Superliminal and I have some interesting history.
5 years ago there was a video of a perspective based game doing the rounds, one that many people regarded as being the next evolution in games after Portal. There were even rumours that the game which gave rise to the demo was actually playable however looking at the developer’s website no one could find a link to it anymore. So, like the good Internet citizen that I am, I started digging around and eventually uncovered the still active link that the developer had hidden. Not wanting to blow up their server (which is what I assumed the reason was for hiding it) I downloaded and rehosted it on this very blog, telling a few people on reddit about it so they could have a crack at it. Little did I know that, from that point on, I’d become the single source of the demo the world over.
Fast forward a couple years and, for reasons I can’t remember, I was looking for that link again and started Googling my own site to find it. Curiously though I started to find references to it everywhere, some even on YouTube videos that had racked up millions of views. Now I never really noticed anything on my end, my hosting is all done elsewhere and the bandwidth consumed was never that large. I did feel a little miffed though, figuring they could’ve at least given me a shoutout. I have however since learned that the devs said that they’d prefer people don’t play that one anymore, given how far their actual game, Superliminal, has come in the interim.
For what it’s worth guys, apologies if I’ve caused you anything untowards for rehosting it. Because honestly they’re right, Superliminal is far and away the better game.
As you fall asleep with the TV on at 3AM, you remember catching a glimpse of the commercial from Dr.Pierce’s Somnasculpt dream therapy program. By the time you open your eyes, you’re already dreaming – beginning the first stages of this experimental program. This is a world where perception is reality, where how you view things is just as important as how you interact with them. The puzzles put before you are meant to reframe how you perceive the world around you, forcing you to think of different perspectives that you might not otherwise consider until you were forced to confront them.
Visually Superliminal has a very standard Unity feel to it with many of the assets looking like they came from store packs. There’s nothing wrong with this, just that everything has this kind of bland feel to them with their unoffensive, basic construction. No doubt part of this is to try and combat some of the rather severe performance issues the game suffers from, most likely due to the intense calculations required for some of the game’s more unique mechanics. The level design is good however with the run of the mill assets turned into visual marvels through the incredibly inventive use of perspective, quite often getting a good chuckle out of me for how they’d managed to twist my own view of their world against me. I guess you could call it more of a cerebral experience than a visual one.
When the team from Pillow Castle Games first demonstrated the idea it was definitely an unique one; the idea that your perspective of objects influenced their size in the real world. Funnily enough this isn’t the first game I’ve played that has this mechanic, the other being the absolute horrorshow of a game that was Elementium. However the perspective mechanic isn’t just limited to objects that you interact with, it extends to numerous parts of the world, often parts that you wouldn’t expect. The devs have gone to great lengths to create visuals that on the surface look one way but are completely different when viewed up close or from a different perspective. For someone who’s played enough of these kinds of games it’s rare for me to be surprised by perspective tricks like this but Superliminal managed to do it often, even right up until its final moments.
The puzzles built around this mechanic are mostly simple endeavours, mostly focused on being in a single room with a few tools at your disposal to find your way out again. They’re made somewhat easier by the fact that objects you interact with, which therefore have some kind of special property associated with them, are very limited in any one space. There’s no puzzles that require you to bring in objects from previous areas or any other kind of non-linear puzzle mechanic that will spin you out. There are a couple where the mechanic isn’t well introduced and can lead to some horrendous confusion if you can’t figure out the logic path but nothing that’s more than a video or two away from realigning your internal logic compass back to the developer’s.
The game does have quite a few rough edges though, most of which I think are due to the novel nature of the mechanics which introduce all sorts of wacky edge cases that are going to be hard to come across in internal playtesting. The performance issues are something I didn’t expect, even on my now older rig, and I’m sure it’s to do with some objects getting their perspective calculated when the player isn’t interacting with them. Indeed the performance issue disappeared completely in sections where there were little or no objects to interact with. The game’s implementation of portals and other teleport mechanics is a little janky, freaking out in the weirdest circumstances and sometimes sending you right through the world. Strangely Superliminal also suffers from the same issue Elementium did, whereby some objects continue to scale themselves when they’re outside your vision. I don’t doubt that this is due in part to the object being flagged as “interactive” when you pick it up and that flag isn’t turned off until it stops moving. You can also completely ruin certain puzzles if you’re not careful, either making objects too small to interact with or just straight up putting them somewhere you will never be able to reach. Most of these problems are just a checkpoint restart away from being fixed but just be warned that there’s still a lot of rough edges to be found here.
MINOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The story spends an awful lot of time in the standard “subject trapped in a mad scientist’s experiment” trope that was made popular by Portal all those years ago. Indeed that’s one of the game’s most distracting features as you feel like you’re playing with a B-grade GLaDOS and the plot reveals itself in a rather predictable way. That changes right in the game’s final stages though when the main narrator begins to talk to you directly about why the experience was crafted that way. In a way it’s a subtle play on the game itself, setting you up with a perception that’s influenced by your biases and then flipping it on it’s head in order to give you a new perspective. Up until that point I was pretty much settled on Superliminal being a “good but not great” kind of game but it really won me over in those final moments.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Superliminal brings with it a new breed of game play that’s sure to have its share of imitators from here on out. The perspective mechanics are numerous, each of them playing on how we perceive things in order demonstrate how that can be twisted in fun and interesting ways. Even with it’s rather long development cycle though there’s still a lot of rough edges to be found, although I’m sure that over the coming months many of these issues will be stamped out. The story, in its summation, is a beautiful meta-commentary on itself and it’s final moments round out the game perfectly. I honestly can’t wait to see where Pillow Castle Games goes to from here.
Superliminal is available on the PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 2.5 hours.
Try as I might to avoid the hype for games I haven’t yet played I still can’t help but notice when a game keeps repeatedly popping up in my feed reader. The first of these such games, which I had little idea about before I bought it, was Bayonetta. It seemed I couldn’t go 2 days without hearing something else about this new IP from the creator of the Devil May Cry series and after I heard it got a perfect 40/40 score from Famitsu I decided it was probably worth a play through. Of course I got all of 2 hours out of it before I couldn’t bear anymore so you can imagine my skepticism of when a game comes to me via a similar route. Still Bulletstorm managed to get the tick of approval from my friends (even the harshest amongst them) so I threw down the cash for a copy on steam and gave it a good old fashioned thrashing over the past week.
What got me first was just how rich and beautiful the environments were. Many times I caught myself just taking a couple seconds to stop and gawk at the scenery, something you didn’t get a whole lot of time for sometimes. Surprisingly enough too the game ran perfectly fine at maximum settings (apart from AA) on my 3 year old rig, even when the action on screen got particularly hectic. This is of course mostly due to the consolisation of the games industry which has both advantages and disadvantages. Being able to squeeze multiple years of life out of old hardware is one of these but there are a few things that suffer because of it.
Since the console market is by far the largest part of the current gaming market, approximately 95%, most games are optimized for the experience on the console first. Bulletstorm is no exception to this (although it is one of the better cross platform releases I’ve played) and there are some hangovers from its consolisation. Probably the most noticeable of this is the inclusion of Games for Windows Live client which has to be installed, even if you purchased the game through Steam. This extends to the menus throughout the game which don’t even let you use the mouse to select the items in them. Additionally many advanced configuration options are hidden in encrypted config files requiring quite a bit of wrangling to get at should you want to tweak the settings a bit. Individually these are all minor gripes but when summed up altogether they do serve to take away from the game experience on the PC, the platform I most often choose for my FPS binges.
You play as Grayson Hunt, a former black-ops agent who worked for the Confederation of Planets. You’ve since gone rogue after finding out that your commander, General Sarrano, was using you to suppress dissidents, telling you they were murderers and drug runners. You see the chance for revenge when your ship crosses paths with his and after a brief bout both you and your former commander end up ship wrecked on the planet Stygia. The rest of the game is dedicated to finding a way off planet, getting revenge on sarrano and dealing with the various creatures that inhabit this strange world who get in the way of your ultimate goal.
Whilst Bulletstorm takes many queues from current first and third person shooters (extensive use of cover and regenerative health) there are a couple novel mechanics thrown in to spice up an otherwise ordinary FPS. The first is the energy leash which looks like a serpentine bolt of lightning that enables you to pull enemies, items and bits of the environment towards you. The leash can also be upgraded to have a “thumper” ability allowing you to throw multiple enemies into the air at once which you can then pick off at your leisure. It comes in place of the usual melee weapon, like the crowbar in Half Life, allowing you to dispatch enemies even if you’re running low on ammo. Indeed the game encourages you to use the environment to your advantage as is shown by the next novel feature included in Bulletstorm.
Duty Calls, the “demo” for Bulletstorm, ridiculed the Call of Duty style games for their leveling systems in order to get upgrades. Instead Bulletstorm gives you a list of skillshots to acomplish awarding points each time you complete one of them. You can do them multiple times over (although they give more on the first attempt) and these points are then used to purchase upgrades and ammunition at the various drop boxes that have been scattered across Stygia. Each weapon has a unique upgrade that requires its own special ammunition that you can only buy at these drop boxes but is always quite powerful, usually one shotting even the most tough of enemies. The system works quite well as you learn how to maximize your return on each encounter and some of the skill shots are just plain fun to do.
The gameplay itself is very fast paced, action filled and smothered in gobs of low brow humor to keep your entertained along the way. Many of the scenes have you running your way through massive environments to make it to the next save point and nearly every one of them ends with you either destroying something huge or crash landing in some way. Whilst I didn’t find it as gripping as say Modern Warfare 2 it was still enough to keep me in my seat for the final 3 hours. The dialog is, to put it bluntly, crude and squarely aimed at the frat boy crowd that this game targets. It might sound snobbish of me since I’m a big fan of the expansive dialog trees Bioware is known for spoiling us with but the low brow humor fits Bulletstorm’s characters well, even if I found it a little tiresome towards the end.
Bulletstorm’s plot follows a similar vein, being enough to give the characters the proper motivations and an excuse for the ridiculous action but not serving much past that. The false end and subsequent last sequence that basically yells at you “Yes there’s going to be a sequel!” serves to cheapen what little depth it might have had. It’s similar to the false end in Red Dead Redemption, albeit without the emotional heart ache that plagued me for days afterwards.
Does that mean I think the game isn’t worth playing? Hell no! Whilst I was apprehensive shelling out the requisite dollars on a game that came to me in the same way as Bayonetta I still throughly enjoyed the Bulletstorm experience. There was nothing more satisfying than lining up hordes of burn-outs and laying waste to them with a single shotgun charge. Some of the skillshots take real skill to pull off and having the right weapon at the right time can mean the difference between breezing through and a gritty struggle for survival. Sure the plot might not be as deep and engrossing as other titles but I still enjoyed every moment of it.
Bulletstorm is one of the two low brow shooters (the other being the fabled vaporware title, Duke Nukem Forever) that delivers on its promises of over-the-top action, thrills and dirty language. Whilst the experience was somewhat hampered by the current trend of consolisation it still manages to deliver a great PC experience that I’m sure will be a favorite at LANs for a long time to come. If you’re amongst the teaming droves of those waiting anxiously for the release of Duke Nukem Forever you won’t go wrong by biding your time with Bulletstorm and even if you’re not it’s a satisfying game based on its single player alone.
Bulletstorm is available right now on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 for $69.99, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played on Hard setting to completion on the single player campaign with approximately 8 hours of total game time.