, eventually it’s all of them) having elemental resistances and weaknesses. This means you’ll have to swtich between weapons if you want to get anywhere. Other than that though most of the enemies are pretty generic with the good old fashioned circle strafe making short work of them. Not that I was expecting much more from a hack ‘n’ slash game, though.
You’ll progress at an unrelenting pace in Shadow Warrior 2 with all the skill, item and weapon upgrades that get thrown at you. On the one hand it’s great as even a short session means you’ll come away feeling like you’ve accomplished something. On the other though it can be a little overwhelming when you’ve got a massive inventory of upgrades to choose from and you’re trying to figure out which one you should use. Overall I like it and I definitely spent longer playing than I otherwsie would because of it. It could definitely use a little tuning to make it a little more approachable however, given the fact that not all players are obssessive min/maxers like myself. That being said it’d be hard to go really wrong with selecting upgrades and skills and, even if you did, it wouldn’t take long to realise it and rework your build in response.
The crafting system could use a little more polish as whilst it’s a good way to progress (especially when other avenues run dry) it’s far too random for my liking. For instance putting 3 of the same elemental upgrades together typically results in you getting the same element out, but usually with completely different stats than what you put in. Putting in different elements means you’ll randomly get one of the ones you put in and again with random stats. It’d also be good to be able to re-roll one aspect of an upgrade (by paying the requesite cash or whatever) so you could turn your trash high end upgrades into something useable, especially those ones with heavy negative bonuses. I think Flying Wild Hog is on the right track here, it just needs a little more polish before it can become what I think they want it to be.
For the most part Shadow Warrior 2 runs well however there’s one technical and one design issue that I think bears pointing out. Enemies have a terrible habit of leashing and teleporting around, feeling like you’re playing on a laggy server (even though you’re playing locally). This can be quite frustrating when an enemy decides to teleport inside a wall or behind you and then ruins you before you can react. This behaviour was particularly noticeable in the larger environments with multiple levels, something that seemed to confuse the AI to no end. Additionally the game’s difficult goes up in fits and starts, meaning that you can go from feeling like the game is far too easy to punishingly hard in the space of a single mission. This is something of a solved problem these days and, whilst I get that might be part of the appeal of 90s nostalgia titles like this, it doesn’t make for the greatest experience these days.
The story is, as expected, light on with the plot and heavy with the wang jokes. It’s a little more heavy handed than its predecessor was, lacking some of the seriousness and reflection of its predecessor to contrast Wang’s irreverant humour. Not that you’d be playing this for the plot, mind, but the previous instalment did a better job of striking a balance between the two aspects. Indeed the best comedic titles are the one that aren’t all comedy all the time, something which a few developers have forgotten of late (I’m looking at you Gearbox).
Shadow Warrior 2 brings with it the 90s nostalgia that many of us enjoy with numerous modern mechanics that ensure this is much more than a simple re-release. It’s much more broader than its predecessor was, taking on many characteristics of open world titles but on a smaller, more manageable scale. The introduction of multiple progression systems can be a little overwhelming at first but it does mean that you won’t be wanting for skill points or upgrades for long. Combat retains that 90s feel, favouring fast action over realistic encounters. The grander scale brings with it a few issues, both in technical and design terms, but none of these are beyond fixing. Overall, whilst I think Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t as great of a game as its predecessor was, it’s still worth playing.
Shadow Warrior 2 is available on PC right now (with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One coming in Q1 2017) for $39.99. Total play time was 12 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since we (sort of) won the battle for a R18+ rating for games us adult gamers have been hoping that the games, which are clearly not for children, would make their way to us under that banner. However we’ve quickly run up against the classification definition several times already with many titles receiving the dreaded NC rating, preventing them from being sold within our borders. Whilst there’s healthy debate to be had on a case by case basis any gamer will tell you that they were expecting the NC rating to never be seen again and all titles would be available to us. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is the latest victim to get the dreaded NC rating although I was able to snag a copy anyway, even though the developer had told us Australians to just pirate it.
Hotline Miami 2 follows several different story lines, each of which crisscrosses through one another at various points. You start off as a member of the masked vigilante group who spend their nights finding scumbags and other lowlifes to make examples of. Then you’ll be whirled back to Vietnam, thrown in deep behind enemy lines and left to die, unless you can gun your way out of there. You’ll even spend time as the son of a gang lord, looking to re-establish his father’s reputation and drive those filthy Colombians out of your territory. Holding this all together is an unnamed author trying to piece it all together, searching for the single thread that connects all these events. There is only one thing they share however: the brutality of the violence committed.
This much anticipated sequel retains the original’s Grand Theft Auto style although with a lot more fidelity than its predecessors had. Hotline Miami felt like it was made alongside the game it imitated however Hotline Miami 2 feels more like the modern pixelart titles we’ve come to love, embracing the styling but putting a layer of modern polish on it. This can be most readily seen in the intermission sections, where there’s obviously been a lot more care taken to developing the rolling backgrounds and effects that are layered on top. This also comes hand in hand with an amazing soundtrack, which includes many of my favourite synthwave/retro pop bands like Mitch Murder, that goes along perfectly with the bloody action on screen.
In terms of core game play not much has changed in the sequel retaining the top down, beat ’em up style that made the original so intriguing. Gone is the linear progression system where you’d unlock new masks that you can use with any mission, instead now you unlock masks for certain “fans” and weapons for others. The variety now comes from the different characters you’ll be playing which either have a choice of 3 different things or simply have some abilities natively. Whilst I’m sure this was done to encourage players to branch out a little bit (I have to admit to stick to “lethal doors” for pretty much all of the original game) it does feel a whole bunch more restrictive, especially when some of the characters are a lot more fun to play than others.
The combat is a mix of brutal, twitch based game play that requires you to think and act fast and more methodical, pragmatic approaches that require you to sit back and learn the level before charging in head first. The driving music and incredibly satisfying noises you get when hoeing through a whole level of enemies pushes you towards the reckless end of the spectrum constantly which makes the more slow and methodical sections feel a little out of place. Indeed those levels are by far the most difficult as it typically takes several perfectly placed manurers in order to get to the next section. Then, if you weren’t paying attention, you can make that next section incredibly difficult for yourself, as I managed to do several times over.
Still there’s very much a sense of most (I’ll come back to this in a second) of your mistakes being your fault rather than the game punishing you so there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in figuring out how to best approach something. Over the course of the game you’ll start to figure out how long certain enemies wait before shooting, how far away they’ll hear gunshots and why your bullets don’t seem to hit someone when you first open the door (hint: you’re shooting the door). Unfortunately however there are numerous aspects of the game that simply can’t be overcome by skill and this can lead to some rather frustrating experiences.
To start off with most enemies can shoot you before you can see them, even if you’re using the “look” thing. This goes both ways, allowing you to shoot some enemies before you can see them, however it means that sometimes when you’re walking down a hallway you haven’t been to yet you’ll die to stray gunshots you won’t know were coming. There’s also numerous enemies which either don’t react consistently or are essentially coin tosses as to whether you die to them or not which can make an otherwise perfect run fall completely on its face. Indeed whilst I’m happy to admit that a lot of my failures were due to me simply doing retarded things there were more than a handful where I’d get most of the way through a level before getting rail roaded by something I felt I had no control over.
However the biggest flaw in Hotline Miami’s second coming is by far the level lengths which have increased dramatically in most cases. For most games this would be a good thing, allowing you to really immerse yourself in the game world and soak in all the detail. With a game like Hotline Miami 2 however it just becomes exhausting as you have to slog through stage after stage in order to get to the end. Indeed this style of game which seems to hinge on being frantic, by-the-second style action suffers tremendously when its drawn out over a 30+ minute period, something which will routinely happen to anyone who’s not godlike with twitch based games like this.
The story remains one of Hotline Miami’s strong points and, whilst I enjoyed it, it’s hard for me to say whether or not I fully understood it on my single play through. In fact the most easily understood sections, for me at least, were the psychedelic episodes that a few of the characters endured whilst the broader plot points seemed to have eluded me. There’s ties back to the original (or at least I think there are as some of the faces look awfully familiar) which I would say much the same about. I guess where I’m going with this is Hotline Miami 2 has a story that requires multiple sittings to fully understand but is more than passable on a single play through.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number brings back the brutal top down beat ’em up that became an instant classic 2 years ago and does so with renewed vigour. The art and sound has been ramped up significantly with the pixelart looking oh-so-good and the list of artists on the soundtrack swelling significantly. The combat has remained largely the same with a few tweaks here and there to encourage players to branch out of their comfort zones. However it’s marred by some mechanics that feel unduly fair and significantly increased level length that, rather than feel engrossing, just end up being exhausting slogs. Overall Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is still great at what it does and if you were a fan of the original you’ll be right at home with its sequel.
Hotline Miami 2 is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Vita right now for $14.99 on all platforms. Total play time was 7 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked.