Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
If you cycled back a decade or two the generally held definition of what constituted a game was fairly rigid. Today that definition is far less defined with the indie explosion bringing us all kinds of experiences that dance on the edge of what could reasonably be called a “game”. Whilst I’ll leave that debate to one side (nestling it close by the “are games art” discussion) the games which have kindled that debate are undoubtedly some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Everything, which comes to us care of the developer of Mountain, is an exploration of the idea that everything is connected and how we define nebulous concepts such as self and identity.
You are something, but so is everything else. How do you define what is you and what is everything? The definition of you can change at any time as you journey through space and time. Wherever you go there is always something which is made up of something else. The worlds you explore are infinite, built upon and under one another. If this is all sounding incredibly nebulous then you’re right, it is, but that’s the beauty of the story that Everything tries to tell. As you explore you’ll be many things and each of those things will give you a new perspective on what this world is.
Everything uses a stylised, low-poly, simple texture aesthetic. It’s a procedurally generated game with various different biomes defined covering everything from lush forests to galaxies to 1D sub-atomic structures. Whilst this does meant that that there’s not much variety within a biome there’s enough of them to keep you interested in exploring for hours on end. For the most part it runs very well however once you get a bunch of entities together on screen performance starts to take a noticeable dive. That’s mostly of your own making though so it’s easy to avoid performance issues if you don’t go overboard. All said and done whilst Everything’s simplistic visuals are a nice backdrop to the game’s music, narration and core game play.
Exploration is the core mechanic of Everything as it puts you in a large world for you to explore. The mechanics of how you do this are a little esoteric and not all of them will be available to you at the start. Initially you can just move around and see the thoughts of other things as you walk past. After a while you’ll be able to become other things and then explore the world from their perspective. From there you’ll then learn about ascending and descending, essentially exploring the next “layer” in the realm of existence. There’s also a bunch of other mechanics in there like herding, dancing and a few other things but they’re essentially distractions from the main exploration mechanic. In terms of an overall objective there’s really none as Everything is meant to be experienced more than played, as evidence by the inclusion of an auto-play system which turns Everything into an overgrown screensaver.
When I first saw a demo of Everything I honestly thought it was a joke. The animations are laughably simple with animals rolling around and the various “thoughts” you come across are typically nonsense cobbled together using an algorithm. However there’s something strangely relaxing about it all, watching a big herd wander across a landscape with the soothing backing music playing away. Once you get a handle on the ascend/descend mechanics then the game starts to take on a sense of purpose as you look around you environments for new places to explore.
If I had one gripe it would be that the exploration mechanics of Everything are so obtuse, even after the tutorial, that it can be hard to feel like you’ve got a sense of control. Initially you’re limited in what you can do, which is fine given the broad scope of the game. However even after unlocking all the mechanics it can still be a bit hard to understand how to ascend or descend, what certain UI elements mean or how to direct yourself to the place you want to go. Of course you could avoid all this frustration by just letting the auto-play do its thing but, realistically, I think that’s really only meant for when you’ve become tired of doing the exploration yourself. Still if you can get past this initial barrier the experience of Everything is quite rewarding.
The story, if you could call it one, is to listen to Alan Watts‘ lecture on his theory that everything is connected. The ideas are presented in a highly consumable way and often enough that you won’t go long without stumbling across another audio log to listen to. Whilst I’ll leave the philosophical debate to the reader the ideas presented are interesting and wholly in alignment with the ideas the game wants to present. I’d be interested to know how this particular lecture played into the creation of Everything as the developer has noted that in creating Mountain he saw the potential to represent more of the world through an experience like this. Either the game was somewhat inspired by the ideas presented or they were retrofitted into the game afterwards. Either way it would be interesting to know the creator’s perspective on this.
Everything is a brilliant exploration of ideas through the use of simple graphics and mechanics. Whilst they’re a little obtuse on first glance after a while they start to make sense and that’s when you can truly take control of your journey through this game’s procedurally generated world. After slogging my way through numerous AAA titles and text adventures of late it was great to be able to sit back and simply explore without a goal to achieve. It’s not a game for everyone but, if you’re suffering epicness fatigue from the last couple months barrage of AAA titles then this might just be the unicorn chaser you need.
Everything is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 44% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s only recently that chatbots have evolved to a state where they could be called truly conversational. In years prior they could really only respond to a line of text in isolation, unable to derive any kind of contextual meaning from the messages it recieved previously. This made them see stilted and awkward, often resulting in them receiting your words back to you in the form of a question. So when I saw Event, which bases the entire game premise around a chatbot, I was intrigued as the idea of having to massage a rudimentary AI into doing my bidding harked back to the fun I had messing with chatbots as a teenager. Whilst it’s far from the conversational AI that powers say the latest Google Assistant or Siri it is an interesting take on conversations as a game mechanic, something I’m interested to see explored more in future.
Event takes place in an alternate version of 2012 where mankind has made siginificant strides in space exploration. You were part of a team called Europa-11, sent to explore the moon from which the craft takes its name. However you were met with a catasrophe and found yourself adrift in space in an escape pod. Just as you were giving up hope that you’d be rescued a transmission from an unknown craft came through. It seems a relic of the past, a luxury space resort, has managed to stay active despite no contact from the outside world for years. The ships AI seems keen to help you get back home but first you need to gain its trust.
Event brings with it that trademark Unity look with passable graphics done in a retro-futuristic style. Since this is marketed as a story first game it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that graphics weren’t the prime focus and indeed they’re a more than adequate backdrop for the game’s narrative. The environments do have a level of detail in them that’s above average for games of similar pedigree which is saying something for a first time indie developer.
Event’s core mechanic is your interaction with the ship’s AI, called Kaizen. You’ll interact with it through the various terminals scattered about the ship, clacking away at the keyboard as you try to convince the AI to do what you need it to do. There are some other, more traditional puzzle mechanics mixed in however for the most part you’ll be trying to figure out the AI’s motivations, the story of what happened to the ship and, most importantly, how you can get yourself back to Earth. Over time you’ll learn how to do things for yourself without the AI’s help, something that you may need to do if you want to accomplish your ultimate goal.
Mechanically Event is a little awkward when you first start off, the requirement for the full use of the keyboard when you’re talking to the AI precluding the use of the traditional WASD movement layout. This can lead to some frustrating moments as you try to move about only to hear the clack of the keyboard. There are many ways that this awkward control scheme could have been avoided, like making a prompt appear when you want to use the keyboard, but it seems this is a design decision made by the developers. You’ll get used to it eventually but it does make the opening moments of the game a little more frustrating than I would have otherwise liked.
The conversation system of the AI is a blend of a traditional chatbot with some rote sequences that are triggered by keywords, actions or in some cases inaction. The rote parts are easy to pinpoint as the AI will just keep blathering on regardless of what input you give it. In normal chatbot mode it’s somewhat conversational, able to pick up on some contextual elements, but it often gets caught up on keywords or syntax that trigger some of its pre-programmed routines. The developers billed the AI as having “moods” and that it would respond differently based on whatever mood it was in at the time. I definitely noticed that, it seeming to want to exploit my naviety about my situation at times whilst at others feeling guilty for doing so. Overall it felt like it was a middle of the road chatbot AI, not quite approaching the contextual sense of something like Siri but definitely a cut above most chatbots I’ve fiddled with.
The story starts off with a Firewatch-esque backstory text selection exercise which seemingly didn’t make much of difference to my experience. I have to admit that the conversational nature of Kaizen did make it more interesting to discover parts of the story, forcing me to attempt many different ways to elicit information from the AI. It was painfully obvious when I came to a block however as the AI would simply ignore most of my requests for further information. It would have been interesting to see what could happen if I could have essentially completed the game from the very first terminal, and maybe that’s actually possible, but as far as I could tell there were a certain set of actions you needed to do to make any meaningful progress. Overall the story was interesting although I think it had aspirations for a greater emotional reaction than it was able to elicit in me. Your mileage may vary and, with Event currently on sale, it might be worth the asking price to find out.
Event is an interesting experiment in exploring new ways for players to interact with games. It may not be the prettiest or most well designed game to come across my desk however the experience it provides is truly unique. The concept of a conversational AI being the main mechanic is something I definitely want to see explored further and Event is a great demonstration of what the mechanic is capable of. It’s a decidedly middle of the road experience overall however; good but not great, one for the fans of experimental games or those who are narrative first gamers.
Event is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s almost no need to introduce No Man’s Sky, the game that was catapulted to stardom the second its concept trailers hit the Internet. The fervour surrounding it is easy to understand as it taps into that oh-so-popular survival genre that Early Access games are known for whilst upping the stakes significantly, giving you an entire universe to explore and play in. I had long been wanting a game that did full, proper space exploration for some time and so was sold on the concept early on. Then I do what I usually do, ignore any news of the game until it finally gets released and then play it with no expectations.
It seems that I might be the only person on the Internet who’s done that.
The game that No Man’s Sky teases you with is one of infinite adventure. There are quintillions (literally) of worlds to explore, each with their own unique flora and fauna. You are The Traveller, an explorer who finds themselves wrecked on a planet far from the galactic core. For some reason you’re drawn there, wanting to make your way to the centre to see what awaits you there. However it doesn’t take long for that plan to go off the rails with various threats, distractions and curiosities getting in your way. How you journey through the galaxy is up to you though and the stories you create will be yours and yours alone.
No Man’s Sky isn’t exactly the most high fidelity game out there but that’s likely due to its procedural origins. Initially my system appeared to struggle with it, the not-so-great graphics seemingly able to bring my beast to its knees. As it turns out No Man’s Sky, for some inexplicable reason, caps your FPS at 30 on PC by default. Changing that and maxing out the settings made for a much better looking and running game. The visuals themselves are passable, better than what I’ve come to expect from most games in the genre but falling short of some of the stunning masterpieces I’ve played of late. No Man’s Sky does manage to produce some screenshot worthy moments but most of the time you’ll be in an endless expanse of more of the same. This is par for the course with procedural generation as sure, you get a lot of variations, but those variations are often not that far away from each other.
No Man’s Sky is a survival exploration game on a galactic scale. Initially you’ll travel around your spaceship, looking for the parts you need to fix it. Then you’ll travel between planets, searching out different kinds of wildlife, plants and resources. Finally you’ll be able to travel between systems, each of which has its own set of unique features. When you’re planet side you’ll spend most of your time exploring the landscape, mining for minerals and cataloguing the various plants and animals you come across. When you launch into space you can trade with alien races, mine asteroids and engage in space based combat. You’ll also be presented with a few story related choices along the way: either you journey to the centre of the galaxy or you’ll follow the Atlas path. I couldn’t tell you how either of them pan out however as I gave up long before I reached the end but if you’re a die hard survival exploration fan there’s more than enough to keep you going here for quite some time.
Exploration typically takes the form of landing somewhere on a planet, checking out what minerals are common and then cataloguing the various bits of wildlife if you’re so inclined. Initially it’s amazing to see the variety in this game, from the different wildlife, planets and alien races that you come across. However it quickly starts to become repetitive after you’ve visited a dozen planets or so as many of the basic things are the same (like the habitats the aliens use) and the procedural components start to become obvious. Still for a long time I was still motivated to follow the Atlas path as that seemed genuinely interesting. However there are, of course, barriers to your progression and that’s when you’ll start looking around for upgrades.
Like many I began farming resources in order to earn the cash required to upgrade my ship, something that takes quite a bit of time if you do it the “legit” way. After getting frustrated with my progress I took to the Internet and found there was numerous ways to get ship upgrades without paying for them. Indeed this way was also one of the best ways to get rare materials for crafting so I spent a couple hours churning through ships. I tried to do the same with my multitool but, for one reason or another, RNGjesus simply didn’t smile on me and I maxed out at a 10 slot tool after numerous hours. This is eventually what ended up killing No Man’s Sky for me as I just couldn’t be bothered trying to farm the required upgrades to get to the next point. At least with the ships I felt like I was making some slow progress.
The combat, both ground and space based, is barely worth talking about. Your multi-tool is more than capable of taking out most foes with just the mining laser with the combat upgrades just making the process slightly faster. Space combat is janky at best as the flight model just doesn’t feel right. Even with a bunch of upgrades my weaponry didn’t feel anymore effective, probably because I seemed to get matched up against more foes to compensate for it. Since there’s really no penalty for death (if you can get your grave back, which you always can) it’s usually better to just die instead of trying to fight anymore than a couple foes. It’s a shame really as that would’ve been a great progression mechanic, one that I might’ve stuck around for if it was any good.
No Man’s Sky is riddled with the issues that comes with procedural generation, namely all the edge cases which you simply can’t account for until people start encountering them. I’ve come across buildings that were embedded in mountains, inaccessible unless you had a good supply of grenades handy to blast your way in. Falling through the world is quite possible and easily doable if you land in a semi-awkward position. Similarly the physics engine sometimes freaks out if you clip terrain in a certain way, flinging you away with enough speed for the game to think you’ve engaged the pulse engines. There was also a couple times my frame rate dropped to slideshow levels which I could only attribute to some poorly optimised particle effects which were thankfully gone when I reloaded my last save. I’m sure some of the more egregious issues have been fixed in the weeks since I finished playing No Man’s Sky but they certainly did nothing to endear it to me.
No Man’s Sky strives to inspire a feeling of awe in you through the act of exploration. The base game does a good job of that however the ancillary plot, where The Traveller tells you that its feeling awe, is less convincing. Since there’s not a lot of build up as to why you’re trying to get to the centre (or follow the Atlas path) it’s hard to empathise with The Traveller’s varying emotions. I honestly wasn’t expecting much though, this is a procedurally generated game after all, but the disjoint between the potential of the emergent stories versus the curated plot was somewhat jarring.
Now whilst I may have avoided the hype I’m not ignorant to the controversy that’s surrounded the release of No Man’s Sky and I do believe it merits addressing. As a standalone game No Man’s Sky is a good, but not great, title that I’m sure would appeal to certain niche. Not knowing of potential features I felt no loss at them not being there and so harbour no ill will for Hello Games. Indeed I feel like we, the gaming community, need to temper our expectations for any game lest we set ourselves up for Molyneux levels of disappointment. Sure Sony and Hello Games are partly to blame for this, whipping the community into a frenzy with teasers and interviews and whatnot, but we gamers are better than that. We’ve all been here before, with promises of games that would redefine genres or push them to new heights, only to be disappointed when the reality did not meet our expectations. If No Man’s Sky was released on Steam Greenlight for $30 and spent the next 2 years in Early Access no one would be shouting “BROKEN PROMISES” as loudly, yet because it had a full release it seems everyone feels entitled to voicing just how angry they are.
TL:DR, stop getting so hyped. It never works out how you’d expect it to.
Good but not great is the tagline I’d go with to sum up my experience with No Man’s Sky. I know of a few friends who’d love it as they’ve sunk many hours into similar games like Terraria or The Forest. For others, like me, it was an interesting aside but quickly became repetitive and so I left it behind. This isn’t unusual, indeed there have been many higher budget games which I’ve done the same with, and shouldn’t count against it if the concept interests you. Even looking back, after getting burned by the grind/upgrade cycle, I still think it’s worth playing, even if it’s just to see a few different planets and systems before it gets shelved. That might not be worth the asking price for you but that’s not a judgement I’ll make for everyone. For me, someone who got 15 hours of game time out of it, No Man’s Sky was worth it, even if I may never go back to it again.
No Man’s Sky is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 15 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.
Journey was one of my favourite games of its release year, blending together many well-crafted elements into an enthralling experience. Long time fans of Thatgamecompany weren’t surprised at this though as the developer had a history of delivering atmospheric titles with brilliant sound tracks. For me though it was the multiplayer aspect that made Journey shine; the co-operation through minimal communication a truly inspired mechanic. However Thatgamecompany’s usual release cycle of every 3 years has come and gone without another release, leaving us wanting for the kind of experiences that they were known to deliver. In the mean time however former art director for Thatgamecompany Matt Nava has formed a new games development house called Giant Squid Studios and their first game, ABZU, has just been released.
It’s easy to see Matt Nava’s influence in ABZU, the main character sharing similar stylings to the main protagonist of Journey. Indeed the setting, whilst being the polar opposite of Journey’s desert, shares a lot of the same elements. After a short cut scene, which obviously holds some significance to ABZU’s plot, you’re dumped in a massive underwater world and set forth to explore. The how and why of everything are left up to you to figure out as there’s no dialogue nor walls of texts to explain anything. The only helping hand you’ll get is a few screens that fade in to let you know what the controls are, after that you’re on your own.
Borrowing yet again from it’s spiritual predecessor ABZU has the same highly-stylised, almost cel-shaded like aesthetic. Unlike the barren wastes of Journey ABZU is a world that teams with life, schools of fish and other sea creatures dancing about as you explore. These visuals are then accompanied by an incredible sound track done by Austin Wintory, the same composer behind Journey. I’ll endeavour to stop making comparisons between the two but calling it “Journey but in the sea” seems like the most apt description of what ABZU is on first glance.
ABZU is an exploration game, one that makes full use of the underwater environment to provide you with much more freedom than traditional platformers do. You’ll be dropped into a gated off area, one that you must explore in order to find your way out. Along the way you’ll find various collectibles, unlocks and various items that are used to unblock/unlock your way through to the next section. There’s no combat to speak of however, the game preferring to gently remind you that there’s a better way than throwing yourself head on at every problem. Overall it’s a very simple game but as we’ve seen before simplicity in game mechanics doesn’t mean it isn’t a sophisticated experience.
The exploration is done mostly well, the environments being full of detail that’s worthy of exploration just by itself. Unlocking additional creatures from their underwater prisons adds them directly to the local ecosystem, sometimes changing it radically. You move at a good speed, especially with boost, making it easy to get across a map in no time at all. What’s lacking however is an indication of how complete each section is, leaving you to wonder if you really did get everything or there was something left behind. I may have just missed the signal that showed you that but I remember Journey’s version of that being very obvious and if ABZU has a similar mechanic it was far too subtle for me to pick up on.
I did as instructed when the game asked me to use a controller however even then the controls felt a little janky. I do understand that there’s a certain amount of inertia when you’re in water however the way the character moves sometimes doesn’t quite line up with what your inputs are. It’s not unusable by any stretch of the imagination but it does make some moments far more frustrating than they need to be. I didn’t swap it out for the mouse and keyboard however, so I’m not sure if that might have resolved my issues.
The story is told through your interactions in the world, various hieroglyphics that adorn parts of the world and lots of cut scenes that paint a high level picture of what your character is trying to accomplish. Consequently there’s not a lot of meaning you can derive from ABZU directly, it’s all inferred from what you see on screen. This doesn’t prevent the game from having some truly impressive emotional moments however, many of which are reminiscent of Journey, but it does mean that the higher meaning of the game is somewhat elusive.
ABZU is a true spiritual successor to Journey, taking all of what made its predecessor great and applying it to a whole new setting. The visual and sound design both come from direct from those who worked on Journey and their influence can be seen throughout ABZU. Mechanically it plays largely the same with the added freedom granted by being underwater used to great effect. The controls are probably the one black mark against the otherwise solid experience, making some aspects of the game just a bit tedious and awkward. Overall though ABZU is a standout debut title for Giant Squid Studios and I very much look forward to what they do next.
That is if Thatgamecompany don’t release something before them, of course!
ABZU is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
If there’s one game that you should buy a PlayStation for it’s Uncharted. Naughty Dog made a name for themselves by being a premier developer on Sony’s flagship console and each subsequent release of Uncharted was simply another demonstration of how they were a cut above the rest. Of course that would be nothing if the actual game itself wasn’t any good but the Uncharted series has been consistently good over it’s almost 10 year life span. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the final instalment in Nathan Drake’s story and the last title in the series that will be developed by Naughty Dog. True to their pedigree this last hurrah is a fitting end for the series and another testament to Naughty Dog’s exceptional craftsmanship when it comes to PlayStation titles.
Uncharted 4 explores the somewhat blurry past of the main protagonist, taking you back and forth between the present and the past. It’s set some time after the events of Uncharted 3 where Nate has settled down with Elena. He’s taken a job doing salvage and recovery work, a far cry from his adventuring days of years gone by. However adventure still calls to him with tantalizing prospects always nipping at his feet. It’s not until his past comes back to haunt him that he heeds the call once again. This last adventure could be the end of him or at least all the things he cares about but Nate’s obsession is a hard thing to ignore.
Uncharted 4 is an absolutely stunning game, one that clearly demonstrates just how powerful the PlayStation4 can be when it’s fully utilized. Everything from the wide open vistas of the gorgeous tropical islands to the dark, cramped caves that you explore is brimming with detail. The extensive use of modern lighting effects, particle systems and an incredibly detailed physics system makes for some of the most realistic and immersive environments that I’ve seen to date. This is shown best by the screenshots I captured below, all of which are done in-game, not during a cinematic. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise honestly as this is what Naughty Dog is known for doing but, once again, Uncharted 4 sets the bar for all future PlayStation4 titles to beat.
For long time fans of the series Uncharted 4’s game play will feel very familiar, retaining all the core mechanics of the previous games. You’ll be running, jumping and climbing your way through all sorts of environments, most of which will be falling down around you while you do it. Combat comes in the tried and true 3rd person shooter format with the same 2 weapon limitation and infinite health regeneration. The stealth system has been improved somewhat, allowing you to tag enemies before making your way around the level to take them out. There’s also extensive vehicle sections which allow you to 4WD yourself around various places giving you a nice change of pace from the usual running and jumping. Lastly you’ll be solving various weird and wonderful puzzles, some of which do require a good deal of lateral thinking to solve. All in all Uncharted 4 is, at a game play level, a final evolution of the series more than it is a revolutionary one.
Combat largely feels the same as its predecessors as you’ll be going from cover to cover, seeking out enemies and taking them out as you see fit. Weapons in the same category as each other feel largely the same, with the only differences being in special weapons like a grenade launch or a sniper rifle. Variation in the enemies you’ll fight is also relatively low with their toughness directly related to how much armour they’re wearing. This isn’t to say that the combat isn’t exciting or satisfying, it most certainly can be when you make it through in one go, it’s just nothing we haven’t seen before. However it is one of the most polished versions of this kind of game play that I’ve seen.
Stealth feels a little better than it did in previous titles however it’s still missing a few additional mechanics that would polish some of the rougher edges. For instance whilst you can run away to regain “stealth” status there’s no other way in which to regain it. It also seems like there are no silenced weapons in this game (I couldn’t find any at least) which means that there are some situations where doing it all by stealth is either incredibly difficult or just flat out impossible. Lastly since there’s literally no benefit to doing everything quietly you might as well just run and gun your way through it all since that’s so much quicker and less prone to mistakes. Indeed if you asked me what I think Uncharted 4’s weakest point was it would be this one mechanic as it’s just not up to the same standard as the rest of the game is.
Exploration has been augmented in Uncharted 4 by the addition of a grappling hook, something which strangely didn’t make an appearance in previous titles despite the story showing Drake using one often in his earlier days. This opens up a lot of the environments, allowing the developers to make them far more expansive but still enabling the player to explore them. The grappling hook also allows for some ludicrous action movie-esque scenes to take place, something which I’m definitely not adverse to. The climbing is the same as it always was which is not to say it’s bad, just that climbing in these games is a pretty passive affair. Again it’s like many elements of Uncharted 4’s game play: unoriginal but refined and polished.
The addition of vehicle sections is one of the nicer touches that Naughty Dog added to Uncharted 4 as it further opens up the environments that you’re able to explore. As a result Uncharted 4 feels so much more expansive than its predecessors did. Of course this also makes looking for the various bits of hidden treasure just that little bit more frustrating as there’s so much more area to explore. I mostly gave up on doing that unless I saw what looked like an obvious hiding spot as you could lose dozens of hours trying to find everything. I’m sure there’s a non-zero percentage of players that will love that however.
Uncharted 4’s story is everything it should be, from the writing to the voice acting to the motion capture. All of the performances in Uncharted 4 are top notch which helps to bring the on-screen visuals to life. Each of the elements I’ve discussed so far are great on their own however Naughty Dog has managed to combine them all together seamlessly into a great experience. The only gripe I have is that the story starts to drag around the last quarter or so but the finale is worth it. I really don’t want to say much more as you really should just play it, especially if you’ve been following the series since inception.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End yet again demonstrates Naughty Dog’s domination of the PlayStation 4, showcasing their expertise in creating experiences on this platform. It is by far the best looking game on PlayStation 4 to date and will be for a while to come. The core game, whilst evolutionary and familiar, is extremely well done. The improvements might be formulaic but the entire experience is tied together so well that it’s easy to overlook those aspects. As always the story is well done with the writers, voice and motion capture actors all coming together to produce a great performance. Uncharted 4, in my opinion, is the flagship title for the PlayStation 4 and a must play for anyone who owns this console.
Uncharted 4 is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $77. Total play time was approximately 12 hours with 11% of the trophies unlocked.
I’m not one to talk about my most anticipated games but long time readers will know that I’ve been hanging out for The Witness. Braid was one of the most amazing titles of its time, demonstrating that it was possible for an independent developer to make a game that would delight and enthral thousands of people the world over. So when I heard he was working on another title of his own making, his magnum opus that would consume his entire Braid fortune, I was sold instantly. The screenshots and tentative pieces of game play only drew me in further and made me excited for its release early on the PlayStation4. However that day came and went but here we are, 2 years later, and I’ve spent the last week playing through it. Whilst it may not evoke the same level of feelings in me that Braid did it’s hard not to respect the craftsmanship of The Witness, a true masterpiece from one of the leaders of the indie game developer community.
The Witness starts without a lick of dialogue or even a starting screen. Instead you’re placed in a long corridor, a bright light at one end beckoning you to come forward. What you find when you open that door is a bright and vibrant world, one that seems to be locked behind a series of line drawing puzzles. These puzzles strictly adhere to the idea of “show, don’t tell”, guiding you through their mechanics slowly so you can feel your way around them. What happens in this world is up to you however as you are given no direction, no purpose and, above all, no restrictions bar the puzzles in front of you.
Visually The Witness feels like a cross between the cartoonish stylings of games like Team Fortress 2 and the low-poly look that’s quite trendy among the indie scene currently. The resulting visual landscapes feel like something out of a dream, lovely and beautiful to look upon but strangely devoid of detail when you get up close. The wide and varied landscape of the island means that you won’t be wanting for lack of visual variety as there’s everything from a wide desert to a swap to a snow capped mountain top for you to explore. Of course this simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the game world, something which I feel will only be fully revealed to players who invest dozens of hours into this game.
Mechanically The Witness is easy to explain at a high level although as the mechanics pile on things start to get extremely complicated. Essentially the base puzzle is drawing a line from one end to another, simple right? Well how about having to solve a maze whilst going through certain points? Or possibly having to separate different coloured blocks into 2 sections that don’t overlap? Those are just some of the simpler mechanics and, as you progress, you’ll begin to find that the puzzles cross-pollinate with each other. So a solution you’ve learnt in one puzzle might be needed to figure out another or, and this is where it gets really tricky, you’ll need to figure out how both of those mechanics combine in order to solve it.
In the beginning this process of mechanic discovery is incredibly rewarding. Each of the puzzle sets has its own language, a way of expressing to you the player what you need to do in order to solve it. For all of the mechanics these are shown in a tutorial like puzzle which demonstrates it in the most simple way possible and then progressively introduces new variables which give you the bounds of how it works. I can clearly remember after stepping out of the first area finding what looked like a secret path that was blocked by a puzzle that, on first look, was completely impossible. However after finding a tutorial near by it became clear what I needed to do and I was able to unlock my first secret, something which I had literally no idea what to do with. Still knowing that I had uncovered something that would be used later was pretty cool and kept me playing for a while longer.
Probably the most inspired part about The Witness, and this is mildly spoilery (skip to the next one if that bugs you), is that the very world you live in is actually a puzzle. I was fooling around in the desert puzzle area when I noticed that, from a particular angle, parts of the scenery looked like one of the puzzles I could solve. Sure enough by clicking on it I was greeted with an actual, solvable puzzle, one that has the most satisfying noise when you first discover it. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse however as from then on you will be forever questioning what is part of a puzzle and what isn’t. Of course that adds yet another layer of complexity onto an already complex game and this, unfortunately, is where the wheels started to fall off the experience for me.
After I spent a good hour or so on solving the desert puzzle I was keen to dig into a new challenge, one that would engage a different part of my brain. Sure enough I found it however after a while I started stumbling across a symbol I hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, of course, I went searching for other puzzles but it would often come to a point where I’d find yet another mechanic which I wasn’t familiar with. Now I’m the kind of player that hates leaving things unfinished and having to trudge around the whole island to find the right mechanics didn’t really enthuse me. So I did what anyone would do in that situation, I looked the mechanic up on the Internet.
While I’m sure that’s tantamount to heresy for The Witness purists the fact of the matter was that, after spending 8 hours stumbling around solving puzzles I was still coming across new mechanics and, frankly, I was getting bored. Whilst the mechanics are novel and inspired the fact of the matter is that it always boils down to getting a line from one side to the other. So sure, there’s different things to think about, but you’ll be staring at the same grid again and again for hours on end. It was at this point I felt I just wanted to see the ending and hopefully dredge up some semblance of a story out of the game that had barely uttered more than a handful of paragraphs at me.
However if there’s story in The Witness it’s buried so deep in all the secrets, recordings and imagery that you’re really going to have to enjoy exploration and puzzles to find it. After playing The Talos Principle I was incredibly excited for the prospect of a deep narrative in The Witness, one that would pull me along through the puzzles. What I found instead were quotes and snippets from famous scientists and, if the people I’ve been reading on Reddit are to be believed, a strung out metaphor about the development of The Witness game itself. Honestly this was my biggest disappointment with The Witness as Braid managed to do so much more with less. Perhaps someone will post a synopsis that changes my mind someday but after 10 hours of searching I’m still left wanting.
The Witness is an absolutely beautifully crafted game, both from an aesthetic point of view and the novel craftsmanship of its puzzles. It’s amazing to see how such a simple idea, drawing a line from one point to another, can be given such mechanical complexity. Taking that one step further and including the very world itself as part of the mechanics is an inspired achievement, one that blew me away when I finally figured it out. However the repetitive nature of the puzzles, coupled with the lack of narrative to drive you forward through those puzzles, makes it hard to keep coming back after a while. The Witness is most certainly a testament to Jonathan Blow’s dedication to perfection in all things he sets out to create however it falls short of acquiring the “must play” status that his seminal title did. Overall I believe The Witness is certainly worth playing, just maybe not to its ultimate conclusion.
The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 10 hours of total play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
In my review of Cradle (which I meant to get out last week, apologies!) I noted that I’ve found two distinct types of exploration games. Some are guided, wanting to gently push you towards some goal, others are more free form, wanting you to roam and discover your own story. With Cradle more in the guided camp it was serendipitous that Submerged came right after I finished it as it takes the opposite approach, plonking you in a wide open area and letting you have at it. Whilst my preference for these types of games still tends towards the guided Submerged is a decent little exploration game, even if it errs on the simplistic side.
You are Miku, a determined young girl who’s come to this sunken city in the hopes of finding help for you brother, Taku. He is gravely injured, suffering from a might slash across his chest that threatens to take his life. You must explore this city, clambering through ruined buildings and scaling crumbling towers, looking for supplies to restore Taku to health. You can’t help but feel you’re being watched however as this wild city seems to have eyes on every corner. Still you push forward, your love for your brother driving you forward.
Submerged runs on the Unreal 4 engine and, whilst it’s not going to bring your PC to its knees with the graphics, it does have a great style and aesthetic. It’s one of those games where it’s best visual moments are the ones when you’re in a wide open space, the sprawling ruined city laid out before you. Up close it starts to lose its magic as there’s a lot of repeated asset use without a lot of variety. Still there were numerous times when my wife would peek over my shoulder and exclaim “Pretty!” at my screen so that has to count for something.
The core game play of Submerged is one of exploration as you’re set free in a ruined city to look for supplies, secrets and upgrades for your boat. You could say that there was a platforming aspect to Submerged as well, since you have to scale buildings and ferret your way through their innards, however it’s quite limited in nature. Thankfully you don’t have to stumble blindly through every building to find what you need as your telescope can highlight things on your map for you. Other than that there’s really not much else to speak of in Submerged as it really is quite a simple game.
Whilst you’ll be scaling great heights there’s no threat to falling off and having to start over as the platfroming is strictly controlled. You can’t accidentally let go form a platform, leap to your death or walk off the edge to fall down onto another platform. This does mean that there’s really no tension in any of the climbing sections however, unlike nearly every other platform game I’ve played. At the same time it is kind of nice to switch off and just meander through these sections and it does give you something of an incentive to explore a little more. Still if you were looking for a platforming challenge Submerged isn’t the game you’re looking for.
Submerged behaves pretty much as expected however there are a few little quirks that I feel bear mentioning. There’s obviously something a little off about the day/night cycles as, whilst they seem to work fine, the sun and moon don’t move in a smooth motion. Instead they seem to move in fast increments, something which is readily apparent when there’s long shadows cast on a building. Additionally some of the visual clues for climbing, like the vines and whatnot, aren’t exactly clear on what you can and can’t climb on first blush. A wall covered in small vines? Climbable. A wall covered in large vines? Not climbable however you can climb pipes which are roughly the same size. Of course once you figure these quirks out it’s easy to spot them but it does make for some frustrating moments.
In terms of story Submerged opts to tell it primarily through the use of hieroglyphics that are revealed to you when you complete an objective. Whilst it’s a novel approach I can’t help but feel that it was done mostly in the aid of easing the localization of Submerged more than anything, kind of like why The Sims speak gibberish rather than an actual language. Thus the story, whilst a little touching at some points, lacks any real depth or development that would draw you in. The history of the city is somewhat interesting however the fact that you only have a few pictures to go on means that there’s really not a whole lot to explore, in story terms.
Submerged is a decent experience with a wide open world to explore through stress free platforming. The above average visuals and soundtrack, combined with the relatively low challenge, do make Submerged one of the more relaxing experiences I’ve played in recent memory. However that simplicity and lack of challenge means there’s not much to really draw you in as the story, whilst serviceable, does little to draw you in. Overall whilst I’d recommend giving Submerged a go if you’re into exploration type games there’s just not a lot in there for the general gaming populace.
Submerged is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 30% of the achievements unlocked.
Exploration games fit into two major categories: those that guide you along a pre-determined path, allowing you to wander off to your heart’s content, and those who simply drop you in a world and let you have at it. For the purists the latter is more desireable as you’re free to uncover the world as you see fit. However for those looking to tell a story the former is a much better approach as it gives you control over what parts of the story are revealed when. Cradle, though indicating that it was a more of a unguided adventure, fits into the latter category, guiding you along a predetermined path whilst revealing its story to you.
The year is 2076 and the advances in science have been numerous. Age and death have been conquered as people can now transfer their consciousness from their physical form into synthetic bodies, granting them immortality. However this technological marvel brought with it a terrible plague as some people rejected the technology at a fundamental level, causing them to violently explode. You, however, have no knowledge of this, waking up in a yurt in rural Mongolia without any memories of who you are. So begins your journey to rediscover who you are, why you found yourself in this place and what part you have to play in its future.
Cradle is a decidedly pretty game, especially from a game studio whose entire team consists of four people. It has a muted aesthetic which helps with the kind of post-apocalyptic feel that permeates most aspects of the game. On first look it reminded me of the numerous games that have been built on the Unreal engine but in fact it’s built on Unigine, a relatively unknown platform. Suffice to say it’s definitely capable of producing some top quality visuals although there were a couple unexplained slowdowns from time to time.
As I alluded to earlier Cradle is a guided exploration game, plonking you in a seemingly huge world to explore and discover. The world is littered with remnants of its past like articles, brochures and books, all of which will help you in understanding the world you now find yourself in. Interestingly Cradle wants to make you think it’s an unguided adventure however, should you play it as one, you’ll likely run up against numerous obstacles as many things have to be done in a very specific order. Additionally there’s a rather peculiar mini-game which you either need to complete, or fail at least once and then skip, several times over in order to progress the story further. Overall once you get past the idea that this is supposed to be an unguided adventure Cradle starts to come into its own, despite some of its more glaring faults.
You’ll spend the vast majority of the game travelling between two main points in the game: your yurt and what appears to be a nearby amusement park. Whilst the core of the story will be revealed to you by following the path that the “hint” system (which it really isn’t, it’s really an objective tracker) sets out for you there’s quite a lot more that’s revealed in all the various artefacts that are scattered around the place. Thankfully most of these things aren’t giant walls of text that have become common in games like this, making it a little easier to digest the wealth of information at your disposal.
The mini-game, which you’ll have to play several times over, is honestly quite confusing when you first play it. The rules are simple enough to understand but their implementation is just a little confusing. It’s not entirely clear on whether using the blocks you need to reach the goal for other things, like making bombs or platforms, will actually consume that block. After a couple tries though it’s easy enough to get the hang of it and, thankfully, should you fail once you can simply skip the game entirely. I can see why the developers included this minigame, it’s good to have a break from all the reading/talking/walking from time to time, however it wasn’t what I’d call one of Cradle’s standout features.
Whilst the whole “I’ve lost my memories and need to figure out who I am” trope might’ve been done to death the backstory of Cradle was interesting enough that I was able to let it slide. Your relationship with the woman you find, whilst feeling a little stilted thanks to the rather flat voice acting by the main character, develops rather well as both your backstories are fleshed out together. The game does feel like it ends somewhat abruptly as the main character seems to know something the player doesn’t but it does at least wrap up most of the loose ends. There is some rather lively discussion going on in Cradle’s community forum about the various aspects of the ending and, honestly, it was actually kind of nice to trawl through it and figure out what I thought the ending really meant.
Cradle is a beautiful game, both in aesthetic terms and the story it crafts. Whilst you’ll spend your time in a small area you’ll quickly find it brimming with details, building up the world which your small slice of post-apocalyptic paradise resides. The mini-games and the flat voice acting are Cradle’s two major failings however they’re both quickly forgotten as you dive deeper into the narrative that developers has crafted. For lovers of the exploration game genre there’s plenty to love in Cradle and for a first game from an indie studio it does credit to the talent at Flying Cafe.
Cradle is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.
The soft spot I’ve had for indie exploration games has developed into a fully fledged love affair as I continually find myself drawn to games that are light on game mechanics, heavy on atmosphere and use your innate sense of game play to guide you through the experience. I think I’ve come to understand just what it is that attracts me to these kinds of games, they’re essentially the most basic form of what we can call a game. Whilst there’s been examples of this genre which have rubbed me the wrong way it doesn’t take much to convince me a new entry is worth a look in and FRACT OSC from Phosfiend Systems caught my eye with a simple premise: revive a world through music.
You are dropped into a seemingly dead world, devoid of nearly all colour and sound. In the distance you see 3 giant pillars pointing skyward, strange curiosities in this startlingly desolate place. When you approach them however it becomes clear that these pillars have a purpose, and that you have the capability to unlock that. Shortly afterwards the pillars come to life, surging with colour and sound, and you ascend from the depths of a wasteland to another place, a relic of another time. With your help this relic can be revived, bringing back colour and sound to a world that has been long devoid of them.
Like most games of this genre FRACT takes a highly minimalistic approach with much of the scenery being very boxy and jagged, a trademark of extremely low poly work. Typically this is done for a couple reasons, usually time and resource constraints, however I think it’s partially because the whole scene is also run through a sort of scan line filter. It’s not immediately apparent from the screenshots (although if you look at the larger versions and zoom in you can see it) but things like that have a tendency to be very expensive, render time wise. At the same time though the environment is highly reactive to your presence with objects changing shape or illuminating themselves based on your presence. Whilst it’s reminiscent of other simplistic titles like Kairo it does feel distinctly different from them.
Like other exploration games there’s no real tutorial or introduction to speak of (although you could say that the first 3 pillars function as that) and so FRACT relies on your inbuilt game sense to get you going. For the most part you’ll be solving puzzles that are based around a few different kinds of mechanics, all of which have their basis in music and electronic sound generation. Some of them have you moving blocks around, others funneling light through different points in a Pipe Dream style minigame. All of them end up with you constructing a small riff in order to finish them off, with each section having a final sequence that proves to be quite challenging. So whilst a little knowledge of how synthesizers work will be an advantage you’d still be able to figure out most of it by trial and error, albeit taking a lot longer to figure everything out.
For the most part the puzzles are fairly logical in the way they work and whenever you’re stuck it’s usually because you haven’t noticed a particular mechanic that you could make use of. FRACT relies heavily on sound cues for those puzzles which involve fuzzy elements which can be a bit misleading at times, confusing you into thinking a particular sound is meaningful. Still usually it’s obvious enough that you know you’re heading in the right direction although there are a few notable exceptions. Mostly this is to do with the final puzzles that present you with a track selection and 4 dials. Without any indication as to what’s meaningful and what’s not (hint: only one set of inputs is) it leads to a rather frustrating experience, especially since you don’t get any feedback until you’ve almost completed it.
Whilst the puzzles are laid out in a logical order, one that you’ll likely notice if you’re not completely daft like myself, you can actually do them out of order if you know where to look. Now I’m not sure if this was an intended part of the game (and I’m leaning towards no since the only way I could get out after finish it was through the fast travel things) but I managed to do some of the red puzzles out of order by using some of the old “wall walking” tricks and finding a conveniently placed elevator. Indeed whilst this game might come under the exploration genre going off the beaten track isn’t likely to net you any benefit, apart from an achievement or two. It’s a little annoying as the game seems to want you to go down there but rarely does it reward you with anything.
You could say that there was a kind of narrative behind FRACT OSC as the way you interact with the game seems to indicate that you’re reviving a long dormant machine for your own purposes but unlike other exploration games I couldn’t find out how to make FRACT OSC end. Once you’ve unlocked everything, well I assume I got everything due to all the lights being on, there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. You can go into your studio but that just seems to be a nice little add on to play around with the pads/sequencers/basslines you unlocked. So whilst FRACT OSC is fun to play the lack of a conclusion, at least one that I could find, does mean it feels a little unsatisfying.
FRACT OSC is an intriguing game, combining a minimalist aesthetic with some challenging game mechanics to provide a solid exploration experience. The brutal minimalism does have its drawbacks however as some of the puzzles, whilst on the surface seem intuitive, don’t provide adequate response to your input. The lack of a solid ending as well also makes all the work you’ve done feel somewhat hollow, especially if you don’t have a lot of interest in creating music in the studio afterwards. Still overall it was a pleasant experience, although one I’d probably only recommend to other exploration game fans.
FRACT OSC is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 4 hours with 21% of the achievements unlocked.